Archive for February, 2010


Sunday, February 28th, 2010


REVUE: “TRICK OR TREATMENT: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine” by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, MD.

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

TRICKcoverDid you know that George Washington came down with a bad cold, and that his doctors treated him with four sessions of bloodletting (still held to be a tried and proven treatment), ushering him toward his death?  I didn’t.  Turns out, there was a lot I didn’t know about the history of modern, evidence-based medicine.

2,000 years ago, Hippocrates of Cos, recognized as the father of medicine said: “There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.”

This is a book that rather straightforwardly lives up to its title.  The introductory chapter is a lesson in the value of evidence-based medicine, with a concise history and explanation of the modern double-blind placebo clinical trial that gives us the most reliable evidence for the effectiveness of any medical treatment.  For it turns out that one of the wonders of us humans (which is also one of the main hindrances to properly evaluating the effectiveness of any treatment) is our susceptibility to the “placebo” effect.  So strong is this perceptive power that it alone can be responsible for a large part of any actual improvement in symptoms when we believe in the treatment (or prayer) we are receiving.  This phenomenon, combined with the fact that most illnesses have a life-cycle that means we will eventually get “better” with or without medical intervention, underlies most of the anecdotal evidence that has supported pretty much all of the quackery we humans have believed in throughout our “medical” history.  It has only been the arrival of the scientific method as applied to medicine that has allowed researchers to out-wit both the placebo effect and the normal healing process to actually establish the true effectiveness of various medical interventions.  Though these initial sections of the book feel as if written for a High School reader, they are nonetheless worth reading as they do give a solid basis for understanding the treatment by treatment critiques that will follow.

The book then tackles the major “alternative” treatments, each with their own chapter (and if your ‘favorite’ treatment is not covered here, there is a lengthy index in the back of the book that offers summaries of a surprisingly wide range range of additional treatments).  I have to tell you that the news is not good for believers in “alternative” medicine.  It turns out (and how have I not known this?) that there is no reliable evidence to support (almost all) “alternative” medicine.  There are exceptions noted, but they are narrow ones limited to specific applications of certain treatments.  In short it seems that we humans believe a whole lot of things despite actual evidence, relying instead on belief and the testimony of individuals, the danger of which is pointed out in this quote from the book:

“In short, the medical establishment will not accept anecdotal evidence — based on either human or animal patients — as reliable enough to support homeopathy or any other treatment.  No amount of anecdote can stand in place of firm evidence, or, as scientists like to say, ‘The plural of anecdote is not data.'”

Of course “modern” medicine evolved from all sorts of quackery (with the occasional tested cure).  A wry perspective on this is given by this quote:

“In his book Bad Medicine, the historian David Wootton writes, ‘For 2,400 years patients believed that doctors were doing them good; for 2,300 years they were wrong.'”

But the book makes the simple point that modern medicine (or “evidence based medicine”) is essentially “alternative” medicine that has been proven to actually do something for the patient (Herbal medicine is really the only “alternative” that fares moderately well in this book, though its popular claims also often overreach the actual evidence).  The problem lies in the sheer hucksterism that continues to promote “alternative” healing as being superior to evidence-based medicine.  We spend billions a year on treatments that do nothing for us (beside trigger our placebo effect — an ethical question that is also dealt with in the book).  This issue is touched upon in this quote:  “Yet, alternative therapists continue to wear the name ‘alternative’ as a badge of honor, using it to give their substandard treatments an undeserved level of dignity.  They use the term ‘alternative’ to promote the notion that they somehow exploit alternative aspects of science.  The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as alternative science, just as there is no alternative biology, alternative anatomy, alternative testing, or alternative evidence.”

The authors make the rather clever suggestion of a “warning” that should be attached to some of the alternative treatments (here the one for Homeopathy): “Homeopathy.  Warning: this product is a placebo.  It will work only if you believe in homeopathy, and only for certain conditions such as pain and depression.  Even then, it is not likely to be as powerful as orthodox drugs.  You may get fewer side-effects from this treatment than from a drug, but you will probably also get less benefit.”

“Trick or Treatment” derives its authority from the fairly recent meta-analysis of years of clinical research that allow a solid basis for scientific conclusions about alternative medicine. (this is a very recent book), and though it delivers yet another blow to our very human reliance on “belief in belief”, it is a book that deserves to be read for the simple clarity of the facts it gives us.  There is no good reason that those of us living today should not take advantage of the reliable evidence that science has brought us to live better, more informed lives.

The authors close with a quote from a lecture in Pasadena in 1987 by the American physicist Carl Sagan, where he explained how science should treat new ideas:

“I seems to me that what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time great openness to new ideas.  If you are only skeptical, then no ideas make it through to you.  You never learn anything new.  You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world.  (There is, of course, much data to support you.)  On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from worthless ones.  If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.”

Though it reads a bit like a High School textbook, “Trick or Treatment” is timely and, I think, essential for those of us who have “believed” and tried alternative medicine (and who have had our doubts about mainstream medicine as well).  Although most healing treatments through history have been devised by people with only the best of intentions, in the end we must rely on the evidence.  Otherwise, we are walking blind into the hands of the charlatans who will gladly make a buck from our suffering and credulity.

Reviewed by t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “GOD AND FRUITCAKE” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

One of biggest questions we tend to ask of science is: “Does God exist”?  I think the more relevant question we are really asking is this:  “What does life (read: my life) really mean if there is no god?” or as Christian apologist Francis Shaeffer put it:  “How then shall we live?”

It’s not, of course, a simple question with an answer on the order of “cheese”, or “a slight increase in blood pressure”.  A cascade of issues come to mind: What, then, is the meaning of life?  Is there right and wrong without god?  Who (or what) will I call upon in times of need or distress?  And each of these questions is going to further split into a tree of branching sub-questions which will, eventually (if we follow them to their rational, evidence-based conclusion) lead us back to the naked simplicity of our existence:  We are evolved primates, mammals, carbon-based life forms existing upon a green planet spinning in a solar system that is itself spinning in a vast universe of a practically incomprehensible size and age.  That having been settled (in its unsettling way), we can return to our own (relatively) brief lives among our kin and community and examine how we are to live our lives in a god-less universe.

The simple answer is that we go on living pretty much as we always have, only with the added appreciation of our own biological complexity and innate social and moral natures that have made us such a unique animal on this globe.  In short, nothing changes.  The sun will still rise, your favorite foods will still taste good to you, and the loving touch of a friend or partner will still calm, comfort or arouse you.  Though the loss of god seems at first catastrophic, in time the idea of god can be seen for the cumbersome (if colorful) overlay it was: a blanket through which we tried to view reality even as we wrapped ourselves in the comforting illusions it gave us.  In time the desperate question of “could I live without god?” becomes, more and more, “why in the world did I think having a god was a good idea in the first place”?

The most surprising thing to discover is that the idea of god is not particularly helpful or effective and is — in fact and in practice — often deleterious to a satisfying human existence.  Of course the very idea of treating god as merely an “idea” is anathema to many.  But that is because most of us were born with the idea, and have never known a time when the idea of god’s existence was not supported by many (most?) in our culture.  But I’m certain all of us have had the experience of breaking a bad habit, where a particular way of doing something (say operating a car or using a power tool) that we may have picked up from our first teachers was shown to be a dangerous technique, so we learned to do it better or more safely.  But had no-one taken the time to teach us, or should we never had seen someone driving a car or running a circular saw differently, we would never have even known that there was a different way of behaving.

And so, in “Christian” America, there are many who have never even contemplated a world without god in it, nor been aware of examples of others living quality lives free of god (which is one of the reasons I choose to speak openly about this topic).

We know enough about heredity to know that all culture is taught and that our genetic inheritance amounts to about 30% of our potential as humans.  (For more on this read:  We adopt the habits, attitudes and practices of our parents and immediate family.  Hence our inherited religion is most often an “accident” of birth.  This alone should cast doubt on the claims of each religion to be “the” one, true path to Heaven.  A casual reading about the stunning cultural diversity of humanity on this planet makes clear that all of our religious beliefs are parochial.  The religious expression of humans is a cultural expression, based on tradition and geography for its transmission from generation to generation.  In that it is a purely natural phenomenon that works in a cultural parallel to the “natural selection” described in Darwin’s theory of Evolution (for more a theory on the transmission and evolution of ideas, see Dawkins “The God Delusion”).  Not to put too fine a point on it, but religion persists by purely human cultural means and needs no actual living “god” for its continuation.

To me, simply holding a rock in my hand disproves god, for all the major religions hold to a view that the earth and its inhabitants were created in a single act by a living, personal god (generally some thousands of years ago).  Yet any pebble you might pick up while crossing a dirt lot is likely to be many millions of years old (and perhaps billions).  If you happen to pick up a piece of sedimentary rock, it will probably contain fossils of long-extinct species.  In our own bodies scientists have discovered huge amounts of “junk” DNA left over from our evolutionary past, and half the cellular weight of our bodies consist of bacteria that have co-evolved with us and our now essential to our survival (see naturalist E.O. Wilson’s “Creation: An Appeal to Save Life On Earth”).  Chimpanzees are more closely related to us genetically than they are to Orangutans, which points further to our shared ancestor some 5 million years ago.

Each day, it seems, science is making new discoveries that reveal ever deeper levels of complexity in our living, breathing existence.  What then forms is a rich tapestry of fact and tantalizing hint of further understandings that, when embraced, make the ancient religious myths of our origins appear as pale and anemic attempts to explain life to those then living it.  But tradition is strong, and family tradition even stronger.   I am the kind of person I am due in large part to the kind of people my parents were.  But being a large-brained primate, I am able to observe in myself the very traits over which I seem powerless to alter.  Maybe this is what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Romans ( “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do”) only he comes to the conclusion that it is his wicked, sinful nature that is warring against his holy, Christ-centered spirit.  I come to a different conclusion.

For as Darwin said: “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”.  In essence, we carry in our frame, our chemistry, our biology and our psychology the evidence of every stage of our evolution from the first quivering life in the first seas on a younger earth.  Against this, the idea of “god” becomes one more fascinating cultural artifact from our progression from tree-dwelling primates to the upright humans who now study diseases that until a hundred years ago were still thought to be caused by evil spirits.

It’s important, I think, for us to recall how far we have come in a short time.  George Washington was ushered to an early grave by the ancient (and still then endorsed) practice of bloodletting.  The 1918 Influenza pandemic was caused by a virus that could not even be seen by human eyes until the invention of the scanning electron microscope in 1935.  So it’s little wonder that we still hold on to outdated and verifiably wrong beliefs about everything from the age of the earth to quack medical cures to what deity controls (purely) natural disasters.  We remain a mix of our ancient, primitive and modern selves.  We are, in essence, still an ice-age nomadic people learning to drive in modern cities.

This is the reality of who and what we are (and the supporting evidence is there for anyone who wants to find it).  Science cannot disprove the existence of god, it can only offer that there is no evidence to support the idea.  In every area that religion has offered answers to a primitive humanity, science has demonstrated the actual natural causes of everything from disease to mental illness to hurricanes and extinctions.  Yet the idea of god lingers, like a beloved family tradition that no one is willing to see end.  Sort of like fruitcake.  We all joke about the poor fruitcake that at one time must have been a real treat to a lot of people, but even as we joke about it, fruitcakes are manufactured by the millions.  A few of us, surely, must really enjoy them.  The rest of us are somehow comforted by the continuity of the cake that we all love to joke about.

I’m reminded of a book I recently read on Northern European Mythology that discussed the arrival of Christianity in the northern countries during the Viking age.  I had long held that Christianity had been the bad guy, burning and killing its way across my ancestral homelands.  But, it turns out, that the native Northern European’s beliefs in their gods had become a sort of joke by this time;  in short, people still told the stories, but as society underwent change the stories had become more comical, and the gods were the subject of some ridicule.  It would seem that the Norse were ready for a new god.  The old ones having become, well, like fruitcake.

That’s how I view god now.  Because it is a human invention (and because I, myself believed for so long), I have some tenderness toward god’s history in human cultural evolution (as I do the fruitcake).  I just don’t want either one for Christmas.

COMMENTARY: “In Danger of a Totalitarianism of Ignorance”

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

(The following commentary was published in the Opinion section of the Las Cruces Sun News on 22 February, 2010)

Here’s a quick quiz – are the following assertions true or false:

1) The earth began to form some 4.5 billion years ago.
2) Odin is the one true God.
3) Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans that to Orangutans
4) President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen.
5) We live on a cooling planet where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are natural occurrences.
6) Evidence and facts are not important.

Now let’s check our answers:

1) TRUE.  The scientific evidence supports this view.
2) FALSE.  Although once believed by most Northern Europeans, there is no evidence to suggest that Odin ever existed.
3) TRUE.  DNA evidence supports this view.
4) FALSE.  There is no evidence to support this view.
5) TRUE.  Geology shows that we live on a relatively thin crust of rock that floats upon a vast molten core and is, therefore, unstable and subject to upheaval.
6) FALSE.  Denial of evidence and provable facts can be detrimental to our survival as individuals and as a species.

It sometimes seems that we live in a post-fact culture, where unsupportable opinion has achieved a status (in a perverse application of the virtue of “fairness”) where we think that any knucklehead with a wacky idea deserves to be heard with as much respect as the scientist who has actually spent years teasing verifiable truth from nature.  And so our current national orgy of proud idiocy is having the very real effect of bringing the progress of our democracy to a grinding halt as we are encouraged to distrust anyone who actually knows something about the issues at hand — they are the “elite” or the “intellectual” and therefore NOT TO BE TRUSTED.  We are cutting the head off the body of this nation, and as the cultural guillotine lops off the informed craniums of our experts, the crowds cheer with an excitement that is as intoxicating as it is dangerous.

We attack the very social structures that allow us a life of historically unprecedented luxury and safety — a society built on science, technology and centralized government services.  We are the tics on the dog denying the reality of the very animal we depend upon for our comfortable lives.

It is in our nature to be skeptical, even wary.  But it is the greater hallmark of our species that we will often alter our beliefs when evidence offers a more enlightened view of reality…but not always.  As Proverbs says: “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”  Right now we have a nation of really angry “mockers” riding a wave of irrationality that operates on the proven strategy that the one who shouts the longest and the loudest can dispense with evidence and facts and rile up the populace to their own self-serving and (let’s be frank here) commercial ends.  And we — as a nation — suffer for it.

This may well be the battle of our time: the struggle against the forces of irrationality — of an ignorance that is proud in its defiance of fact and reason, where the Fool is truly made King.  We are in danger of creating a totalitarianism of ignorance, where instead of our intelligentsia being arrested and thrown into prison they are ignored into silence by a virulent popular “denialism”. Our very survival as a nation and as a species may depend on reversing this trend.

How can we reverse it?  Stand up and speak out for reason and rationality.  Stop believing things that have no evidence. (Every bit of mental capacity we devote to unsupportable beliefs increases the distance between our perceptions and reality, leaving us ever more vulnerable to crackpot ideas).  Read an article or book by someone who actually researches something — not a pundit, but a scientist, a naturalist, a geneticist or an historian.  Turn off the radio, and realize that if Rush or Beck’s ratings started dropping like a rock tomorrow, these blowhards would suddenly be seen fighting for what they really believe in: their living — not truth, not reality, not evidence (and certainly not you).

There is no “better time” to return to, no “traditional” America waiting to be brought back to life.  That is a mirage.  Time moves us ever forward.  We live in a more complex and interconnected civilization than any human has ever known and we’re all trying to find our way as best we can.  To do that with any hope of success we need our scientists, our teachers and our educated “elites” whose work on our behalf deserves respect and attention far beyond that we give a ranting personality on the radio.  We’ve turned things upside down — where opinion matters as much as fact — and we need to turn things “right side up” again in order to go on as a nation, as a people and as a species. The time for “every man for himself” is past.  We need everyone we can get pulling in the same direction with as much knowledge as we can muster.  Each of us must do our part, and part of that duty is to carry our own intellectual weight as responsible citizens of this great nation.

Bob Diven (the not-so-reverend bob)

Bob Diven (the not-so-reverend bob)

Bob Diven is an award-winning artist and performer and longtime resident of Las Cruces.  He writes as the not-so-reverend bob on his blog at:


Sunday, February 21st, 2010


REVUES FROM THE REV: “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free” by Charles R. Pierce.

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

idiotamericaCharles Pierce is (among the credits listed on the book’s dust jacket) a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, a contributing writer for Esquire, a frequent contributor to American Prospect and Slate and a regular on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”.

This book will enlighten you like a brilliant sun breaking through seemingly impenetrable clouds,  It will refresh you with the clear distillation of our American history and culture.  It will shame you to your soul.  For each and every one of us is a citizen of Idiot America, and few of us are free of the stench from the mountains of crap we’ve allowed to pile up around us.

Pierce begins this acid-tongued gallop through our current cultural and political shouting match by lovingly describing the classic American “crank”: the individual who (ignoring scientific fact) creates a fanciful theory behind which he throws all of his resources, fully expecting to be attacked or ignored by academia as he not-so-patiently awaits his eventual vindication.  Pierce sees these individuals as important to our cultural imagination, be they looking for the lost city of Atlantis or proposing miracle cures for disease.  Interwoven with meaty servings of founding father James Madison’s views on the forces that always threaten to tear a participatory democracy apart, Pierce contrasts the American crank of old with the current trend of mainstreaming fringe views and the very real dangers such an elevation of idiocy to respectability creates.  It is a nuanced dance that Pierce is choreographing here, but it he does it well and the result is a refreshingly useful understanding of just how we got to where we are.

The book begins with a tour of the recently opened “Creation Museum” in Hebron, Kentucky, where the sight of a saddle atop a dinosaur proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Pierce.  Symbolic of how the home-brewed theory of what would have been a classic American “crank” has now been “mainstreamed”, this fantastical artifact of fake science becomes the entry point to a series of set pieces from the culture wars of the last twenty years.  Pierce is foremost a reporter, and one of the startling wonders of this book is that he infuses each set piece of our cultural idiocy with interviews with the central characters in the cultural dramas he records.  We hear directly from the federal judge in the Dover, PA Intelligent Design case, and the director of the Hospice that cared for Terri Schiavo during her last years and the intelligence and terrorist experts who were ignored in the run up to the Iraq War (climate change and 9/11 are also covered well).  The presence of these original interviews lends a credibility to this book that — when compared to the ignorant drivel that is pumped into the marketplace by the likes of Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and others — could make me weep with gratitude.  But those tears are a testimony to a deeper wound, a wound that we all bear: we have allowed our nation to slip the mooring of reason and fact and drift along like a super tanker that’s thrown its screw, somehow hoping that some unseen hand will stay the inevitable collision with the rocks that will rip our hull to shreds.

Psychologist Paul Ginnety’s quote about “the potent narcotic of reassuring simplicity” is expanded upon as Pierce presents his conception of The Three Great Premises as they apply to media pundits:

“A host is not judged by his command of the issues, but purely whether what he says moves the ratings needle.  (First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it moves units).   If the needle moves enough, then the host is adjudged an expert (Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough) and, if the host seems to argue passionately enough, then what he is saying is judged to be true simply because of how many people are listening to him say it (The Third Great Premise: Fact is that which enough people believe.  Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it).  Gordon Liddy is no longer a gun-toting crackpot.  He has an audience.  He must know something.”

This is a small wonder of a book.  The writer is informed, humane and diligent in his original research and interview work (and impressive in his listing of credits, inspirations and sources in the back of the book).  Unlike those he turns his attention to, Pierce is neither repeating rumor nor making unsupportable assertions.  This is the passionate work of a serious journalist.

I was both thrilled (by the quality) and deeply dismayed (by the content of) this book.  It can seem as if we are so divorced from valuing truth over opinion that the path back to reason can seem impossible.  Yet the fact of this book is an expression of hope, of a belief that there is a chance to make a difference for the common good.  But none of us can afford to wait another moment.  We have to stand up and be heard until the crackpots and ideologues are afraid to poke their heads out of their musty holes and return to their imaginative roles as American “cranks”.  Otherwise, we are a great and powerful nation adrift, arguing in the wheelhouse about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the engine room awaits a command.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “OUR INNER LIZARD” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

When I wake up each morning, I’m in the habit of quietly thinking about the day ahead of me.  I flip through the catalog of projects I have in the works, and note any resonance in me for making any progress on one or two (or three) of them.  In this I imagine that I’m a bit like a farmer rising in the morning and looking at the sky, then the ground, and deciding which necessary tasks the weather and soil conditions favor.  Often the dry, critical voice in my mind will demand that I work on this or that, but I instead defer to my gut — the “wet”, fertile part of my consciousness — and to what it feels like doing.  For I’ve learned through experience that I’m a) more productive, and b) a hell of a lot happier when I “go with the flow” and channel what energy I have into the projects that are most ripe for the picking.  It’s an interesting dance between mind, intention and circumstance which has taken me many, many years to develop.  What is surprising is the apparent effect this approach seems to have on the reality of my work day, for it actually appears to make a difference that my intentions are clear and lined up with what my consciousness somehow can ascertain about external opportunities and conditions that would seem beyond my immediate sensory knowledge.  Some days I can get no clear sense of what I’m going to work toward, and I take those as “surprise” days, meaning something’s gonna come up that is going to require my attention, so it’s best not to get started on a project that will only be interrupted later.  It’s not a perfect system, to be sure, but it often seems to work to a level of precision and ease that can, frankly, amaze me.

So what is really going on?  Do I really — like the Norse god Odin — have twin ravens at my shoulder that fly out every morning to search the countryside and bring me back news?  I like to imagine that I do.  Of course this is just a colorful image (or narrative) to lay upon a natural phenomenon of my multileveled human consciousness.  For many of us the default response to descriptions of such phenomenon may be to either dismiss them as imagination or delusion or (more commonly) to attribute them to the presence of God or helpful spiritual forces.  The truth is, the phenomenon requires neither of those explanations.

When I woke up yesterday, I thought I might get some time in later in the morning on a commissioned pencil portrait.  I’ve been getting over a upper respiratory virus and coming down with a cold, and figured that would be some quiet work I could do in my studio.  I had a lunch scheduled with a psychologist friend to pick his brain about the levels of human consciousness and how we externalize parts of ourselves and view them as “God”, and there was a chance of a later coffee with another friend (who is an anthropologist).  But after I hit the gym and settled in at my usual morning coffee shop, I ended up having a long instant messaging chat with a friend (a former realtor/journalist who is now homesteading in Sierra County, raising chickens, pigs, goats, onions and garlic).  Our conversation was intense and invigorating (as always) as she was musing about the lessons that animals teach her about life.  I had no sooner left that conversation when Dave (a statistics professor friend) sat down and we got to talking about poor education and the irrational (if heartfelt) sentiments of the T.E.A. Party movement.  Shortly after he left, my retired Canadian airline pilot friend (and current engineering professor) stopped by, and we talked about reason and the challenges and labor-intensity of setting up solid scientific experimentation.  By then it was time for lunch with the psychologist.

It became clear this wasn’t going to be a “drawing” day, so I made the decision to give myself to whatever the day would bring me.  The only concern I had was that my mind would experience some sort of overload from so many energizing and engaging conversations on subjects that excited me!  I quickly spoke some conversation-inspired thoughts into my little digital recorder, and headed to lunch.

The theme of lunch was the current research into the many levels of our human consciousness (there are much more than the two levels I had imagined!).  The basic fact is that our consciousness has several layers of function, each of them likely adapted to specific uses that have proved helpful in our evolution and survival.  I was after a scientific explanation of how the common phenomenon of us humans talking to ourselves (and getting answers back) is externalized to a point where we believe we are talking with God, and that God in turn is talking to us.  Turns out the explanations are there.  I was excited to hear that.  What surprised me was the insight my psychologist friend gave me that we humans are so deeply driven by our fear response.

In terms of survival as animals, it makes complete sense that our fear response would have the capacity to dominate all the rest of our conscious functions: get to safety first, think about it later.  Those of our kind who tried it the other were likely eaten more often than not.  And so the psychologist spends a great deal of his or her time working with patients to moderate the overheated application of this primal flight response (in the absence of the true carnivorous attackers of our primitive past).

As I heard this, I reflected on a big chunk of my own life in which I was tyrannized by fear and anxiety.  I could instantly recall the many times where panic would grip me, and I would find myself completely cut off from my feelings and the input of my physical senses.  Beginning in my late twenties (what I call my “therapy” years), I began the long process of engaging with my emotional, sensual self as I gradually developed tools and techniques to manage the primal lizard in my brain stem.  It took me a long, long time.

Along the way I learned two important things: 1) Panic is irrational, and immune to reason and logic (once the adrenal glands have taken over, well, you’re taken over), and 2) We have control over this powerful response in many situations.

I remember the night I was having dinner at Golden Corral (back when I could still stand their food), and my mind drifted to an idea or situation that suddenly triggered my panic response.  In less than a heartbeat I went from content to blanked by fear.  But there was a critical difference: this time I caught just a glimpse of the chain reaction that led to the panic.  Months before I’d been crying to my therapist in the midst of deep anguish about my life and she made a comment that stopped me in my tracks.  “You mean, I’m creating all of this anguish myself?” I asked.  “Yes”, she replied.  Until then my panic attacks had been mysterious and overwhelming — forces of nature against which I had no hope.  But I decided to allow that my therapist might be right, and began to watch myself more closely.  And so, on that night at the Corral I noticed, for the first time, that there was just the smallest gap — or delay — between the triggering thought that popped into my mind and the global panic response that arose.  I sensed that in that gap lay my salvation.

Over time, as I paid attention, the gap became clearer to me until there came the time when I stepped into that gap and said “no”.  To my utter amazement, it worked.  The heretofore unstoppable panic was stopped.  It turned out that I had the power to select the focus of my consciousness — I did not have to remain a victim to my own mind.  My therapist was right.  Over time, I got better at it as I also got better at feeling my emotions, my body and building a way of living that was responsive to my true desires and interests.  In popular terms, I learned to “live in the moment” where, it turns out, all of my evolved primate senses are attuned and most effective.

It is common knowledge that we humans have an amazing level of influence over our own consciousness.  That’s why meditation works for some, therapy for others.  It’s a pretty amazing thing to contemplate (and even better to act on for the increased enjoyment of living that it offers).  But you may notice that nothing about this process invokes the idea of forces external to us — namely no “God”.  The wonder of our multi-layered consciousness is not, frankly, enhanced by attributing any of its attributes to God or the Devil.  In fact, I would argue that such attributions diminish the wonder.  And why wouldn’t they?  For by using such explanations we are taking a vastly (and exponentially) expanding modern knowledge and trying to squeeze it back into a bronze-age superstition.

Back to my very-satisfying “Tuesday of Conversations”: As I wrapped up coffee with my anthropologist friend that evening, I felt very fortunate indeed to have both the interesting and thoughtful friends that I have and that I had developed enough as a person to fully engage and enjoy all that they had to teach me.  The next morning (as I reflected on my many and varied conversations) my mind came to rest on one theme of the day, which seemed to be a discussion of the irrationality exhibited by many of our fellow humans.  The T.E.A. Party folks seem to react from a deep yet unfocused nostalgia for a mythical past epoch in America, voicing a distrust of big government even as they enjoy the benefits of living in a moderately-well governed society; Islamic terrorists are often upper middle class and college educated, and yet hold screamingly irrational views of God and culture; and all of us humans live with this deeply irrational fear response that can — at any time — take over our entire mind and body for petty reasons that do not truly represent threats to our physical survival.  My “chicken-farmer” friend admires the lack of “sentimentality” among her chickens, and the lack of pretense or artifice in the animals in her care, noting that much of what constitutes our human social life is “made up”.

And so I wonder where to focus my efforts to encourage the rational side of our natures, the parts of our consciousness that are kind, thoughtful and humane.  Should we focus on education?  Critical thinking skills?  Eliminating poverty or debunking religion?  Yes, yes, yes and yes.  But I don’t know the best answer.  To me the gravest problem we humans face is our capacity for irrationality, for acting out of the lizard part of our brain that just doesn’t give a shit what the evidence says.  This is the power of the angry mob or the political (or religious or — god forbid — both) ideologue that can ignore the scientist and the expert because, well “I know what I know!”.  How do we combat this?

I once wrote a song about a rattlesnake on a hot highway, and my imagined interaction with him as I tried to shoo him off the road before he was squashed flat by a passing semi.  How would I communicate to that snake (already hot and mad) that I was only trying to help?  That’s how I feel about many of my fellow humans — they’re already hot and mad and unlikely to understand my entreaties and venomously bite me for my efforts.  Still, I try.

That’s what this blog is about, really.  It’s about hope for us humans — of the real transformations we can experience and the satisfying lives we can lead based on the evidence and reality of our evolved selves.  There is, frankly, no greater wonder available to us than the wonder of nature.  There is no greater complexity, no greater mystery and certainly no story more interesting to us as our own as we continue to live on this planet.  The question remains, however: how do we bring as many of our fellow Homo sapiens as possible along with us?

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, February 14th, 2010


REVUES FROM THE REV: “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson

Sunday, February 14th, 2010


Did you know that our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells — that we could be accurately described as a “bacterial ecosystem”?  I didn’t until I read this book.

E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, retired Harvard professor and a specialist in ants.  He is also a Southerner by birth, and in this eloquent book he addresses himself to a Southern Baptist Preacher in his plea for that influential believer’s help in halting the rapidly accelerating extinction of much of the Earth’s (as of yet undocumented) biodiversity.  Wilson’s affinity for his imagined Preacher is natural-born, and he aims to persuade on the basis of a shared passion for the sanctity of life under the mantle of “stewardship”.  Wilson knows his Bible, and he knows his audience.  Whether he will convince conservative Evangelicals is an open question.  If in the end he does not, it will not be for lack of grace or sincerity in his presentation.  And his presentation is quietly astounding.  I frankly had no idea that we have (at this point in our history) left such a vast swath of the living organisms on our little planet undiscovered and unstudied.  Wilson estimates that we have discovered only ten percent of the life forms on earth, and that fewer than one percent of those have been studied beyond a description and basic natural history.  Wilson’s plea, then, is made from the humility the naturalist feels when confronting the scope of The Creation combined with the student’s excitement at the yet-to-be revealed potentialities hidden in that which awaits “discovery”.

Wilson’s starting point is that we humans took a dark turn during our “Neolithic Revolution” when we began to rely on the human-imposed agriculture that made the rapid rise into our modern age possible.  Such a growth spurt has allowed us humans to become a powerful agent of extinction on the planet (and here he is careful to describe the difference between the “natural” cycle of extinction and the arrival of new species and the increased levels of extinction associated with human activity).  And yet Wilson is an optimist — being hopeful is clearly in his nature.

One surprising aspect of this book (aside from the stunning examples he gives of our current knowledge of nature set against our ignorance) is that Wilson — though speaking to a Baptist — pulls no punches on the differences between his naturalistic view of The Creation and the Creationist/Intelligent Design view.  Wilson has no appeasing bones in his body, relying instead on honesty and open-handedness to open a path to understanding between this naturalist and Evangelicals.

Wilson offers a cogent description of science and scientists that is at once true and useful.  He compares individual scientists to the worker ants he studies “…by and large…too modest to be prophets, too easily bored to be philosophers, and too trusting to be politicians.”  Concluding:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

Wilson later offers a clear explanation of why Intelligent Design cannot be treated as a valid scientific hypothesis.

There is a quiet grace to this love letter to our species as it attempts to open our eyes to our precarious grip on (and our deep connection to) the thin band of life that clings to our planet.  The truth is simple: we are inseparable from nature, and nature from us.  I found many passages in this book worthy of remembering.  I believe you will too…even if you’re not a Baptist Minister.

the not-so-reverend bob

THE RIGHT TOOL. Modern medicine and belief. By the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

I’d have to say that I am not impressed by the efficacy of the “12-hour” cough suppressant I took last night.  I have this vague sense that it might “be doing something”, but those are thoughts that occur in the interregnum between jags of coughing that are clearly part and parcel of whatever bug it is that I’ve been carrying in my body these past weeks.

We get “sick”.  It’s is as much a part of living as anything else.  To a virus or bacteria, my body is a welcoming neighborhood blinking with neon signs advertising a variety of restaurants, bars and all-you-can-eat buffets.  The “bugs” that infect us have been evolving right along with us for billions of years.  The fact that the little buggers reproduce so rapidly means that we can never out-adapt them.  Fortunately, we have an immune response that (in most cases) tracks down the invader and beats the crap out of it (sometimes breaking a few glasses and turning over a few chairs in the process), then posts a picture of the invader to let him know he’s not welcome to return unless he wants “more of the same”.

It’s interesting to note that the average five year old knows more about the true causes of disease than a royal surgeon of a few hundred years ago.  We didn’t even know virus existed until about a hundred years ago — and we’d never seen one until the invention of electron microscopy in 1931.  As modern humans, we now know that illness is not caused by bad “bodily humors” or the alignment of planets or “miasmas” rising from damp swamps at night: illness is caused by other living organisms just following their own irresistible impulse toward survival.

That is about the only “why” there is regarding getting sick: the mechanics of it.  And yet we can’t help but attach a moral narrative to it as well.  I sensed this as I perused the shelves of my local health-food store looking for a throat lozenge that wasn’t mostly sugar and that might have some direct topical effect on the tickle in my throat:  What I saw before me (and felt from the worker in the “herbal” section) was a testament to belief — a new age version of the attitude that illness represents the evidence of an ethical or spiritual failing of some sort.  In short, I was sick because I had violated some rule of health.

I’m familiar with this idea, as it was part and parcel of the miracle-believing Christian Evangelicalism in which I spent 15 years.  In the case of Evangelicalism, disease was a result of original sin — mankind’s fall from grace in the garden — and was therefore part of the evil in the creation that required Jesus’ sacrificial atonement.  What my visit to the health-food store showed me is that this attitude is not limited to Evangelicalism but is more universal in us humans, resting just below the surface of our scientifically-informed reasoning minds.

Consider (what we might regard as) the extreme and obvious examples of AIDS and the “lesser” sexually-transmitted diseases that are so heavily loaded with the baggage of morality and divine justice that they require aggressive government information campaigns to establish some minimum of rationality in the actual discussion of how to fight the diseases themselves.  We in the “enlightened” West may look down on the ignorance of tribal people or despots who blame evil spirits for disease, but we are only a half-step away from our own irrational fears of the unknown.

We have come so far in understanding the human body and its systems and the causes and treatments of disease and injury.  Compare what we know now to a hundred years ago — even fifty — and one can’t help but feel grateful for scientific knowledge.  But as E. O. Wilson (in “The Creation”) points to the incredible percentage of the planet’s biodiversity that awaits discovery, I likewise can’ t help but think about how much more we will know about human health and disease in the next fifty years.  For it’s become almost impossible to pick up a magazine without reading of a new discovery: you can almost feel the pace of human learning as it continues to accelerate.  Technology is no different.  Look at the cell phone in your hand and you will see a design that was unknown two years ago (six months ago?) and that most of us now expect to abandon for a newer device in a relatively short time.

It is an exciting time to be alive, frankly.  Discovery builds upon discovery.

But I can’t walk into the store and find a pill that will go straight to this damn cough in my chest and quiet it down.  I mean really, truly, effectively make it stop.

My brother is an M.D. who is also an impressive thinker (and a bit of a philosopher), and so I have grown up with an understanding of both the wonders and the limits of modern medicine.  Repairing our bodies is sort of like repairing our cars — some problems are clear and have an easy fix.  Other problems are trickier and hard to track down.  This is where medicine is still part “art” and part “science”.  The fact of medicine is that we tend to fight off most “bugs” on our own, with many modern medications being useful for treating uncomfortable symptoms (generally).  But then there are the times when the antibiotic or the emergency surgery quite simply keep us from dying.  But mostly we live in the middle, murky ground where “cough suppressants” may help, or the herbal remedy or special diet “seem to do something”.  This is the realm of “belief” where our ancient superstitions rule our reason.

When I get sick, I generally call my brother on the phone to find out how sick I am and what I should do about it.  I’ve learned that what I’m really after is facts.  For the experience of illness can be a very opaque process — as if we are hosts to a show we can’t see with our own eyes — so I crave an understanding of what is happening inside this body of mine.  Almost always I will feel better about things (and my anxiety levels will drop) if I can picture or imagine what process is going on among my cells and antibodies.  My brother is very good at this kind of information.  But even his information has limits, as there is no way to keep up with every bug or bacteria that is swilling about a city or community at any given time (though most present variations on a general theme).  When something novel comes up (say the threatened outbreak of a new influenza strain) things get serious and the DNA of the new bug is sequenced and vaccines made ready.

The fact that medical science doesn’t have the resources or the knowledge yet to immediately sequence the particular bug I caught last week and in a day develop the perfect anti-viral pill to knock it out is not surprising, really.  But of course that is just what I would like to have happen.  This conflicts with my rational mind that is able to be content with the general knowledge that I’ve been invaded by an opportunistic virus that has evolved to trigger my lungs to coughing fits solely to facilitate the perpetuation of the virus itself (clever little bastard).  I’m not being punished or attacked by any force or entity other than another living organism that has a need to reproduce.  Hell, half of the cells in my body are bacteria — with over 700 kinds living in my mouth at any given time (many having co-evolved with humans and sharing an often symbiotic relationship).

I like to be efficient.  I don’t like to waste time or energy.  And I don’t like being stupid.  So I want to know what’s going on in my body and what (if anything) I can be doing about it.  It is this need to feel like we’re doing something that clears the shelves of most health-food and drug stores.  Nine times out of ten, I’d guess, it is the placebo effect of our own belief that is the major “active” ingredient in most “treatments”.  But as I stood there in the aisle of the health food store I felt very clearly that such an effect wasn’t going to cut it with me.  I didn’t need something to believe in, I needed information and something that would work — would be worth the money and the time.  And if there simply isn’t anything, fine.  At least I’d know that.

Vitamin C, herbs, tinctures, homeopathic formulas and the like with little or no science to back them up are, in essence, belief cures, useful more for calming the need to take action than for their actual results.

I think back on undeniable medical successes: the Vicodin that got me through the first days of a huge kidney stone stuck somewhere near my hip — there was no imagination needed to feel that narcotic knock excruciating pain on its heels: the anti-viral pills that transform the occasional herpetic outbreak from suffering worthy of its moniker to a few days of mild annoyance; the ibuprofen that calmed the pain of the separated rib; the root canal that removed a painful and stubborn infection from my molar.  These are like the times that I put new spark plugs in my truck and the truck ran noticeably better right away (compared to the many repairs of slight or questionable result).  They are the exception.  These are the times when modern medicine is a wonder.

I think we have to both recognize the limitations of what we know even as we press ahead to learn more.  What I see, however, is an entrenchment in belief and superstition in the face of scientific progress, as if science’ lack of complete knowledge justifies a continued irrational reliance on a fuzzy sort of metaphysical folk medicine with moral undertones.  I don’t want to believe, I want to know.  And to the extent that belief gets in the way of knowing, belief simply needs to yield.  Belief in unsubstantiated causes of illness (and the treatments of the same) holds us back as it wraps us in a comfortable (and familiar) blanket of fear and ignorance.

I’d be great if I could take a pill that knocked this cough out (like a narcotic can) without having all the side-effects (and addictive danger) of an actual narcotic.  But instead it seems the best I can do is this damn disappointing pill.

There is so much to know that it is unfair to blame science for not knowing it…yet.  The workers are few.  Instead of using the limitations of our knowledge as a justification for our own ignorance, let’s help things along.  Donate to research.  Help cure a disease.  If I can’t do anything about the bug in my chest  right now (besides wait it out), I can at least do something tangible, rational and practical and feel better that way.

t.n.s.r. bob