How governments lie

I am sure all the readers of this blog would be aware of the shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician by British police in the wake of the second attempt at bombing the British underground.

The question of how police should deal appropriately with fast moving events is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this posting. But this incident does provide a good example of how governments use the media to get their version of events into the public consciousness first, knowing that this is what most people remember.

The New York Times of Saturday, July 23, 2005 had a report that said that immediately after the shooting:

Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the dead man had been “directly linked” to the continuing terrorism investigation, but he would not say how or why or identify him by name or nationality.

The Plain Dealer of that same day added that the Washington Post was reporting that the man had been “under surveillance.” Both these items seemed to provide evidence that there was a good reason for the police to decide to shoot.

But the very next day comes another report that said:

Scotland Yard admitted Saturday that a man police officers gunned down at point-blank range in front of horrified subway passengers on Friday had nothing to do with the investigation into the bombing attacks here.

How could someone go from being “under surveillance” and “directly linked” to a terrorism investigation on one day, to having “nothing to do” with it the next?

The reason most likely is that after the man had been shot the police immediately wanted to give the public the impression that the shooting was completely justified and said whatever was necessary to achieve that goal, whether they knew it was true or not.

This is one more reason why I always try and suspend judgment and never believe the initial reports that emerge from official spokespersons immediately after some major event. Those initial official reports often have only the remotest connection to the facts and are usually designed to imprint in the public mind what the governments want the public to believe. Newspaper reporters usually have no choice but to report these statements without question since they have not had time too do any independent checking.

My skepticism has been developed over many years due to the things like the following two examples.

On July 3, 1988, during the gulf war between Iraq and Iran, the American cruiser USS Vincennes, which was in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian civilian passenger aircraft, killing all 290 passengers aboard. The American President at that time (Ronald Reagan) and his Chief of Staff (Admiral William Crowe) immediately went on TV (I vividly remember watching them) and said that the shooting had been completely justified. They gave four reasons: (1) that the Iranian plane had been diving towards the USS cruiser and gaining speed, typical of an attack aircraft; (2) the plane had been transmitting on a military frequency instead of a civilian one; (3) there were no scheduled commercial Iranian airways flights at that time; (4) the flight path of the plane was outside the corridor that commercial airlines use.

So the image we were given repeatedly in the days immediately following the disaster was that this huge Airbus A300 civilian passenger plane was essentially dive-bombing the US cruiser, possibly on a kamikaze-type mission, which meant that the commander of the cruiser had no choice but to shoot it down.

At that time I thought that it was unbelievable that the Iranians would sacrifice nearly 300 of their own people on such an insane mission, but the media did not dwell much on this implausibility. After all, memories of the US embassy hostage crisis (which ended in 1981) were still fresh in people’s minds and Iranians, portrayed as fanatical Muslims, were thought to be capable of anything.

Months later, the news slowly eked out in dribs and drabs, buried on the inside pages of newspapers, that every single one of the four justifications were false. (See this site for a history of the incident and the coverup.) The plane was on a regularly scheduled flight on a regular route, traveling at a steady altitude and speed, and transmitting on the civilian frequencies. Three years after the incident, Admiral Crowe admitted that the US cruiser Vincennes had actually been in Iranian territorial waters. Five years after the incident, the International Court of Justice concluded that the US actions had been unlawful.

But no one apologized for the lies, no one was punished, and the matter was quietly forgotten, except by the Iranians. The lies had served their purpose, which was to rally this country around their government in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.

A similar situation arose when President Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan on August 20, 1998, claiming that it was manufacturing biological weapons (particularly VX nerve gas), and killing at least one person. (News of this bombing, and the simultaneous bombing of Afghanistan, shoved the Monica Lewinsky scandal off the front pages just at the time she was to give her much anticipated grand jury testimony.) The US government insisted that it had firm evidence of biological weapons but that they could not reveal it for security reasons. They also blocked a UN investigation into the bombing. No evidence was ever produced to support its case. It was much later that the US government very quietly conceded that it had been wrong. In the meantime the loss of the only pharmaceutical factory in a poor country like Sudan resulted in a huge loss of medicines to a very needy population, resulting in serious health problems and deaths. Again, the government lies had served their purpose.

The retraction by the British police in the latest incident was unusual in that it was quick. The usual policy (at least in the US) is for officials to keep stonewalling and throwing up one smokescreen after another until the public gets bored or another big story consumes the media. Then a quiet admission is made of the error, which gets buried at the bottom of page 20.

On Wednesday, I went to see the excellent film Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire (see the postscript to this posting for details) which showed the propaganda process at work following the events of 9/11.

This is why I always take initial news reports of such events with a grain of salt. I believe that all governments, without exception, lie to their people. They do this routinely and without shame. But most people are uncomfortable accepting this fact and want to believe that their government is trustworthy. And at the early stages of the events, governments and official spokespersons take advantage of people’s trust and use their dominance of the media to make sure that people’s early impressions are favorable. The only reason that governments will hesitate to lie is if the media quickly investigates the original story and gives the subsequently revealed facts as much publicity as the original stories. But as we have see, the present media have largely abdicated that role, playing it safe by simply reporting what the government says.

It will be interesting too see if the alternative press, via the internet, can help to bring more honesty into political life by quickly exposing lies. But what we can do is to treat the initial stories with a healthy skepticism until we have been convinced that there is a basis for believing them.

Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it “weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic.” But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that “an agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O’Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban “‘coercive’ public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools.” (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its “Wedge” document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O’Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement’s close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

Simplifying difficult texts – 2

To illustrate the problems of simplifying original texts, we can look at examples from Shakespeare and the Bible. I came across a site that seeks to make Shakespeare’s plays easier to understand by re-writing them:

Here is the original text from HAMLET Act III, Scene i, lines 57-91

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Here is the simplified text:

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?


Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

Do the two passages have the same meaning? They convey different senses to me.
Or take the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11 of the Bible. Here is the familiar King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And here is the simplified modern language of the New Living Translation:

I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time.

Again, does the simplified passage capture the meaning of the original?

I am not criticizing the quality of the simplifications, although there may be better ones around. If you asked me what Shakespeare’s passages mean, I probably would have come out with a more confused meaning than what was given above. But the point is that it is in the process of struggling to understand the author’s original meaning that we make individual sense of the passage. I think that the best we can hope for is a shared consensus of the meaning, and we can never hope to exactly enter into the author’s mind.

This problem is always present when the US Supreme Court tries to rule on the constitutionality of present day issues using a document written over two hundred years ago. People who call themselves “strict constructionists” say that the constitution should be interpreted according to the text and the intent of the frames. But how can you glean intent? The text of the document, by itself, is not sufficient, because words can never capture exact meanings. Literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting article that is worth reading. In it he says:

It follows that any conclusion you reach about the intention behind a text can always be challenged by someone else who marshals different evidence for an alternative intention. Thus interpretations of the Constitution, no matter how well established or long settled, are inherently susceptible to correction and can always (but not inevitably) be upset by new arguments persuasively made in the right venues by skilled advocates.

This does not mean, however, that interpreting the Constitution is a free-form activity in which anything goes. The activism that cannot be eliminated from interpretation is not an activism without constraint. It is constrained by the knowledge of what its object is – the specifying of authorial intention. An activism that abandons that constraint and just works the text over until it yields a meaning chosen in advance is not a form of interpretation at all, but a form of rewriting.

This is why I am so much a fan of collaborative learning and discussions to tease out meaning. I think you get more out of having a group of people reading the original, (difficult) text, and then arguing about what it means, than by reading a simplified text alone, however ‘clear’ the latter might be.

Here is a Zen koan:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?”
The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”
Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out.
Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What is the message this koan is trying to convey? The words are simple but the ideas are deep and captured succinctly. I think that it illustrates the point I am making here and I can try and tell you what it means to me, using a lot more words than in the original. But what does it mean to you?

Simplifying difficult texts

Some time ago, Aaron Shaffer in his blog expressed his disappointment with the texts he was reading in his philosophy class, particularly the fact that the writers seemed to not take the trouble to be concise, with individual sentences running as long as paragraphs. He felt that this poor writing diminished them in his eyes, since the ability to express one’s ideas briefly and concisely demonstrates intellect.

I have been thinking about his comment for some time. I too, on occasion, try to read some philosophy and tend to find it heavy going. The somewhat dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies) led to a notable hoax being pulled by physicist Alan Sokal, who deliberately wrote a paper whose conscious meaninglessness was disguised using dense language and the jargon common to the field of cultural studies. His article Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was published in the journal Social Text on the same day he wrote a newspaper article exposing his hoax. (I will write about the Sokal hoax in a later posting. As is usually the case, the issue was more complicated than it might first appear, and raises serious ethical issues.)

Of course, physicists are not in a good position to throw stones at philosophers because it has long been the case that physics papers have stopped being intelligible to anyone other than those in the same sub-sub-field. But the reason for this is that scientists long ago made the transition from writing for the general public in the form of books, to writing for fellow scientists, using the form of the short paper. Once the link to the public was broken, there was no necessity to try to make oneself intelligible since other scientists know your jargon. Some argue that scientists have carried this too far, which is why the public generally has such a poor idea of what scientists actually do.

But philosophers are still, by and large, writing for a general audience, so why is their writing so hard to understand? Part of the answer is that philosophers are dealing with a difficult subject, very abstract, and this requires very skilful writing to make clear to the non-specialist. Bertrand Russell was pretty good at this but he was an exception.

Some people have tried to tackle this problem by rewriting philosophical works to make them easier to understand. Some time ago, I received an email from a professor of philosophy about his project to simplify the works of philosophers by rewriting them, to remove redundancies, simplify language, etc. But this raises the issue: Can you rewrite someone else’s work without introducing distortions?

If we look at the path that ideas take, we can start with an idea in an author’s brain. The author’s meaning is translated into words, then the words are read by the reader and their meaning recreated in the reader’s brain. Ideally we would like the process:

author’s meaning —> written words —> reader’s meaning

to occur with no loss of precision. I think that this ideal cannot be attained because it is intrinsically impossible for words to exactly capture ideas. At best they come close and make a good approximation. The reason that an author may think he/she has expressed an idea exactly is because of the implicit meanings we individually assign to words, in addition to the explicit and agreed upon meanings that we all share.

The reader also uses implicit meanings of words in reconstructing the ideas but there is no guarantee that the reader’s implicit meanings are the same as that of the writer’s. Hence we end up with distortions. The author, if conscientious, tries to find the words and phrases that minimizes the amount of implicit meaning and best captures the idea, but this cannot be done with 100% accuracy. The more you try to replace implicit meanings with words, the wordier the writing gets.

So when someone tries to “clarify” the ideas of another author, that introduces a third filter of implicit meanings, and possibly greater distortions. This does not mean that it is not a worthwhile exercise. A good translator might be able to infer the original meaning of the author better than the novice reader can, and render those ideas in a form that makes it easier for the novice reader to understand. But there will always be some element of ambiguity that is intrinsic to the original work. And there is always the danger that the “simplified” work introduces new ideas that the original author did not intend.

In some areas, revisionist writings completely replace the original. For example, in teaching science, we almost never use the original papers of (say) Newton and Einstein. We use textbooks instead that explain the ideas originated by them. The difference for this may be that in modern science, the community works with consensus meanings. The original idea is usually elaborated on and expanded by many others before it becomes the paradigm which the community accepts. This paradigm then represents a kind of consensus scientific view of the field and people can set about trying to present the ideas in a simplified form, suitable for novices, which is how textbooks originate. We just give a nod to the originator of the idea but the idea has ceased to be his or hers alone. When we talk of “Newton’s theory” or “Einstein’s theory”, what we are referring to is not usually exactly what those people may have intended.

But in other areas (such as philosophy) there is no consensus paradigm to the field so there is no consensus belief structure. Hence we keep going back to the original sources, trying to tease out what the author intended. So while in physics, we never refer to someone using quantum mechanics as an “Einsteinian” or “Bohrian” (two people who had competing interpretations of quantum mechanics) but simply refer to the current consensus view, in other fields such as philosophy it is quite common to refer to someone as a “Kantian” or a “Lockian”, and this implies adherence to that person’s original views.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow.

Will the real Americans please stand up?

Once in a while, the media decides to find out what the “real” America thinks about some major issue that is consuming the national media.

I can immediately predict what they will do. They will send a reporter out to somewhere in the mid-west, say Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska, and that reporter will go to a small town or rural area, and interview some people there. And typically, the person interviewed will be white, middle-aged, middle-class, religious and church-going, and having a conventional occupation (teacher, home-maker, small businessperson).

These are supposed to be the “real” Americans, who represent the true values of the country.

I always wondered about this particular journalistic cliche. What is it, exactly, that makes this particular group more truly representative of the country, more credible as speaking for the nation than, say, an elderly, white, New York City shopkeeper or an atheist black doctor in Mississippi or a young Hispanic farmer in Arizona?

I don’t think that the reasoning behind this choice is purely demographic and statistical. It may be that if we do a multiple slicing of the entire population according to color, age, class, religion, geography, and occupation, the group singled out for journalistic preference might come out as slight more populous than other groups. I am not even sure if that is true but I think it is irrelevant.

The point is that it has become an ingrained part of conventional wisdom that this particular grouping has some special claim to speak for the country as a whole. It is as if there is a sense that “true” Americans are those who look as if they could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

This comes back to a point made earlier in my previous posting where I argued that this idea that one segment of the population are the rightful heirs to a country and that others are “allowed” to be there is a notion that can ultimately lead to chauvinism and conflict, as can be seen in the experience of other countries. In my native Sri Lanka, there is the feeling that it is the Sinhala Buddhist majority who somehow represent the “true” Sri Lanka, and this sentiment has been the source of endless political and social unrest.

So the question is, can we define a “real American”? Is it just any citizen? Is it a citizen who was also born here? Or does it also require one to adhere to a certain set of beliefs and values? Does it depend on your physical appearance? Or is the whole exercise of searching for the “real” Americans simply pointless and should be abandoned?

I suggest that that we should reject that kind of thinking altogether, along with corresponding journalistic tropes such as the “American heartland.” They serve no useful purpose and only serve create divisions and hierarchies.


The following is a notice from Case for Peace of which I am a member:

Film: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire
Date: Wednesday, July 27, 2005,
Time: 7:00 PM
Where: Peace House, 10916 Magnolia Drive, University Circle (near the parking entrance to the Auto Museum).
Admission: I believe that there is no admission charge.
Duration: full version 64 minutes (accompanied in DVD format by abridged version and additional footage). To be projected in full screen mode, followed by discussion.

Cleveland Peace Action invites you to view this remarkable film that documents how a radical fringe of the Republican Party used the trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks to advance a pre-existing agenda to radically transform American foreign policy while rolling back civil liberties and social programs at home.

The documentary places the Bush Administration’s false justifications for the war in Iraq within the larger contrast of a two-decade struggle by neo-conservatives to dramatically increase military spending in the wake of the Cold War, and to expand American power globally by means of force. At the same time, the commentary explains how the Administration has sold this radical and controversial plan for aggressive American military intervention by deliberately manipulating intelligence, political imagery, and the fears of the American people.

The film is produced by The Media Education Foundation, narrated by Julian Bold, and features interviews with Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, Scott Ritter, Daniel Ellsberg, Jody Williams, Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, and many others.

Produced before the 2004 election, this is film is particularly relevant now as a public education tool, since more information is being widely revealed about the background preceding the war.

False memories

The person being interviewed on the quirky NPR radio program This American Life told a story that happened to him many years back. He had been walking with his wife in New York City when he saw Jackie Kennedy across the street waving at him. Since he did not know her, he looked around to see if she was waving at someone behind him but there was no one there. Not wanting to snub a former first lady, he waved back genially just before a taxi halted before her and he realized that she had merely been hailing a cab.

This was a mildly amusing anecdote, but what is more interesting is that his wife interrupted him at that point to say that he had not been present on that occasion at all and that the incident had actually happened to her when she had been walking alone. But she had recounted the story to friends many times in her husband’s presence and somehow it had got embedded in his own memory as his own story. Her husband took some persuading that he had imagined his role because he remembered very vivid details about the incident but his wife pointed out that he could not have possibly seen some of things he said (like the kind of buttons on Jackie Kennedy’s coat) because she was too far away.

I think all of us have experienced the feeling of astonishment when something that we remembered quite clearly turned out to be not true or quite different. I have this vivid memory that when I was about six years old, a major fire broke out in a house a few doors away from where we lived. I remember clearly the flames shooting up into the dark night sky. We watched the blaze for some time but at some point my father decided it was coming too close and put us in the car and drove us away to safety. Our house was spared and we returned later that night. But recently, I happened to ask my mother and older sister about this and neither of them could remember the event at all.

How could this happen? The answer is that memory is a tricky business. When we experience something, we tend to think that the event is recorded by some kind of VCR in our brains to be played back later. In such a model of the brain, there may be some degradation in the recording and playback modes but there should be no major distortions. The main story should not change, and characters, chunks of dialogue, and events should not appear or disappear mysteriously.

But in actuality, the brain is not at all like a VCR, it is more like a computer. It appears that events are broken up into pieces and stored in multiple locations. Then when we “remember”, the event is not recalled like a videotape playback, it is reconstructed from the separate stored bits. It is similar to the way that a computer stores a program in its hard drive and then runs it later.

Of course, this means that there must be some algorithm in the brain that breaks up the experience into bits and stores them, another algorithm for retrieving these bits and reconstructing the memory, and some other mechanism that is constantly implementing these algorithms. The problem is that these things don’t seem to function with 100% accuracy, with the result that when we recall something, it is possible (if not likely) that the memory is not a faithful reconstruction of the original. Even a slight malfunctioning in the algorithm can cause a major distortion in the memory. The distortions become more pronounced with greater time lags and if we have a strong emotional investment in the event.

(I have noticed this again when writing this blog. Many times I recall some news item or quote that is relevant to a posting. But when I look up the original source, I often find that the story is not quite what I thought it was. This is why academics place such a premium on reading and citing the originalsources of anything, as far as possible. It minimizes the chances of distortions creeping in.)

So maybe my fire memory was due to an algorithm malfunction that erroneously coupled images of a fire (from some other source) with my father taking us out in his car, or something like that. This is why trusting to memory alone is a dangerous business, especially if the stakes are high, and why notes of something taken contemporaneously of an event are more valuable than verbal recollections.

At one time in the 1980s, there was a rash of high profile court cases involving the sexual abuse of children by workers in day-care centers. There was a huge media frenzy about it with several day care center workers going to jail. Many of those convictions were subsequently overturned but the lives of those day care workers were already ruined. The recent flurry of cases involving abuses by Catholic priests follow a familiar pattern.

Sexual abuse of minors is a serious problem in America (and anywhere it occurs) and it is one of the most despicable of crimes. But while the abuse of children is a horrible thing, we have to be careful to not let our disgust destroy the lives of innocent people who are convicted without having sound evidence against them. This is particularly relevant when adults (as witnesses) recall events that happened to them as children and were supposedly suppressed because of the trauma associated with them. The website of the National Center for Reason and Justice argues that some of the well-publicized cases of child sexual abuse were based on shaky science and shaky memories.

So how can we reliably distinguish false memories from real ones, since so much can depend on doing so? The book The Art of Changing the Brain by my colleague James Zull of the Biology Department (p. 84) explains how brain scanning science may be able to help.

[T]he brain behaves differently when we recall something that really happened and when we recall something that didn’t happen. [Schacter's] studies showed that the part of the brain that is needed for memory formation, the parts around the hippocampus, was activated by both false memories and true ones. But when a true memory was recalled, a second part of the brain also became more active. This second part of the brain was the sensory cortex that was involved in the real event when it was sensed by the brain. In these experiments, people were asked to remember spoken words, so recall of words that had actually been spoken activated the hearing part of the cortex, the auditory cortex. This part of the brain was silent for the false memories.

(emphasis in original)

In other words, real events usually are accompanied by actual sights and sounds, and possibly also tastes, smells, and physical contact. These physical stimuli are stored in a different part of the brain from that where the memory is stored and should be activated in the memory reconstruction process. False memories do not have such recorded physical sensations.

I am not sure if brain scanning data will become reliable enough to be part of criminal trials. I am also not sure if the sensory cortex retains actual sounds and sights from very long ago. But it would be nice if we had help in identifying which memories are reliable and which are not.

Shafars and brights arise!

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for “shafars” (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, more serious than Smith’s, to have people identify themselves as “brights”. Who or what is a “bright”? The bright website says that a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.

Smith playfully refers to the “faith” of shafarism and says that “Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science.” He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world’s fourth largest belief system doesn’t exist. In number of adherents it’s behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it’s 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today’s politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don’t believe in God or are not certain that God exists.

Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. “None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I’d take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists.”

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God’s punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

“The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I’ll hear from them for this, but throwing God…successfully with the help of the federal court system…throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad…I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen.”

Robertson said, “I totally concur, and the problem is we’ve adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system.”

(See an interview with Pat Robertson on ABC’s This Week on May 1, 2005 for another example of the kinds of things he says on national TV.)

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the “religious” perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can’t label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you’ve got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.

After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some ‘organized’ religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith’s essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.


I’d like to thank commenters Cool and Becky for recommending the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which is based on the rapture. I read it and it is a funny book, written in a style that is a cross between Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the British schoolboy fiction William series by Richmal Crompton.

There were some plans to make Good Omens into a feature film directed by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, and starring Johnny Depp and Robin Williams, but the project apparently got cancelled due to lack of funding. Too bad.

Religious beliefs and public policy – 2

In the previous post I discussed the problems that can arise when religious beliefs start influencing public policy. But because issues of the environment and global warming are so long term, it is possible, in the short term, to ignore the inherent contradictions that can arise. But this luxury is not available when it comes to issues of war and peace.

For example, take the turmoil in the Middle East. Whatever one’s political views, one would hope that in general all would tend to agree that long-term peace is a good thing and that policies that increase the risk of violence and instability are bad things. So one would think that if one was convinced that a certain policy might lead to greater risk of war in the Middle East, then that policy should be avoided.

But in the topsy-turvy world of rapture-based politics such assumptions do not hold. Take for example, the so-called “Road Map” for Middle East peace, a strategic plan that has been proposed by the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia and is seen as providing hope for long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Dominionists (or dispensationalists) are not thrilled by it. As Barbara Rossing says in her book The Rapture Exposed (p. 46):

The influence of dispensationalism can be seen also in fundamentalist Christians’ opposition to the U.S.-backed “Road Map” for peace in Israel and Palestine. “The Bible is my Road Map,” declares an Internet petition circulated by [Pat] Robertson, [Jerry] Falwell, and LaHaye in opposition to a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace and peace plans in the Middle East are a bad thing, in the view of fundamentalist Christians, because they delay the countdown to Christ’s return. Israel must not compromise by giving back any occupied territory to the Palestinians. New Israel settlements and a rebuilt third temple are God’s will for Israel, no matter how violent the consequences.

The dispensationalist version of the biblical story requires tribulation and war in the Middle East, not peace plans. That is the most terrifying aspect of the distorted theology. Such blessing of violence is the very reason why we cannot afford to give in to the dispensationalist version of the biblical storyline – because real people’s lives are at stake.

You cannot persuade Dominionists that hard-line Israeli policies should be rejected because they will lead to instability and chaos and bloodshed, because they see this as an argument in their favor. It is as a good thing because it is a sign of the second coming. Similarly, policies that might lead to increased upheaval in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and so on are welcomed as fulfillments of their version of Biblical prophecy of the end-times.

It is somewhat bizarre that people who hold such views on what public policies should be adopted seem to have access to the media and influential policy makers in the government. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and a whole host of Dominionist people like to emphasize the fact that they have strong influence and access to the levers of government.

What should be the response to this? The next posting will examine the options.


Well, it had to come, the inevitable link between capitalism and end-times theology. Mark Wilson’s blog reports on a new series of video games based on the rapture to be released soon.

Religious beliefs and public policy

Barbara Rossing is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is a faculty member at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is an evangelical who feels that the rapturists have, in trying to take the Bible literally, totally distorted its message. Her book The Rapture Exposed is her attempt to reclaim the message of the Bible. In the process, she argues that although this is a religious dispute between segments of Christianity, we should all, whatever our beliefs, take it seriously because it has public policy implications for all of us.

In a comment to a previous posting about the rapture, Professor Madigan spoke about her former sister-in-law who back in the 1980s was convinced that the rapture was imminent and that the day had been specified and that she would be one of the chosen. She then proceeded to run up her credit card bills, thinking that she would not have to pay it back. Of course, she had to deal with all the bills when the rapture did not happen. Dave’s comment in the previous entry seems to indicate that this kind of credit-card behavior is quite widespread. (Here is an interesting conundrum: Is it unethical to run up bills that you have no intention of paying if you think that the end of the world is about to occur?)

I would imagine that this kind of extreme behavior is somewhat rare and that most believers in the rapture hedge their bets and continue to make their mortgage, credit card, and insurance payments.

But even if some people are tempted to act recklessly, such actions by private individuals do not do too much damage to the community at large. But not all rapture-influenced actions are that innocuous. Rossing’s book reveals some startling information about rapture-influenced political appointees that I was not aware of (since I was not in the US at that time) but whose actions can affect all of us. One such person is James Watt who was appointed to the post of Secretary of the Interior after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Rossing says:

Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U.S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” (p. 7)

One might wonder how such a person as James Watt could ever have been confirmed to the post that is entrusted to protect the environment. One would think that the job description for the position of Secretary of the Interior requires someone who takes a very long-term view, and that anyone who cannot envisage the need to take care of the environment beyond the next few generations would be eliminated. And perhaps there was a time when such people would not be nominated to high positions but that seems to be no longer the case. Nowadays, politicians seem to feel obliged to wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim how it influences everything they do.

Of course, most people are religious in some way and there is no doubt that their religious beliefs will have an effect on what they do and what policies they support. We should protect people’s right to believe whatever they want. But should that protection also extend to public policies that they wish to implement that are based on their religious beliefs? Can we draw a line between policies based on religion that are acceptable and those that are not? Or is it better to simply say that any public policy that has religion as its only basis is not acceptable.

These questions become more apparent with issues such as global warming. If global temperatures are rising at about one degree per century as experts suggest, then in a few centuries the melting of the polar ice gaps, the loss of glaciers, and the consequent rise in sea levels would have catastrophic consequences, causing massive flooding of coastal areas and huge climatic changes. Suppose the Secretary of the Interior says that since the end of the world is going to occur long before then, we should not worry about it, should that person be removed from office? Is it religious discrimination to say that we should not be basing public policy on religious beliefs?

If James Watt had been rejected as a nominee because of the feeling that his religion-based short-term views were dangerous for the environment, could it have been alleged that he was the subject of religious discrimination?

This is a very tricky question because while we do not want to impinge on people’s right to religious beliefs, we do have a responsibility to base policies on empirical evidence. The public policy implications of religion becomes even more alarming when applied to issues of war and peace as we will see in the next posting.

The allure of rapture violence

I must say that since I recently started reading about the rapture (see here and here for previous posts on it), it has fascinated me. (Some readers of this blog who had never heard of the rapture before I started posting on it have told me they were startled to find people they know accepting the idea of it very matter-of-factly, as if it were nothing special.) Not that I take the basic idea of huge numbers of people being transported suddenly up into heaven seriously, of course. That strikes me as a wild flight of fancy that belongs in the same genre as Star Wars or Harry Potter films, i.e., enjoyable largely because it is so outrageously improbable.

No, what interests me is the sociology behind it, especially the question of what it is that attracts otherwise presumably regular people to believe in this dark tale of violence, revenge, cruelty, and blood.

The basic rapture story is that at some point (devotees think “very soon”), a select group of people will be raptured up to heaven by Jesus, and from that vantage point they will observe the Antichrist ruling the world, leading to seven years of violent struggle between the good and bad forces left behind on Earth. As the Left Behind novel series illustrates, the people propagating the rapture myths do not see the violence in the rapture story as something that is a necessary evil, to be passed over quickly before the final victory of God. No, they actually wallow in it, imagining it in the most lurid of details. In his highly entertaining review of the books, Gene Lyons recounts one passage:

Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. . . . Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.

and says that “the slaughter runs on for close to eighty gleeful pages.” (my emphasis)

I find it hard to fathom the attraction of something like this. I have never understood the appeal of violence, even fictionalized, so that I avoid films that have excessive amounts of it. This dislike started early for me. I remember even as a very young child hating circuses, mainly because they had people (like trapeze artists) who were risking death and injury just for the sake of entertaining others, and this just made no sense to me. I could have tolerated it if the trapeze artists and tightrope walkers performed with a safety net. I can understand that some people (like firefighters, police, and soldiers) have to take risks as part of their job, but they at least take as many safety precautions as they can. Taking huge and avoidable risks just for entertainment seems absurd to me.. The recent mauling of Roy Horn by the tiger in his act sickened me because the senselessness of it all.

I know that many people do not have the same reaction to violence as I do, but there is a difference (I feel) between being able to tolerate violence as a an unavoidable component of life and actually enjoying it, and it is the latter response that I find hard to understand. I know that there are people who flock to the scene of some disaster, hoping to see the injured or dead, and then relish repeating what they have seen over and over to whoever will listen. That kind of attitude is incomprehensible to me. But Barbara Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed suggests that one can get addicted to violence. She quotes Chris Hedges who said that as a former New York Times war correspondent in El Salvador, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, and elsewhere, he became addicted to war. It was like a narcotic and he had to tear himself away from it.

It is clear that rapture enthusiasts have no such qualms about the violence associated with their story. Perhaps the reason that violence may be more enjoyable to them is that they are able to see themselves as purely in a spectator role, like those who, safely from a distance, watch Siegfried and Roy with their tiger. Rossing (p. 138-140) suggests that this might indeed be the case. She suggests that since rapture believers are confident that they will be among the chosen few who are taken up to heaven and escape the carnage, they see themselves as essentially like TV viewers up in heaven, safely watching the violence from that Lazy-Boy in the sky, as if it were some spectator sport. It was interesting that some rapture believers apparently got excited by the recent bombings in London, believing that it signaled the beginning of the rapture.

Rossing argues that all the violence associated with the rapture is a misreading of the Bible. It is quite possible to interpret the Biblical second coming of Jesus in a peaceful way but rapturists insist on interpreting everything in the most gruesome way, trying to put in the most blood and gore possible.

For those who do not believe in the rapture, it might be tempting to dismiss the rapture phenomenon as harmless fantasy, and treat devotees the way we treat those who indulge in (say) violent video games. After all, if I do not believe the rapture is going to happen, why would I care if others do?

But Rossing suggests that we should not be so complacent and that belief in the rapture has public policy consequences that affect all of us. More about this in the next posting.