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Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Guest Blogger

In editing a piece of promotional work for someone one morning, I was reminded again of the many similarities between writers, who tell fantastic stories for a living and have no intention that they be taken as fact, and conspiracy theorists, who tell fantastic stories for a variety of reasons with every intention that they be taken as fact.

In Truther circles, as in plotting a story, the narratives often become increasingly elaborate as they expand. Take Jade Helm, for example, or the Birther Movement, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11 or any one of a number of conspiracy theories that have grown up over the course of the last decade. These theories often become increasingly byzantine as the conspiracists seek to answer the inevitable logistical and logical questions that their theories evoke.

For example, with regard to Jade Helm (which is either a mundane and regularly held military exercise or a plot to take over Texas) one might ask the following:

Where will the US military put the Texans they so fear while taking over that sovereign nation . . . er, embattled territory . . . uh, I mean, federated state?

Well, there are several empty Wal-Marts in various locations in various cities in Texas. That’s where the enemies of the Federal Government will be taken.

But how shall they be gotten to and from these centers without anyone noticing?

Ah, there are underground tunnels that connect the empty Wal-Marts to train yards or other points of dispersal.

Dispersal to where? Where would an incursion of prisoners not be noticed?

Obviously, to FEMA camps set up in unpopulated areas of the country so isolated that no one knows they’re there.

This line of questioning could go on for some time, but I’ll stop there.

battleshipAs I suggested in the previous post in this loose series, a question that is seldom asked (or, if asked, is treated superficially as if it, too, was a matter of simple logistics) is WHY? Why does the US military wish to forcibly “take over” one of the states that is already part of our Union?

Answer: Because the Feds want them to do it.

But this only leads to yet another WHY: why does the Federal government want to capture rank and file Texans?

Answer: Because the POTUS wants it to.

As you can see, we’re no closer to the Big WHY. WHY does the POTUS want to militarily take over a state that is already part of the Union of which he is the presiding executive, and imprison random Texans (at great expense)?

Answer: I’ve heard it’s because he hates America (why?) or that he wants ISIS (or the Chinese) to take over the country (why?) or because we suspect he’s a Muslim (why?) or because . . . Well, you get the drift.

At this point, “just coz” simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the real world in any real sense. It doesn’t even work in fiction. In fiction, far more than in real life, we expect coherent patterns to emerge and coincidence to be a non-factor. Above all, we expect to be able to understand the motives and rationales of the characters, else we cannot follow their story lines, much less empathize with them. There must be an actual motive that merits the scale of the events the writer proposes occurred.

diffuse-an-argument-800x800The trick to writing readable stories in just about any genre is to make the characters’ logic accessible to the reader even if that logic is flawed, based on false premises, ethically and morally bankrupt, or completely alien. A character’s motives—their Big WHYs—must make sense to readers on some level or readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief or follow the narrative. Their reaction may be much like my reaction to conspiracist logic: “Wha—? You’ve got to be . . . LOL. . . . Wait a minute. Seriously? OMG, I can’t even . . . Oy. Headache.”

A phrase that’s been floating around the blogosphere for awhile is “word salad”, which is the verbal outcome of thought salad. An article I read a while back referred to this verbal incoherence as a “sentence-like string of words”. It also described trying to extract real meaning or logic from these strings of words as “a category error”—as in, you are attempting to understand logically something that is not logical, but is merely a logic-like string of thoughts. The author likened it to attempting to polish a duck.

I believe writers of fiction and non-fiction (journalists, pundits, statesmen) owe their readers more than something that only seems like a logical thought because it’s set in what looks like a real sentence describing a real Thing.

Perhaps there are writers clever enough that they can get away with murder (literary murder, at any rate) because their sentence-like strings of words sound enough like the real deal to dazzle readers into thinking they have experienced a coherent idea, felt a particular emotion, or discovered a truth.

salad_platterSome polemicists, for example, make such good use of evocative phrases and emotionally charged words that they give the perception that they’ve said something factual, when no facts have changed hands. Some politicians are especially adept at stringing together evocative words that, if confronted with those words later on can—in all honesty—say, “No, I didn’t say that.” And, by golly, a careful reading of what they wrote or said reveals that they didn’t actually say what people thought they said. This form of plausible deniability allows every reader or listener to take away from the sentence-like string of words whatever they wish.

I’d like my stories—whether fictional or fact-based—to contain real sentences that grow out of coherent thoughts. I’d like to give my readers the real Thing, not a semblance of that Thing, even at my most ambiguous. And that’s why when I begin to turn ideas into stories, I ask myself WHY; why would my character do this, say this, feel this?

If the answer is “just coz” I’d like them to, I’m not doing my job.

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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

QuestionI commented in an earlier post that I have observed similar thought patterns and behaviors in some inexperienced writers and conspiracy theorists (or truthers, as they are often called).

In my first article on the subject, I explored some of the common elements in the narratives spun by truthers—specifically Sandy Hook truthers—and inexperienced writers I’ve worked with over the years in different contexts.

Some of those elements include:

  • The importance of time. For example, that video cannot be taken of an event before reporters or even people with cell phones have had time to reach the scene.
  • The continued existence of persons or characters involved in the narrative and their pre-existence before the narrative.
  • The interconnectedness of those persons or characters with other persons or characters.
    The marks that people leave where they live, work, go to school, shop, etc. In other words, paper trails and back story.

My interest in conspiracy theories as fiction narratives was piqued again more recently when an online colleague, Chris Hernandez, posted a couple of articles on the recent dust up over Jade Helm 15. Jade Helm 15, for those who may not have heard of it, was one in a series of war games that our military conducts in the US to prepare our soldiers for battle. It has precipitated a number of conspiracy theories about The Government’s real intent in holding these joint military exercises.

For me, the discussion crystallized a common element in both intentionally fictional narratives and conspiracy theories: the absence of a motive.

I became engaged in the online comment stream on Chris’ blog with those who insist that The Government has intent to (choose one or more of the following):

  1. Invade Texas and declare martial law.
  2. Send certain citizens or all citizens of Texas to FEMA camps via secret tunnels beneath defunct Wal-Marts. (There’s also a conspiracy theory about those camps being equipped with thousands of guillotines purchased from France, but that’s a different bouilloire de poisson.)
  3. Allow China to invade Texas.
  4. Allow ISIS to invade Texas.
  5. Make a show of force at the border to warn the ISIS terrorists in Mexico to stay the heck out of Texas (which, you’d think, would be a good thing).

Be it noted that Texas is only one of nine states that will host these exercises on private property.

It is an interesting facet of conspiracy theories that no two truthers agree entirely on the exact nature of the conspiracy and some may differ widely on what the reality is, hence the conflicting ideas above. Among Sandy Hook conspiracists there are groups who spend much of their time and effort in debunking each other; whether that will also happen with Jade Helm conspiracists remains to be seen. But, regardless of which of these scenarios a truther believes or a writer posits, there is an important question that must be answered in order for the scenario to make sense to others.

Many questionsIn a word: WHY?

I’d argue that this is more important in achieving buy-in in intentional fiction than it is in conspiracy theories because most readers demand a certain amount of veracity in the plot and character details or a narrative before they will suspend disbelief. Perhaps this is because conspiracy theories are free, but one must usually pay for a book. (Please, Dear Reader, pay for my books!)

Author Anna Quindlen has said that, in writing fiction, “Reality is in the dishes.” What she means by this is that a reader will cheerfully believe in unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos if a writer makes the human details realistic and believable or if, in the context of the fictional world, the writer can show that it makes sense for there to be unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos.

This is the standard I apply when I play Jedi Master to less experienced writers, and it causes me to ask, as I read a writer’s work, “Why? Why would X character do this? Why would this group function this way?” In other words, what is their intent or purpose?

In the case of both conspiracy theorists and some writers, that question draws a blank stare accompanied by the dulcet tones of crickets singing in the grasses. In one instance I recall vividly from a writers’ workshop years ago, I asked an aspiring fantasist why his character did something that was both out of character (as revealed in the story) and against the apparent magical rules of the fictional world. He looked at me with a completely perplexed expression and said, “This is fantasy. There are no rules. That’s why I chose to write in this genre—I can just make stuff up as I go along.” (Yes, you can hear eyes rolling if four people do it simultaneously.)

Similarly, conspiracists ignore the basic reality that in order for a person or organization to undertake a tremendously expensive and time- and energy-consuming exercise that requires exhaustive planning, they will have a pretty solid reason for doing so—at least a reason that makes sense to them and offers sufficient payoff to compensate for the expenditure of resources and energies.

jessica-rabbitI find that this inability to answer the basic question “Why?” is most prevalent in both writing and conspiracies when it comes to assigning rationales for the “bad guy”. The old school comic book or fairy tale villain was just evil ‘coz he was evil. Like Jessica Rabbit (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) he or she was “just drawn that way” because the writer said so.

In modern fiction, most readers want and even demand more than “just ‘coz” from an antagonist. They want characters that are nuanced, realistic, relatable. They want to be able to understand the motivations of the villain, even if they do not relate to them. They want the characters they read about to seem like real people with real motives.

I have come to realize that we are more demanding of the fiction we read than we are of the allegedly factual accounts we consume in the daily news.

The payoff aspect of the Big Why inherently raises issues of scale. Some of the most trying moments I’ve experienced as a ghostwriter and editor are ones in which I have been unable to make a client understand that a reader will not suspend disbelief if their characters are acting out of scale. That is, blowing up the FedEx truck that’s blocking your driveway instead of simply asking the driver to move their truck.

I’ve experienced a similar level of frustration when trying to get a conspiracist to understand the importance of a rational reason an individual or group would do something huge and heinous when there were simpler, legal, more straightforward ways of accomplishing the same thing … or the huge and heinous thing was completely unnecessary because the desired situation already existed. For example, that taking over Texas is unnecessary because Texas is already part of the United States, having been annexed in 1845—an event that set off the Mexican-American war. As Chris Hernandez put it, “All your Texas are belong to US.”

Essays & Articles

Personally, I think that everyone, especially writers of fiction, could benefit from at least a cursory study of conspiracy theories and conspiracist arguments. Having asked numerous questions about logical connections (most of which go unanswered) I’ve become hyper-aware of those connections in my own stories and, more profoundly, in my own real world thinking.

There is one way in which the naive writer and the conspiracist differ. When a writer neglects to answer questions about the logical connections in her fiction, it may affect her ability to publish or, having published, to satisfy readers. The most dire impact is on the writer, herself. When conspiracy theorists and those who buy into their theories fail to ask those questions, the consequences can be far-reaching and destructive to society as a whole.

Here, I invoke Anna Quindlen again.

“Ignorant free speech often works against the speaker. That is one of several reasons why it must be given rein instead of suppressed.”


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On Every Page: Bill Maher and the Qur’an

On Every Page: Bill Maher and the Qur’an


Bill Maher

I read an article on recently that asked the question “Has Bill Maher Finally Gone Too Far?” with regard to his animosity toward Muslims and Islam. I personally think the answer must be “yes”, if for no other reason than that he is taking significant heat from other self-identifying liberals, progressives and atheists.

In the article, Maher is quoted as saying, “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.”

I’ll cut to the chase. This is quickly and easily debunked by simply opening a Qur’an. Most of the snippets of text pulled from the Qur’an to show that (1) Islam is an inherently violent faith and (2) Muslims are directed to slay all non-Muslims (including Jews and Christians) because (3) “infidel” equals “non-Muslim” are cited out of context—by extremists outside and inside Islam.

Mr. Maher is wrong about the contents of the Qur’an. Perhaps he was indulging in hyperbole when he insisted that violence against “infidels” is “absolutely” “on every page.” It hardly matters if people who have not read the Qur’an believe him simply because of his celebrity. Beyond this, there are a raft of assumptions wrapped up in Maher’s single sentence. I’d like to try to tease them out one at a time.

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My Friend Mycroft, Part Three: Mycroft on Religion

My Friend Mycroft, Part Three: Mycroft on Religion

Mycroft Holmes

Having discussed the role of science in the life of humanity, my atheist forum friend Mycroft turned to the subject of religion. The points of view were thus: Mycroft=science is a savior; Me=science is a tool for the exploration of reality

Mycroft wrote: “The major organized belief systems are incoherent. Half of mosaic, christian, and muslim theology over the last millennia is devoted to the task of belatedly producing some kind of consistency—often by declaring something impossible a “mystery”, or adding afterthoughts.”

Now, I had never disagreed with Mycroft about the incoherence of some organized belief systems. The irrationality of some of the beliefs I held when I was younger are what led me to look for truth and value both in the scriptures that were supposed to form the basis of my beliefs and beyond.

But here’s the thing: The belief systems current in many religious communities today are no less irrational than our political belief systems, our personal belief systems, our pseudo-scientific belief systems. They are no less irrational than any other area in which human beings make things up to explain, rationalize and make themselves comfortable with cognitive dissonance in a world that seems to change too fast to keep up with.

There is a difference, however, between what the scriptures that we claim to believe say and what we interpret them to say filtered through societal factors and personal desires. Over the valid objections of atheists and others (including religious people), we also extend the pronouncements of scripture into areas they were not intended to address.

The Book of Genesis was viewed by the people to whom it was given as a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not as a literal, material history of humankind. This is why the story of Lilith and the idea that “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” didn’t raise a red flag for Jewish scholars. Only later was the metaphorical account wrested out of that context by non-Jews and taken as a literal creation account and thereby held to be in opposition to scientific theories of evolution.

These days, Genesis is more often taken by believers to be an “age appropriate” metaphor for the creation of life than it is a literal description of that process. The fact that two separate thumbnail sketches of creation appear in the same book with two different timelines that the authors never thought to reconcile is more than suggestive of this. Nor is Genesis the only creation story in existence that is meaningful to huge chunks of humanity, and it makes no sense to insist that it is or that—taken as a metaphorical model—it usurps the role of science. It is not science. It is human beings trying to describe for posterity something they barely have the language to describe.

“But Mohammad,” Mycroft countered, “gave three different versions of the origin of man (he was made from clay, from water, from “semen of despised water”).”

With all due respect to Mycroft’s obvious intelligence, this statement is, to me, an example of the human tendency toward binary thinking. To illustrate, there is a point in the Gospels at which Jesus is trying to describe to His disciples what the Kingdom of God is like. He says it’s like a tree growing from a tiny seed and then that its like a woman kneading leaven into flour.

Many questionsThere are at least two ways to approach this statement.

  1. One can say “Well, which is it? It can’t be both.”
  2. One can choose a description, and take it materialistically, supposing that Christ meant God would physically plant a tree somewhere on earth that would hold all the planet’s birds or turn into a woman and literally knead the leaven of the kingdom into the earth.
  3. One can recognize that a material example is being used to describe something non-material, and can ask “what do these two similes have in common?” What they have in common is that that both the growing of the tree and the kneading of dough are organic processes that take time.

So, what does Muhammad’s use of these elements (one of which is biologically apt) have as a common thread? They are all physical elements that have long been associated with the human body—clay and water; solid substance and fluids—and which every human body is composed of.

Metaphors are also used in scientific literature for the same reason that they are used in religious revelation: we lack the capacity to directly understand the thing we are describing. Scientists talk about stars being born in “cocoons of interstellar gases”, of “black holes”, of “super strings”, of “fields”. Science uses the word “noble” to describe certain gases that do not combine with others. These words are used differently than in a non-scientific setting, but imagine what might happen if someone reading scientific literature took those metaphors literally and believed that stars are like butterflies and are born in cocoons afloat in space, that the phenomenon we call a black hole is really black and really a hole, that there are strings floating in fields (like the Elysian fields or Uncle Fred’s corn field, perhaps) in the void of space, and that some gases are literally more noble than others and therefore the other gases venerate them.

Luis and Walter Alvarez
Luis and Walter Alvarez

In a scientific setting, after the initial shock of a new paradigm being set, it is deemed rational to adjust one’s worldview to incorporate new information. Think of the uproar over Luis and Walter Alvarez’s theories about the KT boundary and dino die-off before it became the new paradigm. I would think that my friend Mycroft and others who share his worldview would be gratified to see religious thought being similarly refined and adjusted by the new discoveries we make about our world and ourselves. Alas, such is not the case. What is considered rational behavior in one context is seen in the other as irrational dithering.

In the Bahá’í scriptures, Bahá’u’lláh (the Prophet-Founder) and Abdu’l-Bahá (His son and appointed interpreter) have written copiously about reason and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge both spiritual and scientific. Religion is revealed in these writings as an organic thing, meant from its very inception to evolve even as mankind and everything else evolves. I doubted that principle once upon a time, and that doubt caused me to study the scriptures I had grown up with in a far more comprehensive and rational way than I had before. I read the biblical texts—especially the words of Christ—with an eye to extracting information. I realized, as I never had before, that Christ (and indeed, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and other claimants to divine revelation) had also tried to frame the teachings of Their faiths as part of an evolving process.

“Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. ..Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today.  Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions… In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity p. 83

When it came to my discourses with Mycroft, I was bemused to discover that he—the atheist—was the one who insisted that all scripture must be taken literally and that evolution was a non-starter.

Irony can be pretty darned ironic.

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Part 7 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

Part 7 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness
David Langness

Bad Religion: When The End Justifies Any Means


For most of us, authentic religion focuses on the transcendent.  True religion links loving, kind and compassionate relationships with others on this plane of existence to the growth of the soul and an eternal life in the next.

But some people — especially those who focus fanatically on a single component of their belief system – discard loving, kind and compassionate relationships in favor of an expectation; some hoped-for “sacred” outcome or end that justifies any means for its accomplishment.

This basic human moral question, explored in detail by Immanuel Kant and just about every philosopher since, asks “Can the ends ever justify the means?”  In other words, “Does it matter how I get what I want, as long as I get it?”  Or “Is it OK to do something wrong or immoral to achieve a positive end?”

Authentic religion always answers that question with an emphatic “No.”

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Independent Investigation 2—Colorful Word Art

Independent Investigation 2—Colorful Word Art

Galaxy Quest PosterAs a writer of fiction, my job—according to colleague and wise-woman Ursula LeGuin—is to put into words what cannot be put into words. Tall order. The tools with which I am supposed to do this are words. Words arranged in such a way that I can convey to my reader what my characters are sensing, feeling, thinking and doing. I need to be able to subtly and not-so-subtly manipulate the reader’s thoughts and feelings to get the action, atmosphere and meaning of my story across.

It is said of fiction writers that we tell lies to get at the truth. Stories aren’t lies, of course, they’re propositions—speculations about what might happen if… They are not intended to be taken as factually true and, while they can be said to reflect reality, they are not intended to be mistaken for reality.

The movie Galaxy Quest trades on the simplistic notion that a work of fiction is a lie, which—as much as I love the movie—is nonsense. Speculative fiction is, as my literary hero Ray Bradbury has said, our way of making reality behave by pretending to look the other way. And we all—writers and readers alike—agree that we are pretending to believe a fiction is real so that we might learn something important about ourselves and about reality.

Alas, in the real world of non-fiction, of news reporting, of blogging and journalism both professional and amateur, there are often situations in which the writer of a piece knows he is pretending, but the reader does not. There are also circumstances in which no one knows they are pretending. This results in communications that convey more opinion and emotion than fact and in a manner that is opaque to many readers.

Writers frequently use words that carry with them a sort of built-in dynamic. Let me give a rather innocuous example from a fictional setting. Here’s the setup. A middle-schooler on a skateboard cuts across the path of a businessman on a city sidewalk. In relating the tale the businessman might take any one of several approaches, depending on how he feels about the encounter:

  1. He’s neutral about the encounter and relates the dry facts: I was just stepping up onto the curb when a skateboarder zipped in front of me. 
  2. He’s amused by the encounter: I must be getting old. I was just stepping up onto the curb when a kid on a skateboard comes shooting out of nowhere and almost runs over the toes of my shoes. I opened my mouth to scold him then realized that was me ten years ago.
  3. He’s incensed by the encounter: So I’m barely across the street when this punk on a skateboard practically mows me down. I had to stop just short of the curb until he was gone. The light was about to change, and there I was stranded in the street. He almost got me killed!

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Science Wins! (Rerun!)

Science Wins! (Rerun!)


My apologies for posting a rerun. I hope to have new blogs soon. I’m about a month out from knee surgery and the time I’m not spending doing physical therapy, icing down my leg and taking care of family necessities, I must write and edit to make a living. A thousand pardons, and I will try to answer any comments … eventually. 🙂

“Science Wins!”

This was the headline on a another blog site I frequent. It was in reference to Stephen Hawking’s  latest book, in which he proclaims that because there is such a force as gravity, therefore the universe sprang into being through spontaneous combustion—er, I mean “creation.”

Okay, that was my sarcasm sneeze for the day. Glad I got that out of my system.

I questioned the meaning and context of the declaration that “science wins,” asking what was the field of contest and who the opponent. What, I asked, did science win?

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The Scientific Spirit #3: Russell on Unity and Plurality

The Scientific Spirit #3: Russell on Unity and Plurality

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

One of the most convincing aspects of the mystic illumination is the apparent revelation of the oneness of all things, giving rise to pantheism in religion and to monism in philosophy. — Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, “Unity and Plurality”

Thus Bertrand Russell begins a chapter on Unity and Plurality in which he explores the metaphysical or mystical concept of “oneness”.

The words “unity” and “oneness” are much-used in both religion (or mysticism) and philosophy, but are also prominent in science. As Baha’is believe in the unity of God and the oneness of mankind, physicists seek a “grand unified theory”, a principle of everything, as they seek the origins of the Universe we inhabit. It would be easy to argue that these two related terms do not mean the same thing within these disciplines. Easy, but possibly inaccurate.

Russell comments that:

An elaborate logic, beginning with Parmenides, and culminating in Hegel and his followers, has been gradually developed, to prove that the universe is one indivisible Whole, and that what seem to be its parts, if considered as substantial and self-existing, are mere illusion. The conception of a Reality quite other than the world of appearance, a reality one, indivisible, and unchanging, was introduced into Western philosophy by Parmenides, not, nominally at least, for mystical or religious reasons, but on the basis of a logical argument as to the impossibility of not‑being…. (ibid.)

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The Human Face of Ballistics

The Human Face of Ballistics

Maya Bohnhoff
Maya Bohnhoff

Today’s blog is a departure in a number of ways. First, though it has to do with faith and reason, it is not a matter of science—unless one considers the science of ballistics or perhaps the divine science of building union between human beings. Second, it is not part of the series I started last week. I apologize for the interruption, but since the subject of this blog woke me up early on a morning after a West Wing marathon (important safety tip: never watch a season ender with a cliff hanger when it’s followed by a two part season opener). So, with apologies to readers who prefer strictly science‑related content, I’d like to talk about the human face of ballistics.

I frequently discuss issues surrounding gun violence with friends and other correspondents. Something that comes up repeatedly is the assertion that the face of crime is the face of the career criminal. Such gun legislation as universal background checks and registration will fail to have any impact because criminals are the ones committing the sensational crimes and the “ordinary” ones as well and they will simply not submit to background checks and will find illegal ways of getting guns. So, since no criminals will actually be affected by laws, there is no point to enacting laws. (Which begs the question as to why we have any laws at all, but that’s a different blog.)

Yes, certainly there are shootings perpetrated by career criminals during the commission of a crime of acquisition gone wrong. There are drug‑related crimes and gang‑related crimes, and these, too, take their toll. But we comprehend these crimes to a degree. They happen in the pursuit of a material goal. They are perpetrated by criminals—by THEM not by US.

But there are other shootings that defy comprehension—we cannot make sense of them in any way—in large part because they are not committed by criminals. They are committed by our neighbors—by US.

Many of us see the face of gun crime as young, criminal, possibly a gang member, often black. But that is not the only face of gun crime.

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Intelligence Squared 8: Stirring the Particles

Intelligence Squared 8: Stirring the Particles

iq2-logoThis is the last installment of my exploration of the Intelligence Squared debate between four stars in the firmament of science and commentary (scientists Ian Hutchinson and Lawrence Krauss and writers Dinesh D’Souza and Michael Shermer). I’d like to close by taking a look at one of the central ideas that was addressed (though unsatisfactorily, in my opinion) during the debate: the nature of God.


If God is supernatural, that is, outside of the space and time, there’s no way for us to know it. Therefore, whatever God is, it would have to be a natural being or at least some kind of a being that reaches in to stir the particles, and if he does, then we should be able to measure it, because that’s what we do as scientists. We measure the motions of particles. And so far we have no evidence of that. 

Shermer may not be aware of the evidence that God stirs the particles, but that may simply be because he is one of the particles being stirred. I would submit that the very intellect that allows us to ask these questions and attempt to answer them is, itself, evidence of the particles being stirred. The history of science is replete with examples of scientists observing things and describing them erroneously because they didn’t know what they were looking at. There’s an old aphorism that when one has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. How one interprets information one receives depends in large part on context.

This is true of something as simple as a word or phrase. Take this headline: “Island Boy Taken by Sharks.” Horrific, right? Not really. The headline was about a Hawaiian youth who was drafted onto the San Jose Sharks hockey team. Context is important because it sets up our expectations for what comes next. Fortunately, the weight of evidence for something can overcome this tendency.

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