Archive for the ‘argument’ Category

Clear thinking: vaccination


I really hate discovering irrationality in my thinking.

I hate seeing a cherished belief go up in smoke, not because of new evidence, but because I had been committing the sort of error that I was long ago trained to avoid.

Rational thinking, scientific skepticism – these are among my core values as a human. As such, it is very hard to watch people I love and respect express ideas or engage in actions that seem to contradict those values.

So, when a Facebook friend recently commented favourably on an article titled “Harvard Study Proves Unvaccinated Children pose no risk“, I went through a familiar and disquieting sequence:

  1. I wanted to scream at this friend, to tell them that they were wrong, to warn them away from the irrational and harmful anti-vaccination path. But of course, screaming at people rarely changes their minds. Even worse, it sets me up as an enemy, rather than as a potential ally in the search for the right answer. More awful yet, if I happen to be wrong on this point, this reaction would make it harder for my friend to correct me.
  2. I wanted to dig up a mountain of references to hurl at my friend, to help them see the error of their ways. Links to good, scientifically-sound rebuttals of the original article. Sadly, research has shown that even this approach tends to backfire – making someone even more committed to the false belief.
  3. I felt like letting it lie – there is no way for me to change my friend’s belief, so why even wade into that morass? But … but that’s not going to help anybody. At least one of us is wrong, and I want us to be as correct as possible. On anything. But especially something like this that can affect our health and our children’s health.

So what am I left with?

I am left with this: No strategy. No clever potted response. Just a conversation. An invitation.

My friend might be wrong. I might be wrong. I cannot force my friend to open their mind and accept my position, nor would I want to. That’s not how true understanding comes. What I can do is openly, publicly acknowledge my current position. I am more persuaded by the science of vaccines, and by critiques such as this one, than by the article my friend commented on.

Now, if anyone wants to have the discussion, I’m here. (“Here” means in the comments section of my blog, as well as on the Facebook post that it will create. It also means by email, for those who have my email, and any other venue that a person legitimately has for pursuing a discussion with me.)

(Once upon a time, I fantasized that my blog would be a way to reach thousands of people, to persuade and influence en masse. Today, I am content for it to be a platform to open one-on-one conversations. It may not be much, but it is enough.)


Does organic mean healthy?


This is the fourth in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 4: Organic does not mean healthy.

Well, I mentioned in the previous post of the series that I prefer to avoid the “organic” label. Now you will get to find out why.

We’ve already dealt with genetically modified foods, and concluded that there’s no evidence-based reason to avoid them. Organic certification as I understand it includes anti-GMO rules, as well as specifications about herbicides and pesticides that are permitted and prohibited. (No, “organic” does not mean “no herbicides or pesticides can be used”; it just means “only those herbicides and pesticides that we deem ‘natural’ can be used”.) Organic meat products have other rules relating to what you can put in the animals.

Looking through Government of Canada websites about organic agriculture, I have encountered some interesting little nuggets.

For example, in a document titled “Organic production systems – General principles and management standards“, the government is careful to note:

Neither this standard nor organic products produced in accordance with this standard represent specific claims about the healthiness, safety and nutrition of such organic products.

I read that in the light of this FAQ on the CBC website (many of whose links are dead now, sadly), which says near the top that

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted the Organic Products Regulations in June 2009, in large part to comply with stricter European requirements on exported produce.

Together, these two quotes suggest to me that the government’s motivation in producing organic labelling regulations was not to protect public health, but to protect Canadian agricultural trade. Both are, of course, noble goals. But if health was the issue, the organic standards would not, I think, be voluntary (as many of the pages I found were careful to note).

I put that up front just so people don’t ask whether the government’s involvement in organic certification is an implicit endorsement of the claims that organic agriculture produces food that is better for people’s health. The government explicitly refutes this claim, and they seem clearly to have had other legitimate motivations in promoting these regulations.

Okay, so much for the negative evidence: the government neither endorses nor (so far as I found) refutes the health claims of the organic industry.

Who does speak to these claims?

For fairness, I’ll offer the organic industry’s claim. This is from The Organic Center, an American non-profit research group whose goals seem to be to promote organic farming through research and advocacy. In their “Health benefits of organic” info sheet, they claim that:

  • Organic milk has 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.
  • Organic crops have higher cancer-fighting anti-oxidant levels.
  • Organic crops have 48% lower levels of cadmium than conventional crops.
  • Pesticides are found 4 times more frequently in conventional crops than organic crops.

That sounds pretty persuasive, doesn’t it? In the absence of context, that may seem to seal the case for organic being healthier. Here are some key questions you can ask, before you even read on:

  • Does the higher level of omega-3 in organic milk have a noticeable effect on human health?
  • Do the higher anti-oxidant levels in organic food actually reduce cancer in people who eat it, relative to those who eat conventionally-produced food?
  • Is the level of cadmium, or the levels of pesticides, found in conventional crops high enough to worry about?

But …

When I looked at sources that are neither industry-funded nor explicitly aimed at advocacy (as The Organic Center is), I found a resoundingly consistent message., a science-based nutrition resource run by health professionals independent of industry (organic or otherwise), offers various key nuggets of advice:

  • Scientific evidence is does not clearly suggest that there are any health benefits to eating organic foods.
  • Studies of specific nutrient content have variously shown organic foods to be:
    • higher in vitamin C, phosphorus, and phytochemicals.
    • lower in nitrogen and protein.
  • These differences, even if reliable, “have not been found to benefit nutrition or overall health.”
  • “In Canada, both organic and non-organic foods have to follow strict guidelines and are tested to make sure they are safe to eat.”
  • “While some organic products may be higher in a few nutrients and have lower amounts of some pesticide residues, what’s most important is that you eat a variety of healthy foods from Canada’s Food Guide.”

At Science-Based Medicine, medical doctor Steven Novella looks at recent (as of 2012) systematic reviews of studies. The takeaway is that

There is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce.

Novella also addresses the increased popularity of organic food.

Despite the scientific evidence, the alleged health benefits of organic produce is the number one reason given by consumers for buying organic. This likely represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.

The Mayo Clinic agrees that organic food is “probably not” more nutritious.

So far, the science seems to have soundly responded to the claims by The Organic Center. Those differences they cite, if real, don’t have a meaningful effect on human health.

But there’s more.

A 2012 article in the National Post points out that the voluntary nature of Canada’s organic regulations actually means that all the “organic” label means is that a producer has claimed to produce the food in a particular way: there is little to no testing to verify they are following the rules. Even more troubling is the finding in a 2014 study described on the Genetic Literacy Project, that “organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues like bacterial contamination.” In searching for the original research article (which I didn’t find – please let me know if you get hold of it), I came across this article on the CTV news site, which gave a list of products recalled earlier this year due to possible Listeria contamination. The word “organic” shows up a lot on that list.

As outlined in this article on CFACT, there is a heavy irony in the fact that an industry built on fear of unsafe substances in our food systematically allows an inordinate amount of proven-dangerous contaminants into the products it sells to consumers.

I want to offer two final considerations, that are not empirical evidence regarding the claim, but I think are material considerations for thinking about it. First, “organic” certification prohibits certain chemicals but allows others. In fact, whether it is natural or synthetic seems to be the only test regarding whether a chemical is permitted or not under the organic label. Actual safety isn’t a consideration. This report from Colorado points out that organic-approved pesticides and herbicides may be even more toxic than non-organic alternatives. (Hint: every substance is a chemical, whether it is “natural” or “synthetic”.)

And second, organic foods are more expensive. This has various causes. But one consequence is that (because organic and conventional food products turn out to be equally nutritious) you can buy less nutrition for the same money if you go organic. Not an issue for many middle-class people here and elsewhere, but what about poorer people? If a low-income family buys into the false propaganda that “organic is better”, they risk making choices that will materially damage their well-being: they will eat less well, or have less money.

My conclusion:

Nutritionally, there is no reason to expect organic foods to be better for your health than other foods. In fact, there is some reason to be more cautious about organic foods – recall rates suggest they are far more likely to be contaminated by pathogens.

I don’t consider myself low-income, but I really don’t like the idea of paying into an industry built on false health scares and poor regulation of actual safety. And I’m certainly not going to pay a premium for the privilege of getting bilked in this way.

I will add that, though I think the organic industry has a lot to answer for, I suspect that most individual organic farmers – especially organic family farms (see previous post on family farms) – are just trying to find a way to make a decent living. My ideal resolution to this issue would be that everyone would see through the hype and falsehoods, and go back to buying good food and ignoring the essentially meaningless and misleading label of “organic”.

Stoic feminism?


One topic that is very much on my mind these days is feminism. I continue to notice ways that the world is stacked against women in favour of men.

That I haven’t noticed these things before – things like rape culture, gender-based pay inequality, and the very sexist tendencies in health care – is largely due to the privileged position I hold as a man. It is so collossally easy not to notice injustice, or not to see it as unjust, when you benefit from it.

And now that I notice these things, and see them as wrong, I find myself amazed that not everyone accepts the profound evidence for them. There are people who think accused men are the real victims in sexual assault cases. There are people who think there is no real inequality in income between men and women. There are even people who think anti-abortion laws are pro-feminist. (Wrongwrong, and wrong!)

Another thing on my mind is Stoicism. Yes, I mean that ancient philosophy that is popularly (but wrongly) associated with emotional constipation and indifference.

I’ve talked about it a little bit already on this site. Today, I’m not really out to give a primer on Stoicism. There are plenty of places where you can begin to learn a little about it – you can read introductions on Reddit’s Stoicism FAQ, or at the Stoicism Today site, or listen to the Good Fortune or Painted Porch podcasts about applying Stoicism to life today, or watch a video about it. (Or, as I did, just do a web search to find dozens of introductions and other resources.)

No, today I have something a little more specific to mull over. You see, when I think about all the ancient Stoics – Epictetus, Marucus Aurelius, Seneca, etc – they’re all men. Well, that’s not too surprising: the ancients, for all their occasional wisdom, had remarkably retrograde attitudes about gender roles and abilities. And when I review all the modern voices of Stoicism that I’ve come across (for example, in the links from the previous paragraph), there are again no women. Massimo Pigliucci, Matt Van Natta, Mark Johnston, Greg Millner, and others.

Now, none of this is to say that those particular men are oppressing women, or in any other way misogynist or anti-feminist. The ancient Stoics have been called proto-feminists (I’ll get to that in a minute). The Painted Porch podcast often mentions women and has female guests, and certainly doesn’t promote anti-feminist ideas in any way I have noticed.

But it does make me wonder: what is behind this? Is Stoicism covertly anti-feminist, and my often privilege-blind detectors just don’t sense it? Is it just that men happened to be early adopters, and women feel unwelcome because they don’t see role models or a place for themselves in Stoicism? Is it because I’m not looking carefully enough for female Stoics?

Now, offline, I have known two people besides myself who have identified themselves as Stoics – one man (the friend who first gave me a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s book, Meditations – hi, Derren!) and one woman (my wife – a partner in every important adventure both physical and intellectual that I have embarked on for the past fifteen years). So that is closer to gender balance than the above survey. But it’s not a broad or representative sample.

What else is out there? Well, there is an academic paper from 2014, “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy” by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford. They look specifically at the ancient Stoics and find that, although by modern standards they fall well short of the mark, they were very progressive in their attitudes about women. In general, the ancient Stoics felt that women had the same inherent abilities as men, but that it was often prudent for them to retain their traditional house-bound roles. The paper also outlines how Stoicism can be adapted to be even more in line with modern liberal feminism.

That’s reassuring, especially after I made the mistake of following a Google search result to this article from the Daily Mail. In the middle of a disturbingly sexist diatribe where it touches, at moments, on colouring abusive sex as a positive force in relationships, the author says,

Such strong and stoic men are exactly what women need to anchor themselves amid the chaos of their emotions.

Amazingly, the author is using the word in almost the right way (from the perspective of philosophical Stoicism). Yes, being able to weather misfortune without being swept away by the emotional consequences is one feature of living Stoically. Unfortunately, the sentence it occurs in is awash with dismissive sexism. Women can’t deal with their emotions unless they have a man to provide a stoical anchor?

So, on the one hand we have Stoicism used as a token for how men are inherently different from (and better than) women. And on the other we have Stoicism as a worldview that is consistent with the equality and empowerment fundamental to modern feminism.

I came across more. A Google search for “stoicism feminism” will disgorge a remarkable variety of perspectives. Enough to overwhelm a determined blogger/researcher.

Fortunately, I have a way to deal with this deluge of conflicting ideas and emotional appeals.

I have Stoicism.

I remind myself that my first duty is to deal with the stuff I have power over: my own behaviours, my own actions, and (to a certain extent) my own emotions.

This means that I don’t need to become defensive if someone says I’m doing Stoicism wrong – perhaps because I’m too interested in emotions, or I’m not masculine enough, or I am too eager to compromise. And I don’t need to get angry when I see people working against gender equality.

To a Stoic, the core good is the development of personal virtue. Becoming a better person. If something happens that doesn’t damage that, then it is not something to get upset about.

What does it mean to become a better person? Well, that all depends on where you start from. I start from being an academic white male, blind to certain privileges but fortunate enough to recognize at least some areas of my blindness. My character development involves attending to those remaining blind spots, and learning to listen to different viewpoints without immediately becoming defensive about my privilege.

Someone else – woman, man, or other – may have different areas to work on. Maybe they need to work on not catastrophizing events out of proportion. Missing a plane flight doesn’t make you into a bad person, so it’s not worth getting worked up over. Having a colleague say something nasty about you doesn’t make you a bad person, so don’t let it throw you into a rage.

Of course, people sometimes think that’s where Stoicism ends: if you can make yourself comfortable with anything that happens, you’re done.

But that’s ridiculous. When I can get to the meeting on time, deciding to hang out on Facebook and miss my bus does erode my character. When I see injustice and have the means to get up and do something about it, sitting on my ass does tarnish my virtue.

Stoicism isn’t about placid inaction. It’s about placid action. I can be an effective, useful member of society without getting enraged or dejected or head-over-heels excited about every last thing.

And when I look at the feminist battlegrounds facing us today, I can’t help but think that Stoicism is exactly the toolset I need to bring to that table. Will other people feel the same way? Maybe, maybe not. But as a Stoic, I don’t need to worry about that. Other people’s choices are theirs, not mine.

Collins vs Darcy on consent


It occurred to me earlier this evening, as I supped with my son and daughter, that a most suitable example of the difference between respecting feminine choice and dismissing it can be found in the pages of one of the English language’s most admired works: the excellent
Pride and Prejudice, by one of her justly celebrated wordsmiths, the inestimable Jane Austen.

PridePrejudice423x630In much the same way that any fresh river that flows into the sea becomes salty, and any iceberg that drifts into tropical waters must melt, so, in writing this, I find my style and language bending towards that used by Miss Austen. Though I cannot hope to reach her sharpness of wit nor her depth of insight, I perforce borrow something of her style here. For those accustomed to the brevity of the modern age – where written missives are often no longer measured in volumes or even in pages, but in lines, words, or even individual characters – this post may seem excessive in length. It approaches an order of magnitude longer than my customary contributions. I cannot be certain that you will enjoy it, but I can promise that, though my own count of words will exceed normal, it will be balanced by an even more generous count from Miss Austen herself – to whose insightful text my entire missive here is indebted in the highest degree.

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge the faint but real possibility that some one or two among my readers might, against all reason and hope, not yet have read this tale in its entirety at least once – or, at the least, witnessed one of the several dramatic enactments which have been made of it (of which I recommend above all others that featuring Mister Colin Firth and Ms Jennifer Ehle). If you are in such a fortunate position (for who among us would not love to be able to read again for the first time a beloved tale?), I implore you to watch or (better) to read the story before continuing. My discussion below contains such revelations as may spoil your enjoyment most cruelly if you read my words before you read Miss Austen’s tale itself. I assure you, her volume is suitably thin compared to many of its genre (both old and new), and though the language may not be what you are accustomed to, nevertheless you will find the tale behind the words most worthwhile. Go, read it. This missive of mine can wait the few hours or days it may take you to initiate yourself in this fine pillar of English literature.

Very well, from here I will assume that my readers are familiar with the tale. If any are not, then it can be on their conscience and not mine should their future ventures into Miss Austen’s masterpiece be rendered less suspenseful by what they are about to read.

My observation is a simple one at its core. There are two men who offer proposals of marriage to the book’s protagonist, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, in the course of the book. The first is the odious Mister William Collins – a distant cousin who visits Miss Bennnett’s home of Longbourne with the aim of obtaining a wife. The second is Mister Fitzwilliam Darcy, a prideful man who is drawn to love Miss Elizabeth Bennett by the strength of her character, and much against the practical advice of his conscience as regards her family’s situation and (rather to her embarrassment) as regards the character and actions of her sisters, her mother, and even occasionally her father.

So much is clear to anyone who knows the story in even its barest details. But what particularly occurred to me today is the different attitude the suitors in question have toward Elizabeth’s failure to accede to their proposals (for, though the tale turns out otherwise in the end, her first response to both of them is an unequivocal negative).

I could go on at greater length in my own words – as you may already have perceived – but I feel the case will most securely be made by giving the text itself. Here is the scene at Longbourne from Chapter 19 in which Mister Collins proposes to Miss Elizabeth. I entreat you to note at what point she clearly expresses her refusal, and how that clear decision affects his own intentions and expectations.

“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford—between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s footstool, that she said, ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman formy sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.’ Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favour of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed towards Longbourn instead of my own neighbourhood, where I can assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.”

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.

“You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—”but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.”

“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

“I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

“You are uniformly charming!” cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

One can at least be thankful, I suppose, that Mister Collins’s indifference to her wishes did not induce him into a more forceful physical expression of his desires – though many a man in similar circumstances has not scrupled to stop there. Nevertheless, his contempt for her individuality and her capacity to know her own mind is quite evident.

And now compare this to Mister Darcy’s proposal in chapter 34, offered during a private conversation in Rosings Park, the estate in which Mister Collins resides with his new bride, Charlotte, and which belongs to Mister Collins’s patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he should have done. He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther, and, when he ceased, the colour rose into her cheeks, and she said:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantelpiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful. At length, with a voice of forced calmness, he said:

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I wasuncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued:

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

“Can you deny that you have done it?” she repeated.

With assumed tranquillity he then replied: “I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.”

Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.

“But it is not merely this affair,” she continued, “on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?”

“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” said Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.

“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?”

“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”

“And of your infliction,” cried Elizabeth with energy. “You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule.”

“And this,” cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps,” added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, “these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by everything. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?—to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued:

“You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

Again his astonishment was obvious; and he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification. She went on:

“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”

And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house.

I trust by now, dear reader, that you comprehend the contrast that sprang into my mind so recently. The above passages establish it quite clearly. Mister Collins, on the one hand, is clearly indifferent to Miss Elizabeth’s wishes on the matter. Though he flatters himself that he is paying her a great compliment in making the offer of marriage, he fails to pay her the compliment which, both in that time and in the present day, is of the greater value: that he is willing to respect her decisions. Mister Darcy, on the other hand, although he is (at this stage of the story) quite reprehensible in his attitude toward her situation and clearly upset at being refused so unequivocally, nevertheless accepts her refusal as a refusal, and does not once attempt to ignore it or reinterpret it as aught else.

Of course, anyone who holds the tale dear in their memory – a host that I feel must include all who have read the full tale – knows that it does not end there. After mishaps and misunderstandings, Miss Elizabeth once again faces Mister Darcy – this time with far different feelings towards him.

This current contribution to my public, ethereal log of thoughts and contemplations is already quite long enough. So I will close my own contribution here and leave you with that final proposal of Darcy’s. Attend in particular, if you will, to how he expresses himself regarding the possible outcomes. How does he commit himself to respond if she should renew her rejection of him? In what way does he comport himself relative to her wishes and intentions, even when he is completely in suspense as to their nature?

Here is that encounter from chapter 58, as they walk together near Longbourne:

“Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”

“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”

“You must not blame my aunt. Lydia’s thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.”

“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.”

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

Catholic bishops fail on basic morality


I need to open by saying that all of the people I know who identify as Catholic are compassionate, thoughtful people. Nothing I say below is meant to be an attack on Catholics as a group. Clearly, some of the bad dogmas driving this insanity are “Catholic” dogmas. But just as there are plenty of Catholics who have forged ahead of their would-be “leaders” on issues like contraception and abortion rights, there are plenty who can think compassionately about end-of-life issues.

Okay. Now that we have that out of the way …

Here is something the Catholic bishops of Alberta said in a joint statement:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada makes legally permissible in some circumstances what is morally wrong in every circumstance: the taking of innocent human life.

They are referring, of course, to the historic ruling last February by the Supreme Court that it is not criminal to provide physician-assisted death to “a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” The ruling was to come into effect on the sixth of February this year, but the Supreme Court has given the government four more months to come up with legislation related to the ruling.

The bishops are ignoring every very good, very moral reason why this ruling was reached.

There are people who suffer because of the existing law.

There are people who suffer intolerably because of the law.

Read some of the testimonies at the Dying With Dignity website. The lives of many terminally-ill people are made worse because of how things stand. The lives of their families are made worse because of how things stand. They are made worse because of an inability on the part of the law (and people like the bishops) to accept that sometimes death is a more humane option than suffering.

We do not live in a Catholic country. We live in a secular country – a country where everyone has the right to their own beliefs and values, as long as they don’t act in a way that hurts others or impinges unduly on their freedom.

Nobody – nobody – is saying that anyone should have suicide forced on them. Nobody is saying that anyone has to participate in it. All that is being asked is that a certain very vulnerable set of people is not forced to suffer needlessly if they don’t want to.

There are people who live out the last weeks or years of their lives in excruciating pain. The bishops are saying that these people’s suffering is acceptable, and that giving them release from that pain when they ask for it is unacceptable.

Anyone who can say that with a straight face has lost any claim to moral authority. This is a big fail on the part of the Catholic church. My great solace is that, as I said at the outset, most Catholics are pretty good at ignoring the moronic positions of their “leaders” and doing the right thing anyway.

[Edited 2016 Feb 13, changing “physician-assisted suicide” to “physician-assisted death”, to bring language in line with what seems to be emerging as the standard language around this issue – see for example this article.]

Truth is stranger than fiction


Of course it’s stranger. What else would you expect?

I mean, truth comes from out there – the world outside our heads. Fiction comes from human minds. Naturally fiction will seem more comfortable and familiar to those minds, and truth will sometimes seem alien and strange.

That is all.

Love and machines


I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.


Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

Correction: Linguistic war on terror


A week ago, I posted my thoughts on an attempt to rebrand the currently ascendent terrorist group in the Middle East with a name – Daesh – which avoids any implied legitimacy to their claims to (1) represent Islam and (2) be a state.

The article I linked to sounded quite authoritative in saying that the organization in question – ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh, whatever – hates being called Daesh.

On Facebook, a linguist friend of mine pointed out this article, in which the author combs through actual publications by the group and finds evidence to suggest they are indifferent to, not incensed by, the name “Daesh”. The article is from Cracked, whose reputation for careful and serious journalism neither I nor my friend can vouch for.

This is an appropriate place to remind everyone that I am not a journalist, by training or ambition. I can do Google searches like anyone, and I find conflicting reports. I do not have the time or expertise needed to vet these and try to sift out a more coherent answer for you, my loyal reader (or readers).

What I can say is that, based on my first-hand experience with Islam and Muslims (some, but not lots), the terrorists do not represent that religion. And they most certainly do not deserve to be called a state. So, regardless of how they feel about it, I think it’s appropriate to call them Daesh. All three of the other common names in the media – ISIL, ISIS, and Islamic State – implicitly reference the group’s conceit that they are a state and that they are Islamic.

Let’s not grant them that, eh?

Actually, Innigo, it means *exactly* what he thinks it means


Okay, today I’m going to contradict a foundational cultural meme in order to make a subtle point about the philosophical discussion of religion. I think this is going to go well. 🙂

Everyone everywhere has seen The Princess Bride, and so everyone everywhere is aware of the “Inconceivable” line. Here it is nicely packaged up on YouTube (one of at least a dozen such montages):

The gist: one character (Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn) repeatedly describes events that surprise him as “inconceivable”. Eventually, one of his henchmen (Innigo, played by Mandy Patinkin) replies,

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Classic. You can find riffs on the “Inconceivable” line all over the Interwebs (eg, 1, 2, 3). And Innigo’s reply gets at least as much play (eg, 1, 2, 3).

I am here to suggest that, in fact, that word means exactly what Vizzini thinks it means.

You see, Vizzini uses it to respond to things that he had thought were impossible. He was unable to conceive of them. They were inconceivable. His lines were, in fact, a comment on himself, not on the physical possibilities. And (spoiler alert) it is this shortcoming of his own imagination that leads to his demise. He fails to imagine that the Man in Black can be as devious as a Sicilian when death is on the line.

What Innigo seems to think it means is “impossible” – as in, something that cannot happen, independent of what people think.

Innigo’s confusion is comparable to that of certain people when discussing philosophical concepts. Consider this delightful dice example from Tracy Harris:

The difference Tracy addresses in the video between what is actually possible and what seems possible based on our limited knowledge – in other words, what is conceivable.

So, based on what seems to me to be the common-sense meanings of the words “inconceivable” and “impossible”, I think that Vizzini actually uses “inconceivable” in the right way, and it is Innigo who is slightly confused.

For all the Princess Bride fans out there, please don’t mistake me. I am not criticizing Innigo or praising Vizzini. Even as a linguist, I do not see linguistic perspicacity as a crucial virtue for distinguishing protagonists from villains.

What do you think? Does that word mean what I think it means? Do you agree that the distinction between “conceivable” and “possible” is worth attending to in our discussions (for example, over the existence of the supernatural)?

Religion and kids: the latest study


I think I’ve heard variations on this headline from just about every direction in my social media over the last few days:

“Study find non-religious kids more altruistic than religious kids”

It is based on a study published in Current Biology – a study which you can find and read for yourself here.

My reactions to the initial study were mixed. On the one hand, this is not a surprising result. I’ve already heard of research which suggests rule-based moral education interferes with actual moral reasoning in children and adults. (I can’t find a reference to back that up, so I have to hold even that belief tentatively right now. If you can point me to work on this, please let me know and I’ll add it in.) Since a good number of religious traditions focus on rule-based morality (“thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” because of what a book says), it is natural to suspect that people taught in that way will have impaired moral reasoning.

On the other hand, just about every study of social interest which hits the headlines gets distorted according to various agendas and narrative impulses (to support one or the other side, or just to make things sound more interesting). So I was prepared, on eventually reading the paper, to discover that its data supported none of the claims coming to me, primarily via the nonreligious people in my networks.

So much for initial skepticism – I had, I think, neutralized much of the impulse to uncritically accept claims just because they conformed to my preconceptions. But this was an actual study, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal. So there is something to learn, and I am fortunate to be trained in interpreting social science research. So I have read through the paper. Here is my attempt to report what I think it really says, and does not say, and what interesting questions we might want to ask next to probe the implications further.

The key number I was looking for was at the end of this sentence:

Results from a linear regression with number of stickers shared as the dependent variable and age (1-year bins), country of origin, socioeconomic status (SES), and religious identification of the household (dummy coded) suggest that age (βstandardized = 0.39, p < 0.001), SES (βstandardized = 0.16, p < 0.001), country (βstandardized = 0.1, p < 0.01), and religious identification (βstandardized = −.132, p < 0.001) are significant predictors of sharing, (model r2adjusted = 0.184).

The beta values indicate the size of each effect – and you see that age is about three times the magnitude of religion. That is, if we are taking these as causes of sharing, a kid’s age has 3 times the effect on sharing that the kid’s family’s religion has. But for me, it’s the last value that I was hunting for. The adjusted r², indicates how much of the variation in sharing is accounted for by the variables observed (age, country, SES, and religious identification). In this case, taking all three of these factors together, we are only able to account for about 18% of the variation in sharing.

What this means is that, even if there are no flaws in the study (and oh boy, there are flaws – see below), and the effect is really real, it doesn’t tell us all that much about any particular kid. The variation between individual kids, or kids within a particular religion, is several times as large as the observed variation between kids from different religious backgrounds. (This was a point that Lynn Honey, in her stats talk at the recent Alberta Secular Conference, made in general. Don’t just ask if there’s a difference between group A and group B. Ask if the difference is large relative to the unexplained variation.)

One thing that was almost completely lacking from the paper was an acknowledgement of mixed-belief marriages. A year ago I read an excellent book about the topic, and it was disappointing to see it left out of this analysis – although that could just be because of the small sample size. In the study, only Christianity, Islam, and nonbelief had large enough samples to be included in the main analysis. I would be curious to see whether diversity (kids with parents or communities with a mix of different religious or other identities) affects kids’ ability to empathize.

I am also struck that we are told only about select tests that the authors made. While I find p-values very useful, one way they become suspect is if people do a lot of tests and only report the ones they find interesting. What were the negative results? How can I know that the few results we are told about are the whole story, or just the bits of the story that make for a tidy conclusion? This is a problem with any study whose analyses are not pre-registered – ie, just about any social science research published these days. But it is a problem.

Last, I want to point you to a couple of other articles people have written criticizing the study and/or the conclusions that laypeople are drawing from it, which I came across after intially drafting this post. They contribute interesting different perspectives that add to the picture above.

According to Matthew: “No, atheist kids are not more altruistic than religious kids”

A secular writer who makes similar points to mine. Curiously, he ends his explanation of why we can’t draw firm conclusions from this study by stating that “this study does at least provide evidence that atheist kids are not less altruistic than religious kids.” As one commenter put it, “you can’t have it both ways”. I would say that “at least this study does not confirm that atheist kids are less altruistic than religious kids.”

George Yancey: “Fatal flaws in that religion and generosity study”

A religious writer. While I agree with him that the study isn’t as conclusive as some of the headlines suggest, his critique itself is unfortunately error-ridden. For example, he says the study should have controlled for parental education. It did (at least for maternal education). He also complains that the authors conflated “mercy” with “morality” in their study of punitiveness. I don’t think they did. In fact, throughout the paper they clearly separate their discussion of the altruism test (the dictator game) and the test of punitiveness. It is clear to me that the authors think these two tests measure distinct things.

Both of these articles highlight a crucial problem with the dictator game – the central test of altruism – which I had missed. They claim that, rather than testing altruism, it may simply test obedience. This seems very plausible to me. The test was set up like this:

  • The experimenter gives the child some stickers.
  • The child is then invited to share some stickers with another (unseen) child by putting them in a separate envelope while the experimenter’s back is turned.
  • The number of stickers shared is used as the operational measure of altruism in this study.

Yes, an altruistic child will tend to put more stickers in the envelope. But so will a more obedient child. Without deeper knowledge of the psychological literature, I am forced to take this as a profound flaw. I have my expectations about whether nonreligious kids will, on average, tend to be more obedient than religious kids. But we’re doing science here, and my empirically un-tested expectations carry little weight.

So the conclusion? Well, it may sound dismissive, but I think this study tells us very little. It does fail to confirm the stereotypical religious expectation that religious people are more altruistic than non-religious people. But it also fails to soundly refute it.

With appropriate follow-ups, it may become a useful bit of evidence in the picture of how our beliefs shape our moral behaviours. For now, it is mainly useful as a cautionary tale in interpreting scientific results.

The best thing about this paper? It is freely available for anyone to read and examine. And this, in my mind, puts it a step ahead of many better-designed studies that are locked behind paywalls.