Monthly Archives: September 2012

Crucifixions in Egypt

The headline read:

Egypt’s Christians in Grave Danger as Muslim Brotherhood Crucifies Opponents.

It appeared on the Website of the American Center for Law and Justice, a watchdog organization “committed to ensuring the ongoing viability of freedom and liberty in the United States and around the world.” They describe themselves as “a non-profit organization … dependent upon God and the resources He provides through the time, talent, and gifts of people who share our concerns and desire to protect our religious and constitutional freedoms.”

As high-minded as that sounds, their article was a textbook example of the cynical manipulation of a donor base. Whatever your political persuasion, see if you recognize their tactics in the organizations that solicit your money.

It begins sensationally:

Numerous reports have emerged this week that the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, that now controls the government of Egypt, has begun crucifying Christians in that country.

Middle East news media have reported that the Muslim Brotherhood has “crucified those opposing Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi naked on trees in front of the presidential palace while abusing others.” Those opposing the new radical Islamic regime include Christians, and experts have suggested that “extra brutality is reserved for Christians.”

Now that you are all spun up, they say what they have done on your behalf.

The ACLJ just sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to take action to stop this atrocity.

A copy of their letter is here, signed by two of the ACLJ’s top lawyers.

Crucifixions??? I decided to fact-check. Within 2 minutes, I had located an excellent article that not only debunked the whole crucifixion rumor, but chronicled how it got started.

The remarkable thing is how obvious the debunking was. It makes you say, “Of course!” For example:

…the story doesn’t just allege that a crucifixion has taken place somewhere in Egypt: It alleges that multiple crucifixions have taken place in front of the presidential palace. That would be the equivalent of, say, mass lynchings taking place in front of the White House, or a giant gang rape taking place in front of Ottawa’s Centennial Flame fountain.
 “If that happened, wouldn’t someone, you know, take a picture?” I asked one of the friends who emailed me the WorldNetDaily link [a source of the rumor]. Maybe just a few shots with a cell phone camera from one of the tens of thousands of people who no doubt would have witnessed this Biblical horror in one of the most densely trafficked patches of real estate in the entire Arab world?
And yet, not one of the stories I saw had a photo — or even names or descriptions of any of the supposed crucifixion victims.

If that’s not convincing enough, we have this:

Here’s how one [Coptic Christian] put it in an email to WorldNetDaily: “I am an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, i.e. Egyptian Christian, my mother and members of my family live within a stone throw from the presidential palace. I talk to my mother every other day. If something like what you mentioned in your article took place, she [would] be the first one to know.”

An ordinary reporter was able to uncover those obvious reasons to doubt the crucifixion rumors. The first reason required no research whatsoever, just common sense. The second only required talking to someone near the scene.

So how come the high-powered lawyers for the ACLJ didn’t exercise that minimal due diligence before wasting the time of our Secretary of State? Are they that gullible and/or stupid?

I don’t think so. They knew no crucifixions were taking place, but saw the rumor as an opportunity to get their donors all fired up. It was all a cynical ploy.

Look at their article and their letter closely. They never actually state that crucifixions have happened, only that “numerous reports have emerged” to that effect. (The one exception is the headline to draw you in. And as many of the contracts I’ve signed have stated, headings don’t count in court.)

Yet a reader — especially one whose mind is already biased toward the ACLJ — will come away with the impression that the crucifixions are a fact so well-established that they merit a letter to the United States Secretary of State.

The American Center for Law and Justice is certainly aware of the American judicial concept of due process. So why didn’t they follow due process in checking out this rumor? It can only be because their real purpose was not to spread truth, but to motivate donors.

Sometimes I wonder if organizations like the ACLJ even believe in their own cause. If they’re for “justice” why don’t they follow basic judicial principles like due process in all they do? Maybe they’re only in it for the money.

On the other hand, maybe they do believe in their cause, and believe so passionately that the ends come to justify the means.

I don’t know what to think. What do you think?

And do you see the ACLJ’s brand of cynical manipulation in the fund-raising appeals from left-leaning organizations as well? From organizations that you support? How does it make you feel? It sure discourages me. I hate supporting the least-evil rather than the good. *Sigh*

Deepities

Oh, wow!

Oh, wow!

If you enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s Canons of Good Spin last time, you’ll really enjoy a term he unveiled shortly afterward in the same speech: deepity.

A deepity is a proposition that

  • seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed;
  • has at least two readings and balances precariously between them;
  • on one reading is true but trivial; and
  • on the other reading is false but would be Earth-shattering if true.

The true-but-trivial reading is enough to slide it into your brain, where the false reading sneaks out and messes up your head.

Dennett gives one example: Love is just a word.

The first reading would put quotes around love: “Love” is just a word. Yes, it is a word. It has four letters. True and trivial.

The second reading is without the quotes: Love is just a word. As Dennett says, whatever love is, it is not a word. It may be an interpersonal relationship, an emotion, the most wonderful phenomenon in human psychology, or it may be an illusion. But whatever it is, it is not a word. To say it is, is to commit a use-mention error: confusion the use of the word with the mention of it.

Here are more you may have heard.

We’re just arguing over semantics. The confusion here arises because many people don’t know what “semantics” means. They think it means “just words” but it actually means “the meaning of words.”

True but trivial reading: We’re arguing about word choices.

False but profound reading: Discussions about meaning are a waste of time.

Free will and predestination are in tension.

True but trivial reading:  In theology, “free will” and “predestination” are ideas in opposition to each other.

False but profound reading: God predestines us to be saved or damned, but we can choose for ourselves.  

Beauty is only skin-deep.

True but trivial: You can’t see underneath someone’s skin.

False but profound: Beauty does not or should not matter. If you care about it, you are shallow. The fact is that an important part of being human is being attracted to beauty, including beauty in the opposite sex. Furthermore, a person’s supposedly unimportant looks are often the result of choices they have made as a result of their supposedly all-important character. Few people are so irredeemeably ugly that they cannot appear beautiful on the outside if they are beautiful on the inside. In that sense, you can see underneath someone’s skin.

Are there any deepities you would like to add to this list?

Canons of Good Spin

During this season of political conventions, I thought you might enjoy these Canons of Good Spin from Daniel Dennett.

Spin is effective if…

  1. It is not a bare-faced lie.
  2. You can say it with a straight face.
  3. It relieves skepticism without arousing curiosity.
  4. It seems profound.

In my experience with spin, both political and religious (which is Dennett’s topic), the real art is in the third one.

The only people who will be convinced by spin are people who are already on that side. The spinmeister’s objective is to keep them there. Fortunately, that’s what they want, t0o. They want to believe they have been right all along. If they have slight doubts then the spinmeister’s job is to put those doubts to rest — i.e., back to sleep. If the spinmeister can merely relieve skepticism, as opposed to honestly addressing it, he will have done his job. Curiosity is his enemy, for nobody who is curious is asleep.

31 Days – All the Little Things

Curious GeorgeAs fun as it is to wonder about big things like UFOsthe boundary of life, music and cool science, it’s even more fun to keep an attitude of wonder for all the little things we encounter in a day. So, to wrap up August’s 31 Days of Wonder, that’s what I did yesterday. I kept a little running journal. Here’s some of what I wrote. What would you write in yours?

  • Why do we care whether our presidents are “likeable”? You don’t want someone who will alienate the world, but as long as he’s a decent enough guy, isn’t competence much more important?
  • Why do people choose unusual hair styles? What’s the story of that young man in the grocery store and his unique, up-swept ‘do? How about the guy at work who has a long, scraggly chin-beard but an otherwise-shaved head?
  • My fancy keyboard gives me a choice of LED colors. Why do I like purple much more than yellow, green or white?
  • I’m fortunate to have an interesting job, but what percent of people are bored for 8 hours every day, for 40 years? How depressing that would be!
  • Why are some people particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories?
  • Why do some people like flashy, red cars and others like autos of neutral color?
  • Although each species of insect buzzing around the meadow looks like it’s doing the same exact thing, each one is specialized to its own niche. Amazing!
  • Why do we wear all these clothes even when it’s 90 degrees outside? People have so many strange conventions!
  • What is the story of that attractive, cheerful woman with two preteens in tow isn’t who isn’t wearing a wedding ring? Did her husband die in an accident? In war? Did they divorce? Why? Or maybe she was never married?
  • Are hippopotamuses attracted to each other by sight? It’s hard to believe they are. On the other hand, we’re even funnier-looking than they are when you stop to think about it. I mean, what other animal has all this hair on top of its head, but is bald almost everywhere else? Dr. Seuss couldn’t have invented a more bizarre creature!
  • What about our close relatives, the chimpanzees? Is their visual estimation of each other limited to how big they are, or do they have an ideal of beauty?
  • My cashier in the grocery store is new and she’s totally unreadable. Is she depressed? Just preoccupied? What surprising life story does she have that nobody would ever guess?
  • How long will it be until the technology I’m learning at work will be obsolete?
  • If we are being visited by space aliens, they must have computers. How similar are their programming languages to ours? Have they discovered an entirely different set of software-design principles or is good design literally universal?
  • Why do people spend hours and hours making “floats” for Labor Day parades? Why are they called “floats”?
  • How many ways do humans socialize that no other species does? Making floats together is one. Then there’s the parade itself; being in the club that’s marching in the parade; convening legislatures to declare holidays on which parades take place; having get-out-the-vote drives; …the list goes on forever.

…as does the wonder, if you’re curious enough to look for it.