Here is a link to the audio of the Dennett talk delivered at Seattle Town Hall if you want to hear it again, or if you missed it. It was a terrific interview.
Today I'm thinking about fear. Fear is absolutely necessary to our existence. It keeps us from doing stupid things, from taking unwarranted and unnecessary risks, like wandering down dark alleys and eating random mushrooms. We need fear to keep us alive. Survival is good.
But, natural and necessary fear can be corrupted too. There are very interesting data suggesting that rats and mice infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, are driven to take insane risks, exposing themselves to hungry cats, who eat the rodents, thus allowing completion of the parasite's life cycle. The parasite in the rodents inhabits the amygdyla, which is believed to be the region of the brain primarily responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
An interesting aspect of fear is that it can be conditioned to a nonspecific response. I cite the example of a study of dubious ethics called the "Little Albert Experiment" from the 1920s. In summary, an 11 month old infant was trained to fear a white rat and this paranoia was generalized to other white furry objects, such as dogs, rabbits and even balls of cotton. Thus demonstrating that irrational fear can be learned, and it can be generalized.
Fear can be paralyzing. It can be dangerous. It can cause people to hate. It can cause missed opportunities. Fear allows people in power to exploit us. Even the most superficial look at history shows how power can exploit fear. In the middle ages it was dangerous to contradict the king, or the church. Thinkers in medieval Europe who had the temerity to question the dictates of church and state were accused of witchcraft and heresy and were rewarded for their independent thought with persecution, torture and sometimes death.
And you don't have to look very far in modern times to see irrational fear operating. Look at the anti-vaccine movement, which, based on fraudulent data, has resulted in the death of many innocents and a weakening of herd immunity. Another example is the old fear of fluoridation of the water supply, which is one of the great victories of modern public health. This meme seems to have started as part of anti-communist paranoia, is still evident today. I love this quote from Wikipedia, "Specific antifluoridation arguments change to match the spirit of the time," which reminds me of Carl Sagan's comparison of demon possession (often in the form of succubi and incubi in the middle of the night) which has now morphed into a modern form of possession: alien abductions.
Fear is certainly not confined to the politics of ancient history, it is easily found in modern politics too. Look at how the Bush administration exploited the post-9/11 paranoia and the mysterious non-existent "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to hoodwink the press and public into a 5 trillion dollar war resulting in the deaths of over 4,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of civilians, and a legacy of wounded that will cost untold psychological suffering and monetary costs that will last decades. All for the sake of fear, and all in the name of "freedom," whatever that means.
So, what is the antidote to infectious, paranoid fear?
They say that the best disinfectant is sunlight. And, although I suspect this is just a metaphor, I believe it is apt. Information. Data. Science. All of these things bring truth to power, and truth can be humbling. It is no surprise that the first victims of the fascists are the intellectuals. Intellectuals of all stripes; journalists, scientists, artists, linguists. In short, people who dare to think. So, although I'm publishing this a day late, in commemoration of Memorial Day I ask you to do the following: think. Think, not only about the fallen heroes, but think about how we can avoid the fallen heroes of the future. Ask questions. Question authority. Question everything. Are GMO foods really dangerous? Is the "War On Terror" really worth the casualties of our civil rights? Is "our" God really better than their God? Is "God on our side?" Is global climate change unavoidable? Thinking is, in my opinion, is an act of patriotism. Exercising your rationality is your right. It is your duty. It is your obligation. It is the skeptical, logical, right, thing to do. So, I ask you, from the Do Ya Think Blog headquarters: Do you?
Below, I have posted a couple of videos from the World War II era that I ask you to review while you think about thinking.
Science is a work in progress. I love the fact that some of the geeks gave completely differing answers. BTW my fave symbol is Pi--especially when it comes with ice cream. Mainly because it is unlimited.
We have the good fortune in Seattle to have an institution called Town Hall Seattle, which attracts some wonderful celebrities, usually promoting books, to give talks for a very reasonable entry fee--generally five bucks. Tomorrow they are hosting famous philosopher and atheist Daniel Dennett along with George Dyson in a lecture entitled "Thinking About Thinking." Unfortunately, the event is sold out. Fortunately for me, I have an advance ticket.
Looking very much like Santa Claus, and just about as jolly, Dr. Dennett has the distinction, some would say infamy, of being one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism." The other three horsemen are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the now-deceased Christopher Hitchens--distinguished company, indeed. Dennett is the co-director of the Tufts University Center For Cognitive Studies. He is author of prominent and popular books "Breaking the Spell" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," neither of which I've read (They're on the list.). Some of his favorite topics are evolution, the evolution of religion and consciousness, and the nature of freewill. His homepage has an extensive collection of links to videos, a couple of which I have highlighted below. I'm looking forward to seeing his lecture at Town Hall and let's hope that they schedule his next appearance in the "Great Hall," as he so richly deserves, and not the smaller room downstairs, so that he can reach a larger Seattle audience. If Town Hall makes available a video of his talk, I promise to post a link for the benefit of the folks who couldn't get in.
So, congratulations to Dr. Dennett for your recognition as a Do Ya Think Blog Rational Hero--and a hearty welcome to Seattle.
A few days ago I blogged about birds-of paradise. Below is another kind. Look what evolution--and probably horticulture--has given us. Enjoy.
The Astronomy Picture of the Day Provides a nice graphic with clickable explanations about future space missions.
CSICON (Joint Conference of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry) is Coming to Tacoma Washington. Yay!
About a month ago I recognized Dr. Stephen Barrett as the Do Ya Think Blog's "Rational Hero of the Week" for his fantastic work with the Quackwatch organization. Quackwatch is a wonderful website that describes itself as "Your guide to quackery, health fraud and intelligent decisions."
Someone who self-identifies as Lindsey T. Nugent posted the following response to my blog entry:
"Judging by your Quackwatch post, you don't have a clue about either allopathic or alternative medicine. Let's start with something simple: diet. Convince me that you don't currently have the same diet as you did in college: pizza and beer."
I am honored Lindsey, that you have taken time out of what I imagine is your very busy day to deliver this personal comment. A wonderful example of of an ad hominem argument, with a possible tinge of the straw man fallacy. For those who don't know, an ad hominem is an attack of an opponent's motives or character rather than the policy or position they maintain. This attack, probably motivated by pictures of me on my website that shows my considerable girth, is, of course, completely irrelevant to the fine work of Dr. Barrett. I say a "possible tinge" of straw man fallacy, which is a misrepresentation of an opponent's position--well, perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to call this a "straw man,"--but is it possible that Mr. (or Ms.?) Nugent is trying to cast aspersions on Dr. Barrett by implying that an admirer might not know what he's talking about?
I submit that even if I smoked cigarettes by the carton, guzzled fifths of cheap liquor, was completely sedentary, stuffed cocaine up my nose daily, and was a meth addict, that my personal health habits would be completely irrelevant. Furthermore, my supposed cluelessness about allopathic and (ahem) "alternative" medicine is also a red herring. Now, I suppose, I could wave around my credentials, but that would be another logical fallacy known as "argument from authority," so, I'll restrain myself.
But I'm not posting this for that reason. You Lindsey T. Nugent are the FIRST to attack this blogger. The Do Ya Think Blog, which is still in it's infancy, is only about three months old and receiving only about 50 to 150 daily hits (and growing! Thanks fans!). Alas, now I'm not a blog virgin anymore. I can't promise that other trolls will be so-recognized. But, you Lindsey are the first--and will always be so. Congratulations and I thank you.
IBM has shared with us what they describe as the "World's Smallest Stop-Motion Film." They used scanning tunneling microscopy to re-arrange groups of carbon monoxide molecules to create a video story at the atomic level. I know that I use the term "kewl" way too often in this blog, and I'm tempted to call this technology "groovy" instead. But, considering that IBM was founded in 1911, perhaps even "groovy" is too modern. So, I'm going with the "cat's pajamas," which apparently goes back at least to the 1920s. IBM is remarkable not only for its longevity, but its contribution to scientific research. IBM employees have won five Nobel prizes and created a number of notable inventions, including magnetic stripes, ATMs, UPCs, floppy drives, hard disc drives, and Watson Artificial Intelligence. Check out the IBM wiki for more info and other inventions.
The story conveyed in the video (below left) really isn't nearly as compelling as the technology. Perhaps they should have consulted with the film director Atom Egoyan? (Sorry about that.) As one You Tube commenter noted "Maybe the book was better," another commenter is hoping for "atomic porn." Hmmm.
One of the more intriguing facts, as describe in the "making of" video (below right), is that they can not only see at the atomic level, but they also can actually HEAR the molecules as they are dragged across the surface. One wonders whether their next feat will be molecular rap--or, at least, molecular scratch music. Anyhow, thanks IBM. Maybe your next invention I'll describe as the "cat's meow."
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.