The desire for belief preservation.

In the previous post we saw how human beings are believed to not be natural critical thinkers, preferring instead to believe in the first plausible explanation for anything that comes along, not seeing these initial explanations as merely hypotheses to be evaluated against competing hypotheses.

But one might think that when we are exposed to alternative hypotheses, we might then shift gears into a critical mode. But Tim van Gelder, writing in the article Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science (College Teaching, Winter 2005, vol. 53, No. 1, p. 41-46) argues that what foils this is the human desire for belief preservation.

He quotes seventeenth century philosopher Francis Bacon who said:

The mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

In other words, van Gelder says, “the mind has intrinsic tendencies toward illusion, distortion, and error.” These arise from a combination of being hard-wired in our brains (because of evolution), natural growth of our brains as we grow up in the Earth’s environment, and the influence of our societies and cultures. “Yet, whatever their origin, they are universal and ineradicable features of our cognitive machinery, usually operating quite invisibly to corrupt our thinking and contaminate our beliefs.”

All these things lead us to have cognitive biases and blind spots that prevent us from seeing things more clearly, and one of the major blind spots is that of belief preservation. van Gelder says that “At root, belief preservation is the tendency to make evidence subservient to belief, rather than the other way around. Put another way, it is the tendency to use evidence to preserve our opinions rather than guide them.”

van Gelder says that when we strongly believe some thing or desire it to be true, we tend to do three things: “1. We seek evidence that supports what we believe and do not seek and avoid or ignore evidence that goes against it. . . 2. We rate evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports or conflicts with our belief. That is, the belief dictates our evaluation of the evidence, rather than our evaluation of the evidence determining what we should believe. . . 3. We stick with our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence as long as we can find at least some support, no matter how slender.”

This would explain why (as vividly demonstrated in the popular video A Private Universe) people hold on to their erroneous explanations about the phases of the moon even after they have been formally instructed in school about the correct explanation.

This would also explain the question that started these musings: Why for so long had I not applied the same kinds of questioning to my religious beliefs concerning god, heaven, etc. that I routinely applied to other areas of my life? The answer is that since I grew up in a religious environment and accepted the existence of god as plausible, I did not seek other explanations. Any evidence in favor of belief (the sense of emotional upliftment that sometimes occurs during religious services or private prayer, or some event that could be interpreted to indicate god’s action in my life or in the world, or scientific evidence that supported a statement in the Bible) was seized on, while counter evidence (such a massive death and destruction caused by human or natural events, personal misfortunes or tragedies, or scientific discoveries that contradicted Biblical texts) was either ignored or explained away. It was only after I had abandoned my belief in god’s existence that I was able to ask the kinds of questions that I had hitherto avoided.

Did I give up my belief because I could not satisfactorily answer the difficult questions concerning god? Or did I start asking those questions only after I had given up belief in god? In some sense this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Looking back, it is hard to say. Probably it was a little of both. Once I started taking some doubts seriously and started questioning, this probably led to more doubts, more questions, until finally the religious edifice that I had hitherto believed in just collapsed.

In the series of posts dealing with the burden of proof concerning the existence of god, I suggested that if we use the common yardsticks of law or science, then that would require that the burden of proof lies with the person postulating the existence of any entity (whether it be god or a neutrino or whatever), and that in the absence of positive evidence in favor of existence, the default assumption is to assume the non-existence of the entity.

In a comment to one of those postings, Paul Jarc suggested that the burden of proof actually lay with the person trying to convince the other person to change his views. It may be that we are both right. What I was describing was the way that I thought things should be, while Paul was describing the way things are in actual life, due to the tendency of human beings to believe the first thing that sounds right and makes intuitive sense, coupled with the desire to preserve strong beliefs once formed.

van Gelder ends up his article with some good advice:

Belief preservation strikes right at the heart of our general processes of rational deliberation. The ideal critical thinker is aware of the phenomenon, actively monitors her thinking to detect its pernicious influence, and deploys compensatory strategies.

Thus, the ideal critical thinker
• puts extra effort into searching for and attending to evidence that contradicts what she currently believes;
• when “weighing up” the arguments for and against, gives some “extra credit” for those arguments that go against her position; and
• cultivates a willingness to change her mind when the evidence starts mounting against her.

Activities like these do not come easily. Indeed, following these strategies often feels quite perverse. However, they are there for self-protection; they can help you protect your own beliefs against your tendency to self-deception, a bias that is your automatic inheritance as a human being. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The practice of science requires us to routinely think this way. But it is not easy to do and even scientists find it hard to give up their cherished theories in the face of contrary evidence. But because scientific practice requires this kind of thinking, this may also be why science is perceived as ‘hard’ by the general public. Not because of its technical difficulties, but because you are constantly being asked to give up beliefs that seem so naturally true and intuitively obvious.

POST SCRIPT: The people who pay the cost of war

I have nothing to add to this powerful short video, set to the tune of Johnny Cash singing Hurt. Just watch. (Thanks to Jesus’ General.)

The dubious appeal of immortality

During the time I was a Christian, I took it for granted that immortality was not only a Good Thing, it was the thing that mattered most. The idea that if one believes in Jesus (or in some other way meets the needs of Christian doctrine), one is saved and has eternal life is a central tenet of Christianity. The formulation “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” is something that any Christian can recite. It makes up the famous verse John 3:16 which you will often see written on a bed sheet and draped over railings at big sporting events. (This passage is so familiar to Christians that I was able to type it out accurately after all these years without even looking it up.)

What is surprising is that despite all the emphasis on going to heaven as the main point of living, the Bible contains very few actual descriptions of the place and what people there actually do. Even the good folks at Rapture Ready, who are counting the minutes until the world ends and they get taken up, admit that they don’t have much data on this key question. Their page What Heaven Will Be Like is very brief. (Disturbingly, for me personally at least, it says that in heaven the laws of physics do not apply. Why is this information not given to students when they are deciding what to major in? In the unlikely event that I am raptured, all my years of study and work will have been wasted and in heaven I will have to learn a new trade.)

The one really concrete description comes from (where else?) the Book of Revelations and it says that everyone in heaven will live in a place called New Jerusalem, which consists of a cube of side 1,500 miles. Although large (roughly the size of the moon), it should be easy to visit friends since the Rapture Ready website says that people in heaven will be able to travel instantaneously, presumably because of their ability to circumvent the laws of physics that are such restrictive nuisances for us on Earth.

Islam is more detailed than Christianity in its descriptions of heaven. Ibn Warraq writes in Virgins? What virgins? that the Koran gives the following description:

What of the rewards in paradise? The Islamic paradise is described in great sensual detail in the Koran and the Traditions; for instance, Koran sura 56 verses 12-40 ; sura 55 verses 54-56 ; sura 76 verses 12-22. I shall quote the celebrated Penguin translation by NJ Dawood of sura 56 verses 12-39: “They shall recline on jewelled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine (that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason); with fruits of their own choice and flesh of fowls that they relish. And theirs shall be the dark-eyed houris, chaste as hidden pearls: a guerdon for their deeds… We created the houris and made them virgins, loving companions for those on the right hand. . .”

So basically heaven for Muslims consists of your choice of food and drink and sex, with no negative after effects. Ibn Warraq’s article describes Muslim commentators who go into even more great detail about the sexual pleasures of heaven, seemingly written exclusively from the male perspective.

I wrote previously that asking questions like where heaven is located and how it is related to life on Earth can make belief complicated because of the scientific problems it creates. First off, how come we cannot detect heaven’s existence although we are now able to probe the far reaches of the universe? Is heaven in some parallel universe, with impenetrable barriers? But they cannot be totally impenetrable since people can get there from here. Since most people believe that people in heaven can see and hear us as we go about on Earth, that means that light and sound waves can travel from Earth to heaven, crossing the barrier. So must it be a one-way barrier? How would such a barrier work to prevent two-way transmission? (This is again the kind of question a physicist would ask, because I have trouble accepting that the laws of physics don’t apply in heaven.)

But another problem is: what is it about heaven that is supposed to make it so attractive? Most people, even if they have no explicit model to work from, envisage eternal life in heaven as where everything is very pleasant and discouraging words are never heard. But surely if everything is perfect, and people in heaven live forever experiencing neither pain nor sorrow, it also has to be dull?

And that is the key problem. I cannot conceive of any way of conceptualizing heaven that is not also mind-numbingly boring. The only way to overcome that is to think that our personalities in heaven also change so that we never get tired of unchanging perfection. (“Wow, this grape is delicious! Wow, so is the next one! And the next one!…”) But then people become boring.

For example, suppose you are an avid golfer and your vision of heaven is where you can play everyday in perfect weather. Does being in heaven mean that you hit perfect shots each time? But if you do and your opponent does too, wouldn’t that take the fun out of the game? Golf is trivial, but I cannot think of anything at all that would not get tedious very quickly if one was assured of constant success. Pleasure in life goes along with failure. Take away failure and pain and loss and I am not sure what pleasure means.

The only thing that I personally can see that is good about immortality is that I may learn the answers to some difficult and unanswered questions that may elude me in my lifetime: Is quantum mechanics the ultimate theory or is there a deeper underlying theory? What exactly happens when the quantum wave function collapses in its interaction with the observer? How can one unambiguously draw the quantum/classical system boundary? How does the brain produce consciousness and the appearance of free will? Why do so many people find Julia Roberts attractive?

So basically, my own idea of heaven is to have the equivalent of unlimited high-speed internet access and subscriptions to science journals. But even that would be boring if I had to wait around a long time for Earth-bound scientists to find (if they ever do) the answers to those questions. On the other hand, if people in heaven already know the answers to these questions and told me as soon as I got there (not that there’s much chance of that), then there would be nothing to look forward to.

I can think of many, many things that would be wonderful to experience for a very short time but all of them would bore me totally if they went on indefinitely. It reminds me of the time, soon after high school in Sri Lanka, when I had a temporary job working in a chocolate factory. I was told that we could eat all the chocolates we wanted and since I loved chocolate, this sounded like heaven, and everyone envied me. But after a week of eating chocolate, I was sick of it.


I am becoming convinced that we have pleasure on Earth precisely because it is unpredictable and transient, it is mixed with pain and failure, and we know that everything, including our lives, will eventually come to an end. We experience happiness and pleasure at moments in time, but for those moments to occur they must be preceded by periods of anticipation, disappointment, and failures. Take those things away and there is no pleasure either

It amazes me that I never asked any of these questions or thought of any of these things until now. Even during the many years I was religious, I never questioned then what form eternal life would take and whether it is such an unequivocal Good Thing after all. This is surprising because I was always curious about other things and trying to make connections.

Is there something in the way we are taught our religious beliefs that gently steers us away from these questions because they are so problematic? Why had I never probed deeply into what heaven might be like?

In the next posting, I will look at what research in cognitive science says about why we don’t ask questions or look for answers to certain questions, even when it might seem obvious that we should do so.

POST SCRIPT: Our tax dollars at work in the DHS

Ray LeMoine writes about his weird experience at the hands of Department of Homeland Security officials on his return to the US after traveling in the Islamic world.

Choosing the god we want

The series of postings on the burden of proof in relation to the existence of god (see part 1, part 2, and part 3) produced some very thoughtful comments by readers that explore many facets of the issue, and I would urge those interested to read those comments.

What initiated that series of posts was Laplace’s comment that he had no need to hypothesize the existence of god to understand the workings of the universe. I agree with that point, that whether or not one believes in god is a matter of choice and that there is no evidence for the existence of god that is compelling in the way that science requires in support of its hypotheses. In the absence of such compelling positive evidence, I simply proceed on the assumption of non-existence of god.

But the issue of choice is not just between the existence and non-existence of god. Religious people who personally feel that there exists evidence for the existence of god also have to make a choice, except that in their case they have to choose what kind of god to believe in. Believing in a Christian god means rejecting a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or other vision of god.

But the need for making choices does not end there. Even if one has chosen to believe in a Christian god, one has to make further choices. The fact is that there are many different kinds of god portrayed in the Bible – vengeful, loving, murderous, merciful, just, capricious, cruel, generous, and so on. A god who can order every living thing in the world to be drowned except for one family and two representatives of each species (in Noah’s flood) is revealing quite a different attitude to life and death from a god who tells Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) that he cannot bring himself to destroy the wicked town of Sodom because of the possibility that it might contain even as few as ten righteous persons who did not deserve to die. It is impossible to make the case that there is a single vision of god in the Bible, unless one also asserts that human comprehension is too weak to understand and resolve the different portrayals into one non-contradictory whole.

It is clear that what most religious believers have done is chosen what type of god they wish to believe in and what type to reject. In the contemporary political context, some Christians have chosen the gay-lifestyle hating god, while others have chosen a gay-lifestyle accepting god, and so on. Depending on what choice was made results in each person having to explain away those features that seem to contradict the view of god they have chosen. This partly explains why churches tend to splinter into so many different denominations and why there are so many disagreements about what god expects from people and how god expects people to behave.

If you want to believe in a kind and loving god, you have some stiff challenges to overcome, not limited to the appalling massacre of people in the great flood. For example, take the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those not familiar with this story (Genesis chapters 21 and 22), Abraham and Sarah did not have children for a long time and finally (when Abraham was 100 years old) she gave birth to Isaac. But then god decides to ‘test’ Abraham and asks him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys, making all the preparations for this horrendous sacrifice until at the very last moment, just as he is about to kill the boy, god stops him. God is impressed by Abraham’s unquestioning obedience and rewards him.

This story is disturbing on a whole host of levels. What kind of god would ask a parent to kill his child as a test of faith? And what kind of person would be willing to kill his own child to prove his faith? If we knew of anyone today who was planning to sacrifice his child to prove his worthiness to god, would we not feel justified in labeling that person as dangerously hallucinating and do everything we could to stop him, including forcible restraint and even incarceration? So why is Abraham’s behavior seen as somehow noble? And why is god given a pass for asking someone to commit murder? Even if one were to assume that god and Abraham were engaged in some monstrous game of chicken, not believing that the sacrifice will be actually carried out but simply playing mind games, waiting for the other to relent first so that the murder is avoided, this episode still does not reflect well on either party.

Or take the tsunami which killed hundreds of thousands of people in South East Asia in December 2004. I moderated a discussion of faculty members from the major religions to discuss the question of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, or understanding why bad things happen to good people). But the very topic of theodicy assumes that what we think of as bad (such as the deaths of children) are in fact not deliberate acts of god. Why should we think that? How do we know that god did not deliberately kill all these people out of a sense of whimsy or out of callousness or because he was bored or because he likes seeing people suffer?

The answer is that we don’t really know the answers to these questions or to the ones raised about Abraham and Isaac because we have no way of knowing the true nature of god even if we believed in god’s existence. What most people have done is choose to believe in a god who would not casually murder people. They are not compelled to make such a choice by anything in the Bible.

This illustrates a paradox. Believers in a god will often explain away disturbing facts by arguing that we mere mortals cannot really understand god’s ineffable plan, but at the same time argue that they know god’s nature. The reality is that people are choosing a god that is congenial to their world-view.

Choice is always involved whether one is a believer or not. While believers choose one vision of god and reject all others, atheists go just one step further and reject all visions of god. It is not such a big step.

POST SCRIPT: Update on net neutrality

As I wrote earlier, the net neutrality amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives. The issue now goes to the Senate, which is where there is the best chance of writing it into law. The excellent website Talking Points Memo is maintaining a list of which way each senator is leaning on this issue for those of you who want to try and exert pressure on your own senator.

For more information on this issue, updates, and contact information to take action, see

War and Death

I always liked Chandi. He was my cousin’s cousin, not a near relative, but his family and my family and the family of cousins in-between have been close since childhood. Sri Lanka is a small country, which makes it is easy for children to spend a lot of time with one another and thus one became very close with one’s childhood friends. Although Chandi was five years older than I was, and I was closer in age to his younger brother and sister, age gaps among children in Sri Lanka are not as distancing as they seem to be in the US, and Chandi had an easy-going, friendly, warm, and generous nature that made people like him.

On my return from Sri Lanka last year, we stopped for a few days in London and Chandi and his wife Anula (who also happened to be visiting London for a family wedding) came to visit us and we caught up on all that happened to our respective families in the decades since we had last met. Chandi was that same gentle and fun-loving person he had always been. As is usually the case when you meet up with good friends whom you’ve known for a long time, we just picked up from where we had left off and it was as if no time had elapsed since our previous meeting.

Hence it was a shock to me on the first day of my return from Australia last week to learn that Chandi, Anula, and five of their friends and relatives had been blown up by a powerful landmine while they were all visiting a nature reserve in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government alleges that it was the Tamil Tigers who planted that mine in a national park, hoping to discourage tourism. The Tigers deny responsibility, counter-alleging that it was the work of the government.

This is the kind of killing in wartime where the truth will never be discovered, nor the perpetrators punished, just like the case of Rajini Rajasingham-Tiranagama many years ago. Chandi and Anula will join Rajini as another statistic, a ‘casualty of war,’ ‘collateral damage,’ ‘innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire,’ and all the other soothing phrases to lull us into forgetting that wars kill real people, people with families, and children, and parents, and friends. And in modern wars, an increasing number of casualties are innocent people, just trying to make the best of the one life we have.

Chandi and Anula were the latest victims in the long-running civil war, now experiencing a highly shaky and frequently violated truce, between the Sinhala majority government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas, a bitter irony since in their own personal lives (Chandi being Tamil and Anula being Sinhalese) they had seen through the shallowness of ethnic divisions and knew each other as simply human beings.

But the same holds true for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, East Timor. Most people live their lives without thinking of themselves and their families as fulfilling some grand ethnic or religious destiny. They have simple ambitions about creating better lives for themselves and improving their corner of the world . But such innocent people die as part of the schemes and ambitions of so-called leaders and their war-hungry supporters, who make sure that they themselves and their own loved ones are carefully sheltered from the consequences of their actions.

War is a brutal, cruel thing, destroying the lives of people and societies and leaving scars that last generations. I have little patience with those who have never known what it is like to live through war and have no idea what it does to people, and thus find it easy to act as cheerleaders for it, urging others to fight and die as if it were some kind of game, as if it were some clinical strategy exercise rather than seeing it for what it actually is: blood, guts, limbs torn apart, brains scattered, children orphaned and scarred for life, bereaved parents and spouses.

I am not a pacifist. I can see where there can be rare occasions where war may be the only option left. But what appalls me is when decisions to go to war are taken casually, rather than done after much carefully deliberation and elimination of all other options, as the absolutely last resort that it should be.

I do not wish war on anyone. The only positive thing I can see about anyone experiencing war at close range is that it would so disgust them that they would recoil from it and not wish it on anyone else. The US has been fortunate in not experiencing a protracted and bloody war on its own soil since the civil war. Thus people have been spared the sight of war up close, seeing their friends, family and neighbors killed and maimed and their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This may also explain why there is such a casual and unconcerned response here to the frequent decisions of the US government to wage war in other countries. Even as deadly violence occurs on a daily basis in Iraq, it is scarcely even a topic of discussion here. It just doesn’t seem real, except for the families of the US troops who are killed and injured.

Veteran Australian war correspondent John Pilger describes what war really looks like and how the media sanitizes the carnage of war to make it more acceptable;

In Vietnam, where more than a million people were killed in the American invasion of the 1960s, I once watched three ladders of bombs curve in the sky, falling from B52s flying in formation, unseen above the clouds.

They dropped about 70 tons of explosives that day in what was known as the “long box” pattern, the military term for carpet bombing. Everything inside a “box” was presumed destroyed.

When I reached a village within the “box”, the street had been replaced by a crater.

I slipped on the severed shank of a buffalo and fell hard into a ditch filled with pieces of limbs and the intact bodies of children thrown into the air by the blast.

The children’s skin had folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead. A small leg had been so contorted by the blast that the foot seemed to be growing from a shoulder. I vomited.

I am being purposely graphic. This is what I saw, and often; yet even in that “media war” I never saw images of these grotesque sights on television or in the pages of a newspaper.

The response to the recent killing of al-Zarqawi in Iraq illustrates the callousness to death that has overtaken us. (This report by Patrick Cockburn, one of the best journalists covering Iraq, gives the background on the rise and fall of this “little known Jordanian petty criminal turned Islamic fundamentalist fanatic.”) One of the contributors on the website DailyKos wrote this:

CHEERS to finding a really evil needle in a really big haystack. U.S. forces rocked terrorist Abu Musab “Dick” al-Zarqawi’s world last night when they tossed a thousand pounds of explosive whupass down his gullet. They found his body in the bedroom. And the kitchen. And the den. And the garage. And the neighbor’s apartment. And I think I found an eyebrow in my Cocoa Puffs this morning. My only regret: he didn’t know what hit him.

What causes people to respond in such a gleeful and barbaric manner? Even though al-Zarqawi himself is charged with appallingly violent and brutal crimes that were committed with no respect for human life, how can anyone respond to another’s death with such frivolousness? The writer is clearly reveling in his ghastly descriptions in a manner that makes me suspect that for him these are just words, that sudden violent death is nothing that he has seen personally or had happen to anyone he knew.

Contrast this with the response of Michael Berg (the father of Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded by al-Zarqawi) on hearing the same news:

Well, my reaction is I’m sorry whenever any human being dies. Zarqawi is a human being. He has a family who are reacting just as my family reacted when Nick was killed, and I feel bad for that.

I feel doubly bad, though, because Zarqawi is also a political figure, and his death will re-ignite yet another wave of revenge, and revenge is something that I do not follow, that I do want ask for, that I do not wish for against anybody. And it can’t end the cycle. As long as people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence.

The incredulous CNN interviewer tries to get a more vindictive and bloodthirsty response by reminding Berg of the brutal way his own son died, and asks him “[A]t some point, one would think, is there a moment when you say, ‘I’m glad he’s dead, the man who killed my son’?” Michael Berg replies “No. How can a human being be glad that another human being is dead?”

Michael Berg’s reaction to the death of his son’s murderer will be incomprehensible to many people because we have got so used to thinking that revenge killing is an honorable thing, something to be excused, or desired, even exulted over. The targeted killings of political enemies is now routinely celebrated, and the possibility of capturing them alive is not even considered, dismissed as a sign of pusillanimity. ‘Real men,’ it is believed, kill the ‘bad guys’ and ‘evildoers’ and then laugh and boast about it. Our childish language matches our cartoonish attitude towards grave issues of life and death.

But let’s pause and think about this for a minute. If we celebrate and justify summary executions when it is done by our own government, how can we condemn it when it is done against us by suicide bombers? Just as much as the level of our commitment to free speech is truly measured by how willing we are to protect the speech of those whose ideas we despise, so is our humanity measured by how we respond to the deaths of those whose actions we loathe.

vietnamchildren.jpgEach war has its iconic pictures and the ones that affect me most are not the headshots of the corpses of well known figures like Saddam Hussein’s sons (Uday and Qusay) and al-Zarqawi that are splashed in large color photographs across the front pages of newspapers, as if they were trophies. What moves me are the pictures of children affected by war. The picture that I will always remember about Vietnam is the one that shows a crying young child running away with others from the scene of a bombing, her clothes and skin burned from the napalm dropped on her village, smoke from its ruins billowing in the background.

Iraqchild.jpgFor Iraq, the picture that haunts me is the one that shows a blood-spattered terrified Iraqi child just after US soldiers had killed her parents as they were traveling in their car near a checkpoint. I have seen some truly grisly and stomach churning pictures of the casualties of the car bombings and shootings and bombings of the Iraq war, of children and old people, men and women, their dead and mutilated bodies captured in indelible images that have never been seen by most people. But there is something about this picture of a grief stricken little crying child, cowering under the gun of a heavily armed soldier, her upturned supplicating hands stained with the blood of her parents, that fills me with an almost unbearable sadness.

I will never forget these pictures. They are seared in my memory as symbols of the atrocity of war. Each time I see or remember them I feel sick at the level of brutality to which we have sunk.

War is not a game. It creates monsters while at the same time destroying people and societies in unspeakable ways. The cycle of killing and counter killing, death and retribution, revenge and counter-revenge usually ends up with mostly the innocent dying.

And now it has taken the lives of my friends Chandi and Anula. Ordinary people. Living ordinary lives. Just like you and me.

Saving the internet: The importance of net neutrality

[UPDATE: Read this Democracy Now transcript for clarifications on the net neutrality issue.]

After singing the praises of the internet in the last three posts, it is now time to sound the alarm. There are serious threats underway to undermine the very features of the internet that have made it the democratizing force it has been so far, and these efforts should be resisted strongly. Last night, the House of Representatives voted down (268-152) an amendment that would have placed into law a provision that would ensure something called ‘net neutrality.’ The issue now goes before the Senate. Founders of the web like Tim Berners-Lee argue that we could be entering a ‘dark period’ in which a few suppliers would be able to determine what users could do and see on the web.

Here’s the issue. Currently, you (the end user) can use any browser you like and go to any site that you want and the speed and ease with which you can access them is largely determined by the content creators and consumers: i.e., the server at the other end and your own computer. The general features of the connecting medium (whether cable, phone line, or wireless) play a neutral role in this process. Think of the medium like the role that roads play in transport. Everyone can use them equally, although each user may use a different kind of vehicle.

But the big telecommunication companies (telcos) that own that connecting medium (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth) are arguing that since they are the ones who own that infrastructure, they should be able to use that control to generate additional revenue by providing different levels of service (affecting speed and quality) depending on how much people pay. It is as if all roads become toll roads and how much access you get to them, how quickly you could get on them, and how fast you can go on them is determined by how much you pay the road owners.

As the Washington Post reported on December 1, 2005:

A senior telecommunications executive said yesterday that Internet service providers should be allowed to strike deals to give certain Web sites or services priority in reaching computer users, a controversial system that would significantly change how the Internet operates.

William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.

Or, Smith said, his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth’s offering.

This has huge ramifications for the internet, as the website points out. Here’s a sample of the threats (more complete list here):

Google users – Another search engine could pay dominant Internet providers like AT&T to guarantee the competing search engine opens faster than Google on your computer.
Ipod listeners -A company like Comcast could slow access to iTunes, steering you to a higher-priced music service that it owned.
Political groups – Political organizing could be slowed by a handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups to pay “protection money” for their websites and online features to work correctly.
Online purchasers – Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices – distorting your choice as a consumer.
Bloggers – Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips – silencing citizen journalists and putting more power in the hands of a few corporate-owned media outlets.

The telcos are using their money (and correspondingly huge lobbying muscle) to try and get legislation through Congress to enable them to do this, and are being fought by grassroots groups. It is speculated that one reason that phone companies so easily (and secretly) gave phone records over to the government in its NSA phone monitoring program was because they were trying to curry favor with the administration concerning this legislation, hoping for this big payoff in return.

This is an important issue and could determine whether the internet remains an egalitarian force or goes down the road of big corporation control that way that newspapers, radio and TV did. In the early days of each of those media forms, it was relatively easy for people to enter into it. It did not cost a lot of money to start a newspaper or radio station, although TVs were more expensive. But then big companies aided by a friendly Congress started dominating the field and nowadays one has to have enormous wealth to start up. In the case of radio and TV, the government has colluded with the big companies by taking the public airways (the broadcast spectrum) and giving it away free to private companies to make exorbitant profits. If you or I were to start a radio and TV station and broadcast it over the public airways, we would be prosecuted.

Newspapers, radio, and TV have ceased to be representative of the interests of ordinary people because they are not owned by them. They now represent the interests of their owners and shareholders. It is the internet, still an embryo medium, that still has the ease of entry to make it a democratizing force because, at least in principle, anyone can gain access to it to spread ideas. It is this that is threatened by the attacks on net neutrality. History has shown that once we let the big companies muscle in and dominate a media system, we cannot get it back.

Considering how much we all use the internet, this issue has been surprisingly below the radar. People seem to assume that the internet will always be the way it is now. But just as the democratic aspects of the internet were not an accident but deliberately designed to be so by its pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee, keeping it that way will also require deliberate efforts by us. We cannot take it for granted.

Case has many tech-savvy people who have a much better idea of the implications of surrendering net neutrality to the big telcos. Lev Gonick, Case’s Vice President for Information Technology as early as last year had a very detailed and informative post on this topic. We need to build more awareness on this important issue. Perhaps we should have a concerted effort, with more bloggers expressing their views on this issue.

For more information on this topic, see the very helpful FAQ put out by the Save The Internet coalition.

Why I love the internet-3: How blogs have changed the pundit game.

In the previous post, I discussed that the main role of columnists and pundits was to act as sheepdogs for us, herding us into pens that limit the range of opinions we are allowed to express and be taken ‘seriously.’ To be frank, I rarely read any of the newspaper columnists anymore. However, since they do appear regularly in the Plain Dealer, I occasionally glance at them while reading the paper. I can usually predict what they are going to say on any given issue and the first paragraph usually confirms my prediction. There is almost never any new information or data or perspective that I find enlightening, whether it be from the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ columnists. But what those columns do give me one useful piece of information and that is to tell me is what the acceptable range of conventional wisdom is, what I am supposed to think.
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Why I love the internet-2: Bypassing the official pundits

Yesterday I discussed how blogs and other forms of alternative media on the internet prevented Stephen Colbert’s speech to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner from being ignored. But that is not the only benefit of the internet. The more important innovation may be the rise of blogs as alternative and better sources of news analysis and commentary.
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Why I love the internet

Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, where he ripped into the President and the assembled insider media right to their faces, was broadcast only on C-Span and initially buried by the offended media. When it became clear that many people were talking about it, the elite commentators sniffed and said that they had not thought much of the speech.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who can invariably be counted on for conventional wisdom, parroted the standard line in an unintentionally hilarious piece where he said that Colbert wasn’t funny and was in fact rude and a bully to say mean things to that nice Mr. President. In writing this, Cohen was demonstrating again how craven the mainstream press is, so anxious to curry favor with the powerful.

What made Cohen’s column so humorous was that he started out by asserting that he was an expert on comedy, saying: “First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to “say something funny”- as if the deed could be done on demand.”

It is well known in every circle that anyone who actually has to say that he is funny is already pretty pathetic, and to appeal to one’s reputation in elementary school as evidence is to enter the world of self-parody and to practically beg to be made fun of. And few do ridicule better than Penn State professor Michael Berube, who has been having fun at Cohen’s expense for some time now, at one time issuing an appeal to his readers to come to the aid of Cohen because he was in danger of running out of ways to be wrong. You simply must read Berube’s brutally funny takedown of Cohen’s Colbert column.

What added to the general merriment in the blog world was that Cohen then wrote a subsequent column complaining about how so many nasty people were now being mean to him by ridiculing his original Colbert column. This brought on another round of ridicule, this time aiming at his whiny self-pitying. Ah, the fun never ends with young Richard! I do not doubt Cohen’s claim that the other children in his elementary school were in stitches when he was around, but I think he misinterprets the reasons why.

In days gone by, very few of us (especially people like me with no cable) would have heard about Colbert’s speech and even then would only have had the opinions of gatekeepers like Cohen to enlighten us. Those of us who disagreed with Cohen’s supercilious tone and suspected that there was more to the story would have seethed but would have had no recourse. He would have remained secure in his media bubble, blissfully thinking that people actually took his pontificating seriously. But with the internet, Cohen received his comeuppance swiftly and widely, and there is no doubt that he is aware that there is a different world out there. He cannot simply say ridiculous stuff and think that having an august perch in one of the major news outlets will protect him. He may not like this new state of affairs, but he has to deal with it.

In the pre-internet days, Colbert’s actual speech would have disappeared, leaving behind barely a ripple. But thanks to the internet, the story of that dinner speech spread like wildfire thanks to blogs and millions have seen it online (start at about the 51:30 mark), read the transcript, commented on the speech, and passed it on. The ignoring of the speech by most of the traditional media only made the story even more interesting in the world of blog-driven political readership.

Read Arianna Huffington’s summary of the impact the speech has had. See here for my take on it.

This is why I love the internet and the blogs. They have broken the stranglehold of elite opinion makers who can pontificate without content and close ranks around each other and the political establishment. People can now get news and information from many more sources and have access to people who can analyze the news critically and piercingly, people who have no interest in ingratiating themselves to those in power, and thus can say what they mean, even if they become pariahs.

I.F. Stone would have loved it.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting website

I have been introduced to a fascinating new website called MachinesLikeUs. The site’s welcome message pretty clearly lays out its premises, all of which I enthusiastically agree with. is a resource for those interested in evolutionary thought, cognitive science, artificial life and artificial intelligence. It encourages relevant scientific research and analysis, posts current news and disseminates articles that promote the following concepts: 1) Evolution is the guiding principle behind life on earth; 2) Religions and their gods are human constructs, and subject to human foibles; 3) Life and intelligence are emergent properties based upon fundamental mechanics, and, as such, are reproducible; 4) Living organisms are magnificent machines – robust, dynamic, self-sufficient, precisely tuned to their environment – and deserving our respect and study. You are invited to participate in the venerable quest.

The site provides a great set of links to recent news items about scientific findings in these areas and articles that deal with the above issues. The editor has generously included some of my own blog entries on his site.

Seeing the world through Darwin’s eyes

It is good to be back and blogging again!

On my trip to Australia, I had the chance to see some of the marsupial animals that are native to that continent, and as I gazed at these strange and wondrous creatures, I asked myself the same question that all visitors to the continent before me must have asked: Why are these animals so different from the ones I am familiar with? After all, Australia’s environment is not that different from that found in other parts of the world, but the fact that most marsupials (like kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and wombats) are found only on that continent is remarkable. I was stunned to learn that when a kangaroo is born, it weighs less than one gram. This is because much of the development of the newborn (which occurs in other animals inside the womb of the mother) takes place in the pouch for marsupials.
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