Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Well, so far so good on my goal of posting every day for a week. Maybe tomorrow I'll add the goal of actually posting before 11:55. (Well, starting the post before 11:55--the post is dated by the time I started writing it, not the time I finished, so technically this post didn't go up till Thursday. Eh, close enough.)

Anyway, because it is once again so late, this will be a very brief post. I will just mention that a week ago last Saturday (that is to say, the 17th--yeah, I'm way behind on posting), I went to my second meeting of the Independent Investigations Group. As I'd mentioned in a previous post, the first meeting I went to was, I was told, rather...atypical. This month's meeting was apparently more like the usual.

And what it mostly consisted of was a discussion of various pseudoscientific claims, and methods of debunking them or spreading the word about its falseness. I managed to help out a little myself, possibly, in that one of the things they were wanting to do was experimentally test some sort of patch (I forget what it was called) that was supposed to block the radio waves from cell phones from harming the phone's user. (Of course, they all already know on theoretical grounds that the patch can't possibly be doing what it's claimed to be doing, not to mention that there's no evidence the radio waves from cell phones are actually in any way harmful anyway, but saying "We tested it, and it doesn't work" is likely to be more convincing to the less scientifically literate than "Although we haven't tried it, we know it doesn't work because of the following scientific principles".) As it happens, the lab where I pursue my graduate studies has access to a Faraday cage, one of the things they'd need for the test, and I gave them the contact info for the person in charge and some advice on how to approach him to ask if they can do their test there. No guarantee he'll say yes, of course, but there's no harm in asking.

The IIG also offers a reward for those who can successfully demonstrate any sort of paranormal ability--similar in principle to the million-dollar challenge offered by James Randi, although the amount of money involved is smaller (then again, so are the criteria for being tested; Randi's gotten overwhelmed enough with challengers he's had to start screening them first). Well, we've got a potential challenger, a dowser from Alabama. According to the other IIG members, this guy seems not only more confident than most of the paranormal claimants they've seen in the past, but much more collected and careful in his claims--which leads them to be nervous that he may have some trickery up his sleeve, so they're going to be especially cautious with him. Anyway, I volunteered to be on the committee to come up with the testing procedure for him; the committee hasn't met yet, but it should be interesting when it does.

Okay, so, that's the second post in my planned seven consecutive days of posting. Two down, five to go.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And On The Seventh Day, I'll Rest--After Posting, Of Course

Well, I haven't been very good about updating this blog lately. Things have been busy, and with all I've had going on it's been hard to find time for it. But, as usual, there are plenty of things I've been wanting to post about; I just haven't gotten around to actually writing up the posts.

So. I'm going to set myself a goal. I'm going to post to my blog every day for one week--running from today to next Monday. (Yeah, it's kind of odd to start on a Tuesday; I meant to start yesterday or Sunday but didn't get a chance to post--which I realize isn't an auspicious start to this project, but, well...) I'm certainly not counting on continuing with daily postings indefinitely, but at least for seven days I think I can handle it, and maybe that'll get me in the habit of posting more often so, while I'm not likely to keep posting every day, at least I'll post more frequently than I have been.

And yes, this post does count as the first of the seven. Yeah, maybe that's a bit of a cheat, but it could be worse--I briefly thought about backdating the first post to yesterday so I could start on a Monday, which would be a worse cheat. Anyway, tomorrow's post will have more meat to it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

America in Crisis?

Okay, I really want to update more often, but I've been very busy lately--to tell the truth, I'm kind of in a tough financial situation at the moment, and I've been spending a lot of time, well, trying to work out a way out of it. But anyway, as usual, there've been a number of things I've been wanting to post about; I just haven't been able to find the time to write the posts.

I don't generally like discussing politics. I'm reluctant to label myself as strongly liberal or conservative--my parents and siblings definitely consider me a liberal, but then, they're pretty much way out on the far right, so in comparison to them I guess I am. And, truthfully, if I had to pick one or the other, I find myself sympathizing much more often with liberals than conservatives...but it seems to me that both sides have some good points, and both sides--especially the extremists on both sides--make a lot of mistakes.

(And, of course, it's actually an oversimplification to refer to there being two distinct sides in the first place; "conservative" and "liberal" are very fuzzy categories to begin with. I think this country's political discourse would improve greatly if, for example, more Democrats would realize that not all Republicans are rabid fans of Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter, and similarly more Republicans that not all Democrats worship at the altar of Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan. Bloggers on both the left and the right have a tendency to tar everyone on the other side with the same hateful brush; it's rhetoric that may make them feel better about themselves but does nothing to really help the discussion.)

All that being said, while I don't like to label myself politically...I've seen a lot of good reasons to dislike the current administration. Its well-documented hostility toward science, for one; the Bush administration has censored references to the Big Bang on NASA's website, it's been sympathetic toward the pernicious agenda of Intelligent Design, and it's gone out of its way to try to squelch discussion of global warming. While I've never been a zealous Democrat who automatically assumes all Republicans are vile and corrupt--actually, I've never been a registered Democrat at all--at the moment the Democrats seem to me to be very much the lesser of the two evils.

That being said, though, I've been skeptical of some of the more extreme anti-Bush claims. That the Iraq War was really all about oil. That the Bush administration is intentionally leading the nation toward theocracy. That Bush's domestic policies are pushing America toward economic catastrophic. And when I say I've been skeptical toward these claims, I don't mean that I was convinced they were false; I only mean that I wasn't convinced they were true. I'd seen them leveled, but it seemed possible to me they were just hyperbole; I hadn't really seen enough hard evidence to persuade me. And anyway, as noted above, I already had enough reason to dislike the current administration; I didn't really feel the need to investigate these claims, because I wasn't going to be voting for Bush or one of his cronies anyway (unless the Democrats somehow managed to put forward an even more appalling candindate--and even then, I might consider voting for a third party).

The reason I bring all this up is as a roundabout way of explaining why the subject of last night's meeting of the Skeptic's Book Club, Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, is not the sort of book I would otherwise have been likely to read. I'm not much interested in politics, and, while I may not like George W. Bush, I don't go out of my way to find more reasons not to like him--and that seemed to be what this book was all about.

Despite the title, though, American Theocracy isn't all about the role of religion in contemporary politics. That's one of the three main subjects Phillips covers, but he devotes about as much space to two other themes--the importance of oil in contemporary American politics, and the current reliance of the American economy on massive debt and financialization. He also presents how similar situations have characterized the last days of some major empires of the past--the obvious implication being that, if things don't change, America as we know it may be on its last legs as well.

(Incidentally, I do tend to wonder what it would mean for America to collapse. The previous empires Phillips compares it with are those of declining Rome, sixteenth-century Spain, seventeenth-century Netherlands, and early-twentieth-century England. But none of those empires just disappeared; with the exception of Rome, the core of each of them is still around, just shorn of its colonies. So presumably Phillips doesn't mean to imply that America would cease to exist (which would seem an incredible claim anyway--who would take it over? Japan? Canada?)--but then what exactly is it that its fall would mean? I assume that--aside from perhaps losing some of its overseas dependencies--Phillips's thesis is that America will continue to exist, but lose its status as a major world power, or at least as the preeminent world power. It's not entirely clear, though, at least in the part of the book I've read so far--of course, it's possible he becomes more explicit nearer the end.)

I only checked the book out from the library last week, and I didn't manage to finish it before the book club meeting, but I did get three quarters of the way through--I read completely the first two sections, on oil and religion, and it's only the part on debt I haven't completely read yet. But, as it turned out, I wasn't alone; most of the others at the book club hadn't finished the book yet either. But this book was going to be the subject of discussion at two consecutive book club meetings, so we all have another month to read the rest.

Anyway, I didn't think all the details of Phillips' points were particularly well-supported; the fact that he cites Wikipedia as a source for some of his information didn't impress me, and the fact that he frequently cites his own other books seems odd (certainly he must know what the primary sources were from which he got the information in those books, right?) Still, enough of what he says has reliable sources backing it up that I think he still makes some pretty strong cases. And he's fairly even-handed about the matter, too; it's not just an anti-Republican smear job. He implicates Clinton as much as Republican presidents in warring for oil, and while he gives Carter relatively high marks on the energy front he doesn't spare him in the discussion of the influence of religion on politics. I may have had my doubts before reading this book that oil was really as important a factor behind the Iraq invasion as many leftists claimed it was, but after reading this I'm much less dubious about the matter--and I'm surprised just how much of America's foreign policy has been oil-driven.

As for the religious angle, I did learn something that I feel I really ought to have known--I hadn't realized just how huge the Southern Baptist Convention was. I guess I'd kind of assumed it was just a fairly small but vocal group confined to a relatively small area; I was shocked to learn it's "the strongly dominant Protestant church" in fourteen states and one of the top four religious denominations in thirteen others, including California, and that it's the fastest-growing major religion in the United States. It's not just some minor fringe religion; it's got sixteen million members, and it's extremely politically powerful. Like I said, this is something I guess I should have known, but I didn't--I wrote a post about Utah and the effects of monolithic religion there, but I've never been to the Deep South, and now I'm getting the impression it might be much the same, but with the Southern Baptist Convention substituted for the LDS church.

One thing I was not surprised to read, incidentally, was that Mormons as a block are strong supporters of the Republican Party. This wasn't news to me; as I said, my parents and siblings are pretty far out on the right, and they're all staunch Republicans, and I've certainly noticed that that seems to be the norm among Mormons--if not so much so here in California as in Utah. (Ironically, of my immediate family, my brother is the one who's the least extreme in his politics, despite being the one who lives in Utah and is the closest to the Mormon power base. Mind you, though, it's all relative; he may not be quite as extreme as my parents, but I've still heard him say, for example, that he thinks the ACLU is literally run by the devil.) Although the LDS church has built up a far-reaching alliance with the fundamentalists, though, I can't help but think it's somewhat short-sighted on their part. The Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist Christians have no love for the LDS church, which they don't consider Christian at all, and as soon as they decide they don't need them anymore, that alliance is gone.

Along those lines, during the discussion at the book club I was asked whether I thought, given the Mormons' support of the religious right, whether it would go the other way--whether the fundamentalist wing of the Republican party would be willing to vote for Mitt Romney. No, absolutely not. I'm pretty sure it doesn't go both ways, and Southern Baptists would be not much more likely to vote for a Mormon than they would an atheist. But what if it came down to a choice between Romney or Hillary Clinton, I was asked. Well, I don't expect it to even come to that--Romney has to get through the primaries first, and I'll be very surprised if he emerges as the Republican candidate. (As for what I think of Romney--I don't know enough about him to have much of an opinion. As I'm not registered Republican, I won't be voting in the Republican primaries anyway, so I don't have much reason to find out more about him.)

(Incidentally, if America did collapse, in whatever sense...I wonder what repercussions that would have on the LDS church. The church is very proud of the fact it's recently gotten to the point where there are more Mormons outside America than in it, but it's still very much based in the U.S.A.; the church headquarters in Salt Lake City are in America, of course, and all three members of the First Presidency are Americans, as well as eleven of the twelve apostles. (For that matter, seven of the twelve apostles and all three members of the First Presidency are Utah natives--for all its worldwide spread, the church still mostly picks its leaders from close to home.) More importantly, though, the United States of America plays a big part in LDS doctrines and prophecies. It's the Promised Land; the founding fathers were inspired by God; America was prepared so that the church could be restored here. I think it's a pretty fair bet that any major decrease in the power of the U.S.A. could cause the LDS church a comparable crisis. Then again, there's also a prophecy well known in the church that the Constitution would hang by a thread and the elders of Zion would save it. Though, naturally, it's never been specified exactly what that would mean, it's very likely that if things in America did come to an obvious crisis church members, if maybe not church leaders, would claim it was fulfillment of that prophecy--or of the first part, anyway. How long they'd manage to spin it that way with the second part not forthcoming, I couldn't say...)

Anyway, the discussion at the book club meeting was, as usual, lively and interesting, though since I was far from the only one who hadn't gotten through the third part of the book yet it focused on the first two. There was a lot of talk of alternate sources of energy, and on the potential benefits of solar energy, for example.

I don't know. America being on the brink of collapse is a strong enough claim that it's going to take a lot to fully convince me, and Phillips' book doesn't seal the deal. But he does make a strong enough case that, while I'm not absolutely convinced he's right, it does seem like a possibility...I guess it'll be interesting to see what the next few decades hold.

As I said, I don't generally like discussing politics, so I won't be making many political posts; the only reason I made this one was because the Skeptics' Book Club had just covered a political book. Of course, like I said, this book was slated to be discussed at two consecutive meetings, so I guess I'll probably be making another post about it next month--by which time I will have read the rest of it...