If the business is a media company, like (just for example) The New Republic (or whoever owns them this week), the customer is advertisers. That means the product is you, dear reader, or more specifically the fifteen seconds of your attention that it takes to get a click-through. “North Korea’s threatening to nuke the West Coast? My friend’s cousin’s grandmother lives in San Diego, that’s terrible! Oooh, five foods I should never ever eat, I wonder what those are?” And in recent “news”, TNR are at least honest enough about their “prey on your fears” strategy to write shit like this:
That is, in fact, the real title. I am shitting thee negative; click on through if you don’t believe me. This is the introductory article in TNR‘s new series Threats, which they describe as an intermittent assessment of everyday risks.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention to the occasional OMGWTFBBQ washing across the bow of the internet for the past five years — or decades — you might recognize some of the article’s themes. “Artificial sweeteners cause cancer! No wait, now they’re harmless! Now they cause obesity! Somehow! My hovercraft is full of eels!” Throw in a few to-be-sure debunkings of safely historical moral panics and vague semi-literate references to epidemiological studies (my favourite, as ever), and you end up with a thousand-odd words full of sound and fury, signifying only the ominously vague conclusion that “scientists” aren’t sure that aspartame and &c. aren’t bad for you. After jacking up your cortisol and catecholamines with buzzword after terrifying buzzword — obesity! Cancer! Diabetes! — the author limp-dicks to an end with this flaccidity:
For now the rich and educated drink diet soda, figuring it helps more than it hurts, but artificial sweeteners may soon fall victim to another shift in sensibility. If that happens, it probably won’t be on account of new or better science. As far as we can tell right now, it doesn’t really matter whether you drink diet soda or not. The risks are insignificant—and so are the benefits.
Yup. “Threats”, the new assessment of shit that might maybe kill ya, ducked and weaved through an obstacle course of TERRIFYING SHIT to tell you – meh. But I bet it got you to scroll past a banner ad!
Now, some of you are grumbling about the evils of advertising, for-profit journalism, “the capitalistic system”, and all that. You’re about to hop down to the comment form to pollute my lovely blog with your earnest beliefs that if only we had a publicly-funded news media we’d be able to avoid all that grubbing about for filthy lucre and focus on the noble cause of delivering truth to the informed citizen. Well, my friends, I gotcha covered. Here’s the Public Broadcasting System delivering truth:
The “dangerous chemical” involved here is hexavalent chromium, which is indeed a nasty little fucker in sufficient concentration. But, well… it turns out that PBS is only delivering truthiness, for as Ars Technica point out they’ve neglected to discover the basic toxicological axiom that the poison is in the dose:
Looks like someone has chronically elevated levels of the journalism majors, amirite?
Follow that link to the PBS website, and you’ll find plenty of banner ads… for other PBS shows. So who’s the customer? PBS is, of course, they’re the ones advertising at you. In this case, though, your job isn’t to click on a banner ad or “take our short survey”, it’s to call your Congressshitbag and insist that, future generations and debt-service payments be damned, not one cent of the PBS budget should be cut!
Because if it weren’t for the media, who would scare you? You might actually have to go watch a Rob Zombie movie, like a peasant.
Wrote about 800 words on the topic of “why increased access to postsecondary ed isn’t going to do a fucking thing about income inequality” before I realized that the argument to which I was responding existed only in my imagination. Alas; I was having fun.
Beer note: Howe Sound’s come out with a Super Jupiter Grapefruit IPA. It is tasty but unexpectedly diffident. Recommended if you like the “aftertaste you can time on a sundial” aspect of most IPAs but don’t particularly enjoy being beaten about the palate with a sledgehammer of hops. Otherwise, Total Eclipse is apparently now a year-round offering rather than a seasonal, which is to say FUCK YEAH!
I plan to write a bit more about autoregulated lifting — one can call it “cybernetic periodization”, which sounds cool to this child of the Cyberpunk era — in the near future. I should probably do some more of it before I sound off.
In much the same way that a programmer is an organic reactor that turns caffeine into code, a blogger is an organic reactor that turns memes, or quizzes, or even better meme-quizzes into content. So by way of LabRat we discover…
Actually it’s called “Doubting Atheism”, which strikes me as a much less interesting title. I identify as a militantly apathetic agnostic — I don’t know, I don’t care, and you can’t make me — but that gets me lumped into “atheist” the same way that anarchocapitalist liberaltarian gets me lumped into “conservative” so fuck it, here’s some responses to a bit more than a dozen annoying “gotcha” questions that totally aren’t intended to make me look like a narrow-minded douche.
1. Why are atheists so obsessed with religion?
I grew up immersed in it. This isn’t a dig at my parents, or anyone else for that matter — it’s just that anglospheric life is more or less planted in Christianity in the same way as Greco-Latin ideas about governance and philosophy, so it’s impossible to avoid uptaking some of it by osmosis. I find faith — perhaps I should go back to the Platonists and call it Faith — impossible to grasp unless I’ve read Kierkegaard in the past week, but my reflexive expression of annoyance is usually some variant on oh Christ here we go again.
Oh Christ, here we go again:
Given atheism, nothing really matters since it’s not going to last. So, again I ask you, why bother with religion and its negative effects?
Complex question, let me show you it. Militant atheism hasn’t been a “thing” for about five years, but glibly assuming that all atheists are militant sure makes me want to read some Christopher Hitchens. Have you stopped hating gays yet? (Annoying when someone does it to you, isn’t it?)
2. Why are atheists so obsessed with monotheistic religions? (You know the ones: Christianity, Judaism, Islam)
20 GOTO 10. The three named religions (I’ll be gracious and assume that the author is much deeper into the religious studies literature than I am, and has scholarly consensus that only the three usual suspects are monotheistic) are all based on the same meta-tale, so since I grew up in a medium that naturally assumed the Abrahamic God as a given I kind of care a bit more about those than I do, say, Zoroastrianism. Also, politics.
3. How do atheists explain the beginning of the universe?
I find Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to be rather compelling. Oh, you haven’t read it? Too bad; I guess you don’t care much about what “atheists” think.
But again, we’re begging the question. Who says I have to have an explanation for everything? I don’t, and I don’t pretend to. I’m not fussed about certainty about Grand Questions like the beginning of the universe (which name makes a rather large assumption — see previous comment about Anglospherics being immersed in Greco-Latin philosophy).
Also, stop doing this:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Syllogisms — back to the unquestioned immersion in Greco-Latin philosophy — are only as good as their premises. This one’s premises are justified by nothing more than sputtering and hand-waving.
4. How do atheists explain away objective moral values?
First I point at Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Then I point at the Deirdre McCloskey books on my shelf as evidence that I don’t nearly have it all figured out yet.
Speaking of syllogisms resting on rather suspect foundations:
Objective moral values are ones that are independent of human thought. If God doesn’t exist, they wouldn’t exist either.
The unspoken assumption that (a) “objective moral values” exist is doing a hell (heh heh) of a lot of work here; given the presence of theodicies I submit that it’s far from axiomatic. But we’re four for four on Complex Question fallacies so far; I don’t know why I’m surprised.
5. How do materialists justify immaterial realities?
Hang on, what?
Logic, math, morality, and other things such as free will, human dignity, and time exist.
Oh for fuck’s sake, put down the joint and read Douglas Hofstadter for the next month. And shut up about “time” until you’ve read Hawking’s A Brief History Of it.
Logic does not exist independent of its formulation by humans, as anyone who’s taken a look at a 400-level philosophy syllabus will be able to verify. Math is remarkably similar, and if you look up elliptic and hyperbolic geometry on those handy Wikipedia links I just gave you you’ll get some inkling as to how self-consistent but not-really-physical mathematical systems can be constructed. Morality we’ve discussed above. Free will is still an open question when philosophers hang out in bars. The existence of human dignity is rather strongly refuted by the historical record.
Seriously, quit begging the fucking question.
But since you must know:
But if God doesn’t exist, matter would be all there is, since there’d be nothing to be the foundation of immaterial things. Everything would come through by matter, and thus, be matter. How can atheists give an answer to this argument?
The varieties of math that gain traction among “do-stuff” people like physicists and engineers are the ones that are useful for actually describing the behaviour of matter. There are a thundering herd of other systems of axiomata that could be called “math” but don’t tell you how stress distributes across a bridge or how covalent bonds behave, and they might get you published but they won’t get you as famous as Newton or Gauss. That kind of pragmatic utility turns out to be a pretty good foundation for “immaterial things” that are actually relevant to the material.
6. How do atheists explain the existence of the universe?
This is actually the same question as 3., above, and has the same two-part answer:
a) Read Hawking
b) It’s occasionally nice to think that one has an explanation for the existence of the universe, but since at least one universe actually exists it’s not necessary.
7. How do you explain away circumstantial evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?
I’d snark about this, but I’m so pleased that someone used “circumstantial evidence” properly that I’ll give this one a pass. The evidence actually proffered by the source page isn’t particularly circumstantial, but hey, I said I wouldn’t quibble. Much.
8. If the gospels are just pieces of historical fiction, why are there embarrassing details in there?
For the same reason that Mary Sue fanfic isn’t as well-received as Shakespeare: Conflict makes for a more compelling story. If the gospels are “just pieces of historical fiction”, rather than expressions of received truth from their authors.
9. If we are just matter, and not souls, why would some atheists support life-sentences?
I thought this was going to be a brutally ethical “why not just kill every criminal, we’re all going to die anyway?” question. But it’s actually a bit more interesting than that:
The matter in our body is totally changed out every seven years. If Cartesian dualism—a view I embrace—is false, and we are just matter, that means I am not the same person as I was seven years ago. And this is also true for a criminal.The justice system is completely futile if atheism is true. If matter is who we are, why don’t we change as our matter changes?
Structure matters. If atoms come and atoms go, but the arrangement of neurons in the brain stays the same, has anything really changed? Not if it’s the structures making the decisions rather than the atoms. Also, I can’t let this go without quoting Labrat’s rebuttal:
If the human body were completely renewed every seven years, tattoos would have an expiration date (I have one I’ve had for eleven years, I’m PRETTY SURE IT’S NOT TRUE), and people with paralysis and brain damage would only need to wait seven years to be all better again. Plus, uh, aging wouldn’t exist at all. And… I’m pretty sure having some new cells doesn’t make you a completely different person because I live in reality and that doesn’t happen.
10. Why do so many atheists deny historical facts?
The question. You’re begging it. Again.
11. Why do most atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Denette, equivocate evolution with atheism?
“I just cited the historical record; now I’m going to completely ignore it.” Nice one. You might also want to look up “equivocate”.
By now you’re probably tired of “atheists aren’t just a straw-man you have in your head” as an answer, so let’s go with something different: Your premise is foxtrot uniform, but suppose it’s genuinely true. Why don’t I actually question everything? Because it’d be fucking exhausting to do so, and it seems like a better use of drunken contemplation to question the existence of an all-loving sky-god who loves me so much he’s going to condemn me to unimaginable torment for eternity than to question the existence of the colour pink. On the other hand, I can do math, so the latter is pretty easy to resolve.
13. Where do rights come from?
Murray Rothbard, bitch; read the fucking book.
14. How can there be no objective evil, but religion causes it?
Follow this link. See that border collie on the sidebar? That’s the expression I’m giving you right now.
First you ask me two or three questions that assume I embrace the concept of objective evil, then you ask me a question that assumes I don’t. That’s pretty classic mindfucking. I’m not leaving you alone with my drink, because I can’t remember ever liking the taste of Rohypnol.
15. Why are there no good reasons to believe atheism is true?
Because positions on matters of faith aren’t amenable to “good reasons”. Didn’t I cite Kierkegaard way back up there sixteen hundred words ago?
Seriously. Words. Read them.
(I apologize to all y’all religious folk reading this blog post.)
So there’s been an awful lot of discussion on the Big Truck about the GOP’s rather optimistic interpretations of the polls, which gave rise to (among others) George Will gleefully predicting a landslide victory in the electoral college. Well, there was a landslide EC victory all right, but it didn’t exactly go his way. It turns out that if you want to use numbers to determine which of two things is larger, you’re probably better off with a Bayesian statistical model rather than a sheer fucking fantasy model. Just saying “our model predicts such-and-so” only gives you the appearance of credibility until reality intervenes.
People can say whatever they like, of course, and if partisan hacks didn’t spout off nonsense I’d have a lot fewer things to blog about. Still, it’s about time the truly fantastical ideologues got some push-back.
On a similar note: Remember when Citizens United was going to destroy democracy as we know it because those evil awful one-percenters were going to just buy every election in perpetuity? I remember that like it was last Monday, which in fact it was. Yeah, about that:
Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite. Obama and other Democrats had long made dire predictions about the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and created a new class of wealthy political groups.
I don’t need to tell you how that turned out, do I? In the cold light of day it’s clear that voters are a heck of a lot less vulnerable to teh ebil advertisings than the Cassandras among us would like to portend. Why, it’s almost as if the dire predictions of unlimited plutocracy were mere ideological bloviations after all!
People can say whatever they like, of course, and if partisan hacks didn’t spout off nonsense I’d have a lot fewer things to blog about. Still, it’s about time the truly fantastical ideologues got some push-back.
One of these days I’d like to use the very same title for a blog post about postsecondary inflation in Alaska, just to fuck with people.
Anyway, the Globe and Mail is running a pretentiously-titled feature on postsecondary education in Canada called “Our Time To Lead”. It features this rather exhaustive discussion of our higher-ed bubble:
As per the standard template for these stories, it leads off with a Special Snowflake who shuns the sciences for an Arts degree, claims to find that “it’s more important to be happy than financially secure”, and “always thought of [an undergraduate education] as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” Cue juxtaposition with a multicredentialed graduate whose Master’s degrees in History and Education can’t get him a job as a schoolteacher in Toronto, so he’s folding towels at a gym alongside teenagers he’d like to be teaching. And, of course:
And to think, he says, he once looked down on high-school friends for heading west after Grade 12 to land jobs in the oil industry.
“I thought they didn’t understand the importance of university. Now, I see them beginning a phase of life I wanted to have right now,” he says.
You know what they say, guys: Syncrude’s always hiring.
You will find the list of complaints that follows to be tediously familiar:
Students saddened when they don’t feel “challenged” or “engaged” by two hundred-seat first-year lectures taught (variously) by distant, distracted, research-focused professors or harried, harassed, and underpaid adjuncts and TAs;
Faculty frustrated with undergraduates who arrive ill-prepared, who can neither construct a sentence nor factor a quadratic, and who “prefer to amble leisurely through a four-year degree like consumers ordering an education to go”; and
Employers exasperated with graduates who present themselves without critical communication and problem-solving skills.
We’ll charitably look past the juxtaposition of undergrads who see university as a temple of Higher Learning, rather than a crass skill-factory churning out employees for consumption by the Great Corporate Maw, and those that complain that they’re not being taught relevant job skills. Perhaps those two sets of students are independent. (Perhaps, if you were in the second set, you even know what it means for two sets to be independent — although if you’re anything like the comp-sci undergrads alongside whom I suffered you probably don’t consider set algebra to be a relevant job skill. If that’s the case, then God willing, your DBA will drag you out into the parking lot and beat you with a rubber hose like your Intro Databases prof should have. Look: Now even I’m complaining about Universities These Days.)
The verbiage that follows contains an eloquent anecdote in support of the signaling theory of education:
The head of a trucking company told Dr. Weingarten that he hired only university grads as truckers. The cab of a truck is complicated, he said, as are the logistics of warehousing. In any case, “if I have two students come to me, both prepared to be a truck driver and work for x amount of money, and one of them has a degree, why shouldn’t I hire the university grad?”
It also points to a rather compelling story about the inflation of the higher-ed bubble, at least on this side of the 49th (opening caveat obviously excluded), which begins with this delightful piece of omphaloskepsis:
“Whom does the university serve – the students, their families, the faculty?” asks Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential, which explores how the system’s failure to manage a growing student population has eroded the quality and value of a degree. “As long as they are publicly funded institutions, shouldn’t we be focused on how we serve society as a whole?”
Are universities — and/or university educations — designed or expected to serve “society as a whole”? We surely shovel enough public funds at them. (Sorry, homeless people, Ken Coates needs a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation! Maybe we’ll build you a shelter next fiscal year.) Indeed they are, as Canada’s fourth most-beloved Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, would tell you:
[T]he loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged – the qualities Mr. Pearson lauded when he told the students that a degree called on them “to serve their country” and not themselves.
(It is perhaps too lofty an ambition of journalism programmes to create writers who can use the Oxford Comma properly. We’ll let that pass.)
This is a bit of a creepy ambition to rabid individualists like me — it reads like a tepid Canadian mandate to transform malleable, putty-like young adults into a rather diffident set of New Socialist Men. But have a read at another Pearson sound bite:
“Will the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demand and the dimensions of a knowledge economy?”
Maybe the best way to serve your country rather than yourself would be to forego that taxpayer-subsidized four-year vacation in the Land of the Liberal Arts and pick up a B.Sc. and a good job in that knowledge economy, eh hippy? It brings to mind this admonition from P. J. O’Rourke’s commencement address:
Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society.
How many people are willing to chain themselves to a seventy-hour work week in order to “do good for society” by bumping themselves into the highest tax bracket? Some sacrifices, especially the chronic and banal, are too great to make for an abstract ideal. Fuck civic virtue. But don’t let’s pretend that you’re serving your country by studying Keats and Kant rather than Kronecker and Kepler.
There’s a less theoretical and more immediate benefit to shovelling people into post-secondary institutions, too: It keeps them out of the unemployment numbers.
As James Côté, co-author of Lowering Higher Education, points out, the government’s postsecondary cheerleading solved the supply problem of youth labour by parking them on campus. But it failed to plan for how graduates would find work related to their field of study. Canada has one of the highest graduate underemployment rates among Western countries, swelling the ranks of Keats-quoting baristas.
The classical education so beloved by fictional terrorist Hans Grüber, and which is the inspiration for if not the fact of many modern Bachelor’s of Arts curricula, is an aristocratic relic. It’s a nostalgic throwback to a class and age when gainful employment was considered vulgar rather than laudable. It, along with with the marked diaeresis, should perhaps be reëxamined.