Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

A few months ago I listened to an interview with the author Jon Ronson about his new documentary book The Men Who Stare at Goats. The interview was very lighthearted and so I thought the book would be a fun read. As I read one chapter after another what started out as a lighthearted view of some of the silly stuff that our tax dollars have paid for soon turned into a very disturbing expose’ of the insanity that goes on under the moniker of Special Ops.
The book is a story about Ronson’s investigation of the US military’s experiments on all sorts of pseudoscientific projects. Soon after Vietnam the military began to reconsider much of its fighting strategy. Nothing was taken off of the table. With the assistance of a few men with some downright crazy ideas they began to serious talk about the formation of a special ops battalion that had Jedi powers. They even referred to themselves as warrior monks and honestly believed that they could psychically influence their enemies to surrender just by using their mind, comforting colors and subliminal sounds. The most advanced of these “warrior monks” believed they could literally walk through walls and psychically stop the heart of an enemy just by concentrating hard enough, hence the title of the book. Ronson spent two years trying to track down the one guy who he was told had actually killed a goat by starring at it only to find out that the best he could do was to make a hamster behave oddly.
These chapters were funny and a little bit amusing. The later chapters took a far more serious tone. Rosnon shows that many of the very same people who thought they could star a goat to death were also behind a group that thought they could remote view, or psychically project their vision and get advance intelligence. One of these “viewers” left the military and started predicting all sorts of prophecies on am radio shows. Eventually one of his failed predictions led to the mass suicides of the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult.
Some of the more perverse of these psychic techniques were adapted by the more mainstream military and intelligence departments. Ronson interviews a British citizen who was captured by the US military and subjected to all sorts of torture and abuse for two years while he was held captive at Guantanamo Bay. Ronson was able to show a pretty convincing link between these activities and some of the original proposals set forth when they tried to for the battalion of “warrior monks”.
In the process of doing some background research and fact checking the book I noticed that this book is being made into a movie staring Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. The movie is billed as a comedy. It’d have to be a very dark comedy. Also none of the names of characters match the real people named in the book. I can only assume that the names were changed for the movie or that the movie will be only loosely based on the book.
My biggest criticism of the book was its lack of footnotes and sources. I have a big bias towards heavily footnoted books.
I have a big problem with people and organizations that don’t base their actions and opinions on facts and reason. This book is a bright light on those in the US Military who wish to wage war based on illogic, superstition and magical thinking.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Aristotle and and Aardvark

A year or so ago I read Plato and a Platypus and really enjoyed it. I thought that using jokes and then explaining the philosophy behind why they were funny was a great introduction to philosophy. I now find that many of the jokes are even funnier after reading the book. Plato and a Platypus should be required reading in conjunction with a PHIL 101 course.
So when I saw that Cathcart and Klien had another book, this one about politics, I rushed out to get it. Aristotle and an Aardvark followed right in line with Plato and a Platypus and used jokes to explain a lot of what goes on with our elected officials. I was a little disappointed at first. I was expecting this book to be equally supportive of an introduction to political science class as the first book was to philosophy. I enjoyed reading the book but the topic leaned more towards a critical thinking course. Rather than explain the different types of government through jokes they criticized statements and jokes made by politicians and then showed the logical hopscotch that they were employing in order to persuade you their way. In many ways I liked it better than I would have a book about the political theory. Identifying logical fallacies has always been a pet favorite of mine.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My Review of Death from the Skies

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction. I particularly like stories where the science is as correct as possible. Don’t get me wrong, Star Wars was fun but it’s hardly scientifically plausible. The best you could call it would be science fantasy. My favorite science fiction author is Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s stories are rooted in hard science. In his stories you understood the rules. He didn’t defy the laws of physics to tell his story. He worked with them. Rather than being a limitation his strict philosophy made the stories easier to understand and added much more depth than if he had just invented magical ideas like warp drive or light sabers to tell his story. I’ve heard some friends criticize Clarke saying that the science got in the way of the story. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. In Clarke’s stories the story was just a way to express his love of science. With Clarke the science was the ultimate goal.
I’ve just finished reading another book that reminded me a lot of Clarke because of the strict adherence to real science. Death from the Skies by Phil Plait Ph.D is not even disguised as a fiction book. Phil is a real astronomer and the proprietor of one of my favorite blogs, badastronomy. The book is a real science book. Phil goes chapter by chapter to describe the myriad of ways that the universe is out to destroy us and he does not miss a single detail.
The thing that made me think of Clarke as I read it was the interesting vehicle he used to introduce each new concept. At the beginning of each chapter Phil adds a three or four page fictional story of the world as we know it coming to an end. Each story is different from the next and unrelated to the previous. In one life on Earth is destroyed by a solar flare. In another it’s aliens. In another it’s a gamma-ray burster. It was really a fun way to grab your interest and keep you reading through the rest of the details.
Phil is a great writer. His funny personality and childlike love of astronomy comes across on every page. Nowhere does the book become tedious.
In spite of the doom and gloom title this is a very upbeat and positive book. Yes all of the dangerous events described in the book are theoretically possible, however most are extremely improbably. And the most probable scenarios may even be preventable and he goes into great detail how we could do it. You won't finish this book and be afraid to go outside. On the contrary, I felt even more of a desire to go outside, stare at the stars and ponder the possibilities.
I really enjoyed this book. If you’re considering picking up a science fiction book please consider Death from the Skies. No question the science will be better and you’ll be educated and entertained as well.

Please also check of Phil's blog.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Problem with Analogies

As I’ve explained before I tend to think in analogies. If I can take a complex concept and express it in terms that are more familiar to me I can wrap my mind around it a little quicker. I’ve also found that I tend to do the opposite as well. I use analogies to explain things that I understand to people who don’t. For the most part I believe that analogies are very effective, but they do have their limitations.
No analogy is a perfect analog of something else. At some point the analogy will break down or even be counter productive.
Secondly, sometimes the analog is just as or even more confusing to your target audience than the initial subject you are trying to explain.
I recently read two books on the subject of human decision making ability. Both of them uses analogies and real life examples to make their points. One was very effective and the other was not. In Why we Make Mistakes, early I the first chapter the author tells a story about commercial airline pilots who got so hung up on the trivial details that they literally flew their plane into the ground. The author referred back to this problem several time in the book and showed a similar pattern of people figuratively flying their plane into the ground.
Even though I’m not a pilot I felt that this analogy was very effective. Most of us can relate to a situation when we’ve been hung up on minor details and the big details have been neglected. Hallinan didn’t overuse the metaphor either. He just reminded us of it periodically to show that we can forgot very important details while trying to multi-task. All in all I thought the use of analogies in this book was very effective.
In start contrast to Why We Make Mistakes is How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer . The first couple chapters go extremely in depth into a football analogy. I don’t play football or watch it. I have a basic knowledge of the rules. However, Lehrer obviously assumed that his readers would love and understand football just as much as he does. In an attempt to explain that quarterbacks have to make split-second decisions he went way too far into details about different type of plays, scouting procedures, and many other rules that most football viewers would understand, but just went completely over my head. The only point he was trying to make was that in the heat of the game the quarterback doesn’t have time to weight all the pros and cons of each potential decision. They frequently have to react based on emotion. I get that. I didn’t need two chapters of confusing football analogies to make that point. As I started chapter 3 I put the book down when I saw that this book was becoming more about football than it was about human decision making.
So, analogies can be very effective as long as you don’t go too deep into them and as long as the analogy is still something with which your target audience is familiar

Thursday, April 02, 2009

An Open Letter to Larry King

Dear Mr King,
Tomorrow night you will be interviewing a very dangerous woman. Jenny McCarthy and her ridiculous stance against vaccines are endangering and have cost human lives. I would encourage you to cancel this interview and not to give her the pulpit to preach her nonsense to your audience. If a celebrity were to go on a campaign, writing book after book claiming that seat belts cause injuries it would be irresponsible for you not to call them out on it. That is exactly what Jenny McCarthy is doing except rather than life-saving seat belts it is the life-saving device vaccines that she has targeted for her expletive laced ire.

If you decide to still give her access to your prime time audience may I suggest a few questions?

1) Now that Dr. Andrew Wakefield has been proved to have serious conflict of interest problems as well having faked his data that supports the link between autism and the MMR vaccine, why are you continuing your campaign in spite of the massive evidence that you have been deceived by Dr. Wakefield?

2) Recently when questioned about the increase of measles and other vaccine preventable deaths you responded,
"I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their f___ing fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s s___. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism."

Are you seriously blaming the vaccine producer for the death of a child that didn't even use the product? I have a headache but I haven't taken any aspirin. Is it therefore Bayer's fault that I have a headache? I don't follow your logic here.

3) Pittsburgh is currently having an outbreak of measles. What would you say to the mothers of those patients, "Hey, at least they're not autistic."? Have you visited the bedside of any of these victims who are dying as martyrs for your cause?

4) Are you familiar with the website Do you have any response to their claims?

5) The last time were on the show you gave a list of vaccines to one of the doctors present and asked if all of them were really necessary. He responded by asking you which of those diseases you would like your son to contract. You didn't answer his question then so I'd like to hear your answer now. Of all the vaccine preventable illnesses out there which would you willingly put your child at risk of contracting? Polio? Measles? Haemophilus influenzae type b?

6) Years ago you were rather vocal about your son being an Indigo Child, that he was the next step in human evolution and had an indigo colored aura. Do you think that history helps or hinders your credibility as you now try to go head to head with doctors, scientist and immunologists to tell them what really causes and cures autism?

7) I am truly grateful that your son's condition is improving and becoming more manageable. However rather than thinking that you have cured him of autism, is it possible that his condition hasn't really gotten better but, that you are just growing used to the routine and things are going smoother than at first? Have you also considered the possibility that he may have been misdiagnosed? Either of these seems much more likely than a Playboy centerfold with no medical training at all just discovered the cause and cure of autism.

Mr. King, any one of these questions would be a welcome change from the slow easy pitches over the middle of the plate for which you have become so notorious. I will be watching tomorrow and I look forward to reviewing your interview favorably. But considering CNN's past treatment of this issue I won't be holding my breath.