Monday, December 8, 2014


I've been really upset lately thinking about incidents where police have been literally getting away over and over again with, if not murder, at least manslaughter.  This in turn has got me thinking about why it is that I am so emotional about this sort of thing, and whether or not I should be concerned about these intense emotions.

What crystallized this for me was an interaction between myself and a professor of law from a St. Louis area university.  In a on-line magazine, he was just trying to point out the legal framework that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson Missouri police shooting came out of.  I raised the issue that the assistant District Attorney had given the jurors a piece of paper that had a law on it that listed as a legitimate reason for shooting and killing someone the simple fact that they were running away.  This was the law of Missouri until 1984, I understand, until it was struck down by the Supreme Court. The important point was that there was nothing on the piece of paper that pointed out that this law was no longer valid.  At the end of the trial---i.e. after the jury had pretty much already made up their minds---the same assistant DA handed out another piece of paper that did say that this provision of the law had been declared unconstitutional, but she didn't verbally draw the jury's attention to this issue or explain the implications.

The professor did acknowledge this point when I raised it, but I left the interaction (in the comments section of an on-line magazine) really upset.  I've been trying to understand my feelings since then.

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that emotions are not bad things.  Indeed, it seems that they are essential to the thinking process.  Emotions are the "drivers" of human behaviour.  A person without emotions is not some sort of logical super being, but rather someone who has no ability to initiate action because there is ultimately no logical reason to do much of anything.  This seems to be an acknowledged fact of neuroscience, so much so that people working on artificial intelligence have developed a consensus that any thinking machine worthy of the name will have to have something like emotions programmed into it.

But why was I so angry about this professor's comments?

Thinking about them, I've come to the conclusion it was because he was trying so darn hard to be emotionally neutral in his discourse.  He didn't call the DA "evil scumbags", but rather just pointed out the law.  Of course, that wouldn't be professional.  But it would have been human.  I think that a huge part of the problems with the modern world is the way we selectively diminish the entirety of a situation in order to convey it in simplified manner.  In the process, we end up cutting out the ethical element and in the process destroy our humanity.

In this case, explaining just the law and what the DA was doing in that Grand Jury, removes the moral culpability of the individuals involved.  It lets them "off the hook" of having to acknowledge that they were consciously manipulating the jurors in order to ensure that the police officer who killed that man on the street in Ferguson would not have to be put on trial.

Think about what this really is, it is an absolutely essential part of any professional career---but it is also pretty much the most evil, vile thing a human being can do.  It happens when a career air force officer forgets that every time he organizes an air strike, there is a very good chance he is going to be killing and maiming children.  It happens when an accountant works out "the bottom line" of a business deal and refuses to admit that the decisions he supports are going to end up pushing families into poverty, destroying parts of the environment and so on.  It also happens when a politician panders to the prejudices of his constituents in order to get elected, and refuses to consider the fact that in doing so he will be perpetuating violence against minorities.

I don't know if it is a virtue or a failing in me, but I have never been able to control my sense of moral outrage in these situations.  I know that this is the case, so I have tried through most of my life to avoid jobs that got me into contact with other people because my anger rarely ends does me any good.

To cite one example, I once was involved in a neighbourhood dispute over a taxi cab company that had opened up across the street from my house and which was attracting dozens of drunken university students at three o'clock am.  These folks would literally be screaming and yelling for taxis right in front of our house----waking up the neighbourhood.  The taxi company refused to do anything substantive to stop this state of affairs.  It was regulated by the city and could very easily have been ordered to stop accepting fares at this site, but the solicitor for the police department was dead set against any sort of proactive effort and the police board deferred to his judgement.

The problem was, as I saw it, he simply refused to tell me why he was so opposed to using regulation.  If I asked him to his face about it, he simply acted as if I hadn't said anything at all.  What was particularly galling was his wife was a friend of my then significant other, and I'd actually been in his home having Christmas dinner with him.  I asked "do you think I'm an asshole that doesn't deserve to have his questions answered?", and all he would say was "no, I don't think you are an asshole."  That was it.

I mentioned this interaction to a friend who laughed and said "he was just being a good professional civil servant".  The idea is that good bureaucrats never share any information with the public that might potentially help them do anything.  It is called "gatekeeping".  If I knew what his thinking was about why he refused to use the powers of the taxi by-laws to force compliance, it would have given me some leverage to get my way in the dispute.  By keeping me in the dark, it gave him more power to manipulate me.

Of course, the thing I was upset about was that I knew people who were having their sleep disrupted and who were feeling miserable having to go to work without enough sleep.  This lawyer, in contrast, was able to have a nice sleep and simply thought he was doing his job, which consisted of allowing minimal hassle for the police department.

A sad post-script to this event came years later, long after the problem with the taxi company had been resolved.  I heard that shortly after my interactions with this lawyer, he had been diagnosed with progressive aphasia.  (This is a disease that destroys a person's ability to communicate with other people.)  This made me rethink my anger about the way I had been treated.  Perhaps he was manifesting early, subtle symptoms of his illness instead of just acting like a jerk to protect his job.

But no matter what the reason, the upshot from this lawyer's behaviour was to totally ignore the human cost of his behaviour in defence of the police department.  This is exactly the same thing that has happened with district attorney's when they subvert the Grand Jury system in order to avoid having to discipline police officers who lose control and kill people for no good reason.

My personal feeling is that every human being is always confronted with moral choices and their hands are almost never tied.  Like the Spike Lee movie says, people always have a chance to "do the right thing".  In law, this principle is enshrined in the concept of "Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum", or "Let justice be done though the heaven's fall".  In the case of DA moves to let police off the hook, the DAs know that police unions are powerful and that if they really do start enforcing the law against them with force, they will have real problems doing their jobs and getting re-elected.  Moreover, many of them actually like the police and don't want to anger people that they consider their friends.  They have the choice to "do the right thing" and instead do the easy thing.


One other thing I try to remember, is the injunction by the Heavenly Teacher in the Taipingjing. (This is a book that came from the religious Daoist rebellion---the "yellow scarves"---that was in the opening pages of Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.)  The Teacher warns his followers to not blame people who act badly too much because we are all products of conditions outside of our control---our childhood and perhaps clinical issues like progressive aphasia. Nor should we think too highly of ourselves when we do well, for much the same reason.  I often think about this with regard to my own behaviour.  I work at a menial job even though all my life I have been told that I could accomplish a great deal more if I just applied myself. But I know that because of my mercurial nature, I could never "bite my tongue" in the ways that are necessary to be a successful professional.  What this means is that I never will be able to gain the power necessary to do much good in the world, simply because I can never amass and hold onto it long enough to be able to wield it for the public interest.

Am I suggesting that there is no sense feeling moral outrage?  No, but I am suggesting that proper behaviour emerges from the community, not the individual.  I am outraged against the way our professionals manipulate the truth in order to further their careers.  But the only way we can try to stop that from happening is through collective action.  The protests against police departments are necessary, and I am very glad to see them breaking out spontaneously all over the US.  Perhaps this will result in some badly needed change.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Be Like Water and Let Your Ego Drown!

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to "be like water". That is to say, what does it mean to "go with the flow" when life creates obstacles in your path?

I often have little patience for "groovy, hippie Daoists" who seem to interpret this ideal as an excuse to never get engaged in any sort of effort at all---especially one of a social nature.  "Why bother trying to make the world a better place?  What will be, will be."  I've always seen this rejection of civic responsibility as not much more than laziness.

But having said that, there are instances when this attitude is tremendously important.  Perhaps the dividing line is whether or not the decision to be like water and flow around an obstacle is as easy as falling off a log, or, whether it involves a great deal of internal struggle.

People usually think of "going with the flow" by referring to simply not doing something that would be a bother to do anyway.  But what if you have tremendous emotional attachment to something and "going with the flow" involves fighting against that attachment?  I remember reading an essay by a social worker who was trying to adapt Daoist principles to her practice.  She cited the example of a hard-working Chinese immigrant who had absolutely busted his ass for years to build up a successful restaurant to only see organized crime take it over.  The objective reality was that there really was nothing he could do to get it back, so after much mental anguish and struggle he decided to fall back on his cultural heritage and accept the loss and let it go.

The social worker said that Westerners were horrified by his attitude, but since she came from a similar culture, she could see how his attitude had really helped him deal with his problem.

A less dramatic example often happens at work.  Let's face it, a lot of very intelligent, well-educated people are working for managers who seem to be not much more than idiots.  How do these people emotionally deal with the situations that this forces themselves into?  I'm sure many readers have seen situations like this.  Institutions where people do not want to take responsibility for declaring items surplus, so warehouse space is rented to keep surplus items in indefinite storage.
The obligatory Dilbert cartoon
Expensive materials destroyed because the management was too lazy to investigate reports from people lower down the food chain.  Wildly inefficient if not insanely counter-productive policies developed because management simply didn't know enough about the job at hand and was too arrogant to ask anyone who did.  Managers who want very expensive and time-consuming "exemptions" from standard operating procedure, but refuse to put anything in writing so they can deny culpability if caught.  Stupid "office politics" between managers where their respective staff are used as pawns in their dumb battles. The list goes on and on, and everyone can think of examples.

I've spent long hours grinding my teeth over this stuff, and heard thousands of hours of co-workers bitch about the same things.  After long thought, I've come to a couple conclusions.

First of all, no matter how intelligent we might think that we are individually, the odds are pretty good that if anyone who ever bitched about management were made managers, they'd probably do equally goofy things. Problems come about because people have blind spots, because they find themselves in situations where they have to deal with dumb things themselves, and, because they find themselves overwhelmed by responsibilities that they do not have the time and resources to adequately deal with.  Even the smartest people can find themselves in similar binds and screw up.

Secondly, no matter what job postings may say, it is important to realize that hiring practices are not about getting the best person possible for the position, but rather about getting a "known quantity".  People often bitterly complain about "quotas" for people like police officers.  They say that the best man didn't get the job because there was a push to get women or "ethnics" onto the force.  What this complaint misses, however, is that hiring is never about getting the "best man", but rather about getting someone who is "good enough".  Frankly, the pool of people who can adequately fill any particular position usually dramatically exceeds the number of openings.  So it isn't that hard to get someone who is "good enough".

Once the people who are good enough are identified, then other issues come into play.  In the case of police, it is important to try and get the force to look like the people that they are policing.  It is also important to have a pool of officers with useful secondary skills---such as having officers who speak languages and come from other cultures to help with issues in the immigrant community.  If someone speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, he is worth hiring even if he is a bit short and out of shape, and didn't score at the absolute top of his entrance exam.

The same issues come into play with regard to management.  For example, one thing that I have found that is strongly selected for in hiring is "attitude".  People have to obviously believe in the core project of the workplace.  If someone seems to believe that the institution's success is really, really, really important, then they will have a better chance of being hired.  Cynics like myself, who don't really think that most workplaces are all that important, just don't come across as being "with the program".   So someone who is the absolute smartest might not actually be hired because the institution would rather have someone who is gungho about putting into practice the latest idiotic idea of the higher-ups.

They don't really want excellence in management.  Instead, they want competency in following orders. There is a significant distinction. So why should someone get all bent out of shape when managers do dumb things?  Their job isn't to do a really good job, it's to follow the higher ups around like puppy dogs, do what they are told, and, not do anything that is truly amazingly dumb.

Finally, the other thing to remember about working for institutions is that we only feel upset if we self-identify with the institution in one way or another. If we feel abused and angry being ordered around doing stupid stuff, we only get upset if we think we can and should do something better. But if instead one simply sees work as a means of making money, none of this stuff matters.  If you want to pay me a living wage to do something that is pretty much pointless, then go right ahead.  With that mindset, the only things that matter are whether or not the job is dangerous, exhausting---and how much I am getting paid.  Everything else is irrelevant.

There are other issues, of course. I might get annoyed at work if I am asked to do something that is objectively evil and causes misery around the world.  I might also be asked to do something that is illegal. But to my way of thinking these both come down to the question of safety. An illegal activity might lead to imprisonment or worse, so I will avoid that. Something that is objectively damaging to the environment or human society has to be weighed as being more so than the rest of our stupidly destructive civilization.  If it is, I'd suggest that it too is dangerous.  If not personally, certainly to the world around us---which, as a Daoist, I strongly self-identify with. People have every right to struggle against and avoid danger.  If there is a chance to influence things for the better, by all means struggle.  It, in your opinion, there isn't, just walk away and don't give it another thought.

And, of course, not giving "it another thought", is not easily done.  I dare say that the Chinese immigrant I mentioned above didn't find it easy to simply "not give another thought" to the business that a bunch criminals took away from him!  But his cultural background told him that the best way to deal with the situation was to strive for that ideal.  In fact, I suspect he busted his ass striving for that ideal!  But it was worth doing, because eventually his social worker believed he achieved a level of equanimity about the situation.  This is the difference between what I would call real Daoism and
"Hippie Daoism".  Real Daoism is based on hard work, Kung Fu, and it involves helping yourself deal with tough, nasty problems.  Hippy Daoism will disappoint because it is not equipped to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of life.  Walking through a forest with a smile on your face is a nice thing---but sometimes a panther will jump out of a tree and you'd better have something to deal with that situation too!

The "Hippie Daoists" often make a big distinction between Buddhism and Daoism because they don't like all the meditation that goes into formal Buddhist study. I have some issues about this too, more because I think Western Buddhists have taken a very complex, integrated practical philosophy and reduced it to one key component:  meditation.  Daoism isn't well known, so people tend to read the Dao De Jing, and project their assumptions onto it. And as a result, they don't associate it with formal meditation. I would assert that this is somewhat accurate. But there is still a lot of hard work involved, even if there is less time spent on the mats. One very tough practice is to be like that Chinese immigrant and try to be like water when something very nasty happens to you. It can also be hard to do when the boss is acting like a jerk!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Walking on Two Legs: Spirituality and Religion---Activism and Consciousness

I recently read a comment on a FaceBook group that crystallized something that's been bubbling in my mind for a very long time.

The fellow was responding to a panel discussion that occurred at the recent New York climate protests and included luminaries like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Sen. Bernie Sanders, etc.

It continues to confirm what I have seen most of the time. These "Leaders" in the shift in the presence of humanity on the planet know nothing about consciousness. ---- All their suggestions are just trying to do more, better, or different from the same level of consciousness that created the problem. 

Years ago, a much different version of myself was sitting in a student coffee shop.  I was drinking coffee with a philosophy professor and the issue of religion versus spirituality came up.  I was a very serious meditator at that time, yet I had nothing but contempt for organized religion.  Jay said he couldn't understand that point of view.

I've mentioned these two incidents because they are examples of a problem that I routinely see when communicating with people about various issues.  That is, many people seem to automatically separate human activities into two spheres, decide that they are partisans of that particular view, and deny any sort of relationship between the two.  The dividing line that I am referring to isn't ideological but rather the weight that the person assigns to individual autonomy versus cultural conditioning.

For example, I routinely meet folks in "progressive" politics who have absolutely no use for the "great ideas" of philosophy, who adamantly refuse to consider things from the "big picture", and seem to be totally incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of people who might support conservative causes.  At the same way, I also meet people who are interested in "consciousness" and dismiss all practical activism as being totally besides the point unless people first have a "revolution in their minds".  For these folks, anyone who hasn't gone through such a process is invariably doomed to find that all their work has done nothing more than entrench the status quo.

 In much the same way, many people who meditate, study sacred texts and so forth absolutely refuse to darken the door of a church. Other folks who go to church regularly, feel enormously loyal to the ecclesiastic hierarchy, and so on, have never spent any time at all investigating the sacred texts, history, or, spiritual practices of the faith that they feel so loyal towards.

I can understand the former attitude.  Hordes of people who are intensely interested in spiritual matters are disgusted by religious organizations whose practical teaching seems to come down to "shut up and do what you are told". Especially since a large part of what they are being told to do seems to be to hate gays, mistreat women and ignore what evidence and logic teaches you.  With regard to the latter, I suspect that in many cases orthodox religious people feel that spiritually-orientated people are annoying because they seem to think that they can pick and choose which teachings of the church to follow according to their own personal preference.  The phrase "cafeteria Catholic" for example, has been coined to describe the church member who refuses to eat the "no birth control" liver that the Pope plunked down in front of him, and instead wants to try the "liberation theology" casserole instead. For these people, real freedom to follow where the spirit leads us would create a totally chaotic situation where the institution would no longer have the resources to do any charitable work at all and local congregations would split apart into cult-like factions. If you want to have the help for the poor and beautiful churches, then you have swallow the opposition to birth control.

In politics much the same split occurs. People interested in the theory of social transformation despair of the endless compromises that practical politicians impose on their high ideals. But practical folks also feel that the "ideologues" are so enamoured with being "correct" that they don't care if they actually ever accomplish anything.  Instead of actually connecting with ordinary people, political organizations compete with each other on which is the most ideologically pure, which results in the cliche of the Leftist circular firing squad.

This divide is unfortunate, because I've come to the conclusion that the division between our self-aware personality, and, our social persona is artificial.  We are not exclusively thinking beings that choose to "do things" when we act in the world around us, we are also social beings that are "molded" by the experiences we have when interacting with other people.

I've read intimations of this fact from "church people" who talk about how important their experiences have been in learning how to get along with the various types of folks they have met in their congregations. How they learned patience and humility from dealing with the angry conservatives who constantly tried to dominate the congregation, for example.  In my brief experience in a Unitarian congregation I felt a great deal of connection with older congregants as they wrestled with various issues---such as surviving a daughter who died of cancer leaving two small children; dealing with a long, terminal illness; or realizing that they were succumbing to dementia after a long, socially engaged life.  No matter how much time I spent meditating, I don't think I would ever have learned what I did from observing people deal with these problems.

I've never really been a person who sticks with institutions, which is why I've identified myself as a hermit, and, why I couldn't even stick with a radical group like the Green Party. In addition, I've always had jobs where I was pretty much on my own instead of working with other people. But I have had a little experience working with other people and I can see how the experience has shaped my consciousness. How do you respond to a neurotic boss who keeps after you to pursue ridiculous work that serves no obvious purpose? You could rebel, but the fact is that the tasks aren't that onerous and the fellow has absolute control over your work life, and, you really want to keep the job with its relative high pay and good benefits. I've decided to ask myself "is it really that important?", and come to the conclusion it isn't. So I do what I am told and instead of getting angry wonder about what sort of life experience has created this man's fixations.

In the same way, political activism also teaches us things about the human condition that we cannot learn from simply trying to "reform our consciousness". It is possible to build the most elaborate "castles in the air", but unless you figure out some way to actually get enough people to support your ideas to actually put them into place, not much is going to happen.  And the way to get people to actually change their behaviour is by doing what people call "retail politics".  That is, knocking on doors, holding meetings, fundraising, building databases of supporters, getting out the vote, and so on. A big part of this is actually listening to what people say and honestly responding to it.

I learned this when I first started running for the Green Party. In some ways, I was probably an inspirational politician.  I was able to get a lot of people involved in the Riding Association and became a bit of a leading light in the party. But I am a disaster when it comes to the general public. I was literally knocking on doors saying things like "we need to give more money to people on welfare" and "we need to end economic growth or else we will cause an environmental catastrophe".  I still believe those things, but I now know that the average citizen is conditioned to believe that those two statements are absolutely loony tunes.  If you try to start a relationship with someone by saying something that they will dismiss out of hand, most will never, ever listen to another word you say.

I heard something today that reinforces this point. An Arab author was talking about the "Arab Spring" movements and why so many had foundered.  He said with regard to Egypt that the reason why the liberal protests had failed was because the protesters never followed up with retail politics.  This left a political vacuum that Fundamentalist parties took advantage of. They knocked on doors, helped people with their personal concerns, had offices in ever local mosque. They were the "civil society" for the overwhelming majority of Egyptian voters. This connection resulted in the election of a Fundamentalist Arab government that so alienated the educated elite that it supported a military coup d'etat. The end result was the return of all the same characters that surrounded Mubarak.  

The important point I am trying to make, however, isn't that there needs to be some sort of institutional organization to accomplish change.  That is true, and in its own way it is very important and not obvious to everyone---certainly not to the people in Egypt who thought protests on the streets would be enough to change society.  But it is also that the way people think about things are changed by the process of getting involved in retail politics. If someone immerses themselves in the political process they start learning a lot of important things about the world around them.

For example, I often hear people make snide remarks about all politicians being "crooks", who are "in it for the money".  Well, outside of a few very rare examples, that is total baloney.  The reason why raising money is so important to politicians is not because they want to line their pockets, it is because they need to raise mountains of money to fund their election campaign.  In Guelph, for example, to run federally you to have to raise about $20,000 per campaign to have a fighting chance to win.  And the party head office has to raise a lot more money than that to fund national advertising, hire staff, pay for tour buses, run the office between elections, etc. And, I might add, that Canada has public financing and spending limits that look absolutely draconian compared to the American system.

Another thing I often hear is the idea that all politicians are "liars".  Again, that's baloney. People who run for public office and actually want to have a chance of getting elected are trapped by voters who expect them to be all things to all people and who have totally unrealistic expectations about what a candidate should be able to do once elected. This traps the candidate, because if she ever told voters what her limitations would be if elected to office, the voters would never vote for her. But the only way to get people to understand this fact is to get them engaged in politics on a level that the overwhelming majority of voters will never attempt to do.

One of the more infuriating types I used to come across in my political work was the odd person who thought that the only problem with the political system was political parties. Just get rid of them and everything would be just fine. They came to this conclusion by reading about the abuses of existing political parties and assumed that if you could get rid of the party, the abuses would disappear too. Unfortunately, what these people invariably didn't think about was how exactly they proposed to actually get rid of the party. They usually suggested that Elections Canada simply remove all reference to political parties from their regulations. But in doing so, they wouldn't be getting rid of parties but rather getting rid of any way of controlling their behaviour.  People would still get together to work together to create slates of candidates---which is all a political party really is.  But without any official standing there would be no way of knowing, for example, where their funding came from.

I no longer get angry with these folks. Instead, I understand them for what they are. They are just people who have absolutely no practical experience in retail politics. Unfortunately, I meet people like this more and more. Perhaps they always were out there, but in the past folks were more deferential to the elites and willing to follow their direction. Now people who really "don't know what they are talking about" are unfortunately far more belligerent and becoming more and more influential in society. My response is to suggest that more people should get involved in the practical political process so they can gain more "political literacy" and stop holding such incredibly naive beliefs. Don't ask me how I propose doing this, because I simply don't know.

A similar sort of issue can be said about religion. I'm pretty much like many other people. I've spent a great deal of time wrestling with spiritual issues and come to some conclusions. But in the process I've isolated myself from any sort of ecclesiastic institution. This means that I am even more profoundly naive about how to get along with them than I am with regular politicians.

I understand that the Chinese say something to the effect that people walk with two legs, which is a comment about the necessity of understanding that both men and women have different, yet essential roles to play in society. Well, I'm suggesting that both religion and politics are the same.  Two somewhat different impulses are at play, but both are essential. In my own personal case, I have to admit that I walk with a pretty pronounced limp. But at least I am walking. Some folks are trying to get around by hopping on only one leg---.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book promotion!

Howdy guys, I know that I've been breaking a cardinal rule in blogging in that I've only been posting very infrequently lately, but I do still see a lot of visits to the site.  So I'm going to keep it up.

I'm currently putting a lot of my energy into writing books, which, unfortunately, seems to include a fair amount of marketing.   So, I'm doing a promotion for my first offering.

I'm doing a promotion for my book, it is free to download from SmashWords until the end of October. You have to register with SmashWords and use this coupon code: SD66Z . The book is at this link: . All I ask is that if you enjoy reading it that you write a review and share the word with others. Feel free to share this link to your friends, FaceBook connections, twitter, your own blog, or anything and anyone else you think might be interested.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Daoist Take on the Race Riots in Ferguson Missouri

I've been following the events at Ferguson Missouri with especial interest as the events are taking place close to my dear and beloved wife, who lives in metropolitan St. Louis.  There seems to be a consensus emerging that something really wrong is going on in that part of the US, but what exactly seems to be somewhat vague.

Much of the concern seems to be directed at police brutality and the militarization of the police.  But as an outsider who has developed a cursory familiarity with the area, I think that people should understand that the St. Louis area suffers deeply from racial segregation.  It is absolutely gob smacking to an outsider.  For example, there are literally streets you can drive down where one side is filled with beautiful, nice old homes---inhabited by white people;  and the other is filled with dilapidated houses where black folks live.   

Here's a twelve minute YouTube documentary that pretty much explains the situation and explains how it happens.  Pay particular attention to the quick segment that happens at about 7:05 point.  It shows egg cartons with black and white eggs and shows how simply not wanting to live in an area where you are out-numbered 2-to-1 in your neighbourhood by people of another race inevitably leads to total segregation.  

Another thing to pay attention to is the bit about how real estate agents "steer" prospective home buyers towards neighbourhoods that are majority white or black, and away from one where they don't "belong".  

At the end of the documentary, the professor suggests that it is important to take action to end the Institutional sources of segregation instead of seeing it primarily as an issue of personal morality.  This is tremendously important, as things like this routinely get seen as individual morality plays.  

I suppose that this has something to do with the way evolution has formed our minds.  After all, the basis of racism seems to be a genetic disposition to not see anyone who is not related to us as being "Other".  This makes sense as it is clear that someone who looks so different probably doesn't share DNA with us, so there is no evolutionary advantage in helping them.  But this type of socio-biological analysis misses the point that we have also evolved as societies and relationships of reciprocity between non-related people are the only thing that allows us to function as cities and nations.  

I would suggest that a large part of the reason why we see things like the events in Ferguson as morality plays is because of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The Abrahamic religions put a huge emphasis on the idea that we have free will and are able to choose to accept the grace of God or reject it.  In contrast, Eastern religions take into account the social context that someone comes from and understands that this greatly influences the decisions that people make.  There is a line in the Daoist Taiping Jing where the Celestial Master suggests that people should not condemn someone who does wrong too harshly because they are the product of their childhood and background.  Similarly, they shouldn't think too highly of themselves if they do good, for the same reason.  

Following the Celestial Master's suggestion, the thing to do is acknowledge whatever emotional reaction one may be feeling about the news.  This involves centring the body, taking an inventory of both our physical and mental state, and reminding ourselves that we are self-aware, self-conscious individuals who have at least some control over our emotions and behaviour.  This is known as "holding onto the One", and is the core teaching of both the Nei-Yeh and the Taiping Jing.  

Once we have "the One" in hand, then the thing to do is to try and understand the Dao of the situation.  This involves calmly trying to look for the subtle issues at hand, issues that perhaps the overwhelming majority of people are missing because they are so caught up in their strong emotions.  I would suggest that if you do so, you can find something that the overwhelming majority of the media has missed.  That is, there is a study that a group of people have done that exposes the real reason why Ferguson Missouri has exploded into violence.  

A group that calls themselves the "Arch City Defenders" has prepared and published a report on the entities known as Municipal Courts and their baleful influence on the black community in the Greater St. Louis area.  You can read it as a PDF here.  It is fairly long, but is easy to read and is worth it.  It explains that there are great many little municipalities outside of St. Louis that have independent town ordinances, police forces and municipal court systems.  As well, a disproportionately large amount of the city revenue that is raised in these communities comes from fines levied against people in these communities.  Ferguson, for example, uses this as its second largest source of income.  Moreover, these fines are levied disproportionately against people of colour.  And the system is progressively rigged to extract money from poor people who are so close to destitution that even a minor fine of a few hundred dollars or a short stay in jail of less than a week, can be catastrophic.  

It is very obvious to anyone who reads through this report that the "system" of places like Ferguson Missouri is designed to keep a boot placed on the neck of black people.  This is what racism looks like.  It isn't a bunch of boozed-up Klansmen who decide to pull someone from jail and lynch him.  (As in the movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird".)  But rather a set of laws and regulations that make it extremely difficult for anyone to dig themselves out of debt or poverty.  Subtlety is the essence of long-term oppression.  And subtlety is how to identify and escape from it.  Moral outrage is irrelevant.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

That Elusive Feeling of "Oneness"

I've been walking around in a vague sense of funk lately.  I have had a hard time identifying why, but several very different things have made me depressed.

First of all, I am somewhat upset about the huge amount of effort that I am having to put into marketing my book.  Everything I've read says that it is more work selling a book than writing it, and it is certainly the case that I've had to go through a big learning curve as I figured out how to format it, register it so I could get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), register a copy with the National Archives, get an tax exemption so I don't have to pay tax double on any hypothetical royalties I might earn, and, find out how to merchandise it using social media.

Secondly, I've been really upset about work lately.  Not that much affected me directly, but there's been a lot of renovation going on in the Library and I'm just annoyed at the ridiculous amount of change that constantly seems to be happening around me.  The image that immediately comes to mind is that of a hamster running in a wheel.  This place just seems to be constantly involved in change for change's sake.

Also there have been changes in co-workers that have been dragging on, literally for years.  One co-worker was forced to leave because of what appears to have been chronic alcoholism and the university has literally taken years to fill the vacant position.  In the interim, a young fellow has been working on a contractual basis and the consensus seemed to be that he was going to get the permanent job.  Instead, a woman from a department that was declared redundant but who has 28 years of seniority, is going to get the position.  This seems to a lot of people to be somewhat unfair.

None of this stuff is new, but I had a bit of a revelation recently.  As part of my job I am supposed to check offices on the weekend to look for things like water leaks.  I went through a couple offices and noticed various manager's meager work-related book collections.   One person has a collection of books about how to use blogs to influence others and market various products and services.  The other had a book on his desk about how to use meetings to accelerate the rate of change within an organization.  Finally, I was in an office being used by a contractor to manage one of three projects in the building and he had a copy of the contract for his particular project open on his desk.  It was in a three-ring binder and appeared to be about two inches thick!

It suddenly dawned on me that my problem is the crazy complexity of modern life and how much of what we do from day-to-day is dominated by complex abstract ways of doing things.

I have tried in my personal life to simplify things and to lessen my impact on the world around me.  These things that I see on the desks of other people are all things that complicate the world around them and are attempts by individuals to increase their influence.  The second last chapter of the DDJ encapsulates my gut instinct:
A small state with few people.
Let the implements (ch'ih) for ten and hundred men be unused,
Let the people fear death such that they do not move far away.
Although there are boats and carriages,
There are no places to ride them to.
Although there are weapons and armours,
There are no occasions to display them.
Let the people again tie ropes and use them (as memory aids).
Let them enjoy their food,
Consider their clothing beautiful,
Be contented with their dwellings,
And happy with their customs.
The neighbouring states overlooking one another,
The dogs' barkings and cocks' crowings are heard from other states,
Yet till they are old and dying the people do not visit one another 
Chapter 80, Ellen Chen trans.
Oh that we could go back to that past world of simplicity!  Where people interacted with honesty and based upon their real feelings instead of calculation. Of course, the worm in that particular apple is the fact that my theoretical "Eden" never actually existed. Even in the time of Laozi it was probably not much more than a pastoral fantasy.

Modern psychology has some very interesting things to say about this instinct I have for "the good old days".

First of all, our brains are constructed for instant, instinctual decisions.  This had significant evolutionary pay-off in that there are lots of situations where it doesn't pay to waste time deliberating.  If that rustling in the bushes is a leopard, you are dinner before you know it if you try to reason things out.  But this instant decision-making comes at a price.  Our unconscious uses short cuts.  We jump to dumb conclusions if we don't take the time to think things through.  And because our brains are designed to maximize speed over accuracy, when we do try to think things through it takes a lot of effort and it isn't easy.  

Secondly, our minds seem to be designed to maximize the ability to get along in small, family-based hunting bands.  This makes sense if you consider the "selfish gene" theory.  In strict evolutionary terms, the only reason why any animal exists is to replicate their genes. It doesn't really matter if the genes are in me or in an identical twin.  Moreover, the genes in a brother or sister will be half the same as mine, so there is utility in my helping replicate those too.  The same even applies to a lesser extent for cousins. If I do something selfless that results in the survival of the rest of my family---even though it results in my death---it is still helping the genes that are the same as mine to replicate. But this doesn't apply to a total stranger.  If I come across someone from a totally different tribe, who isn't even remotely related to me, there is no value in helping him to survive at all.  (A woman might be a different case, as I could have sex with her and maybe create a child with half of my DNA.)

The result of this is that people very quickly develop a sense of "us" and "them" based on familiarity.  This means that, for example, the small number of us who work together in the library have an exaggerated sense of "togetherness" that means we get very resentful when an office somewhere else on campus decides who does or doesn't get hired to work with us.  If some young person who's worked with us for a couple years on contracts gets passed over for the permanent job by someone else from another place on campus, it seems an outrage because she is an "outsider".  But the fact of the matter is that she has 28 years seniority and the University has signed contractual obligations with the union to ensure that people don't get dumped onto the side walk like garbage when they are too old to expect to find employment anywhere else.  People might think that it is unfair to see the young guy not get the job, but that is just our quick-deciding part of the brain working.  Think things through, and you can see that human resources has a point too.

It's the same way with a lot of other things too.

I might be all munged out about the extra work that I need to put into selling my book.  But the fact of the matter is that in the past I probably would never have been able to get the book into print in the first place.  Non-fiction books are usually published not on the quality of the writing or ideas, but rather on the credentials of the author. Not being a professor, I would never have even gotten my manuscript read by a publishing house, let alone printed.

I learned this a long time ago when I quickly dashed off a letter to the editor of an economic journal.  I never thought much about it, but I put it in an envelope that happened to have a letter head from the university.  To my surprise, the editor phoned the university (from England!) to get a hold of me. I connected and he said that he was very impressed by what I had to say and wanted me to make it into an article for the journal.  I said "OK", then he asked me what department I taught in.  When I said that I was a security guard in the library there was a very pregnant pause and then he said "Well, maybe we can print it as a letter to the editor".

I also had a friend who was a professional editor for a big publisher.  She said that she routinely got manuscripts from big names that were so badly written that she, in effect, ghost wrote the books.  (Without any credit, of course.)

The price I have to pay for this increased opportunity is that I have to bust my ass in order to market the book because no one else is going to do it for me.  But the pay off in the end is that if I do manage to sell a fair number of copies, I get to keep a lot more of the money for myself.  In the past even very successful authors tended to make a pittance out of sales because the middlemen pocketed almost everything.

I'm not the sort of person who believes that "all that is, is right" and comes up with explanations to justify everything.  I still am righteously annoyed with the endless renovations that take place on campus when much-needed maintenance is delayed long past the point of its necessity.  I am also annoyed that so much of the wealth of both the nation and nature is being squandered for precious little return.  But I do have a great deal of sympathy with Germaine de Staël's idea that "to know all is to forgive all".  So I try to remind myself to think about the big picture and avoid jumping to conclusions.  When I succeed, I often find that things that annoy me are the unavoidable results of other things that I do find useful.

The result is that through this rational analysis I can develop a sense of equanimity that while different from the sense of pastoral "Oneness" that seems to be upshot of Daoism, may actually be a much better way of developing peace of mind.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What is a Martial Art?

I have some tracking software on this blog that allows me to understand which posts bring the most traffic.  I've been surprised to see that a few posts that I made years ago totally swamp all the others in popularity.  Those are the ones about how I got involved in Daoism in the first place.  And of those, the discussion focuses repeatedly on the Taoist Tai Chi Society (TTCS) and Moy Lin Shin.

I suppose that this makes sense, given that the TTCS is a huge organization with affiliated schools and temples all over the world.  But in the on-going discussion that takes place in the comments section I've noticed that a lot of the back-and-forth comes about claims that I have made about the taichiquan form that is taught through that school.  The latest one got very involved in a complex discussion about another form called "lok hup":
It turns out the 108 moves was Mr Moy's way of preparing students to learn the zhu ji liuhebafa set of Liang Zipeng. The foundation exercises the TTCS practices are meant to be like Mr Peng's Three Treasures of Southern Yiquan: the danyu, toryu, and zhan zhuang. They all help build strength in the dantian and reinforce energy currents in the body. These are the "qigong elements" added into the 108 moves that people are always going on about.
You should see some of these advanced practitioners do lok hup ba fa though. It's obvious how that was Mr Moy's passion, and the simplified Yang 108 was the "internal arts 101" class... 
Many of my readers will no doubt find the terms mentioned "danyu", "toryu", "zhuan zhuang" and "lok hup ba fa" mystifying.  The first two are specific types of exercises, the third is a class of exercises, and the last is an internal "form".  Here's a YouTube of someone doing "Lok Hup":

That is to say, first of all, is this stuff a martial art?  And if it isn't, is it of any value?  And if it is of some value, are the results worth the effort?

Well, let's look at "Lok Hup".  Like a lot of things, finding the right spelling can make a big difference in learning about something.  Here's a Wikipedia article that talks about it, but it uses the phrase "Liuhebafa" instead of Lok Hup.  It has some interesting links at the end, including this one from a school that teaches Liuhebafa.

Like with most issues, I find that it is useful to try and clarify our language in order to improve our thinking about it.  So what's a martial art?

Well, the first answer would be that it is a form of self defence.  OK, but it is more specific than that.  The first clarifying question to ask is whether or not soldiers are taught martial arts, and I would suggest that they are not.

Martial arts came about not as something that ordinary folks could learn, but rather as a specialized skill that aristocrats learned in order to give them an edge when dealing with the "great unwashed".  Poor people were often a lot stronger than the wealthy, simply because they'd spent a lifetime in toil instead of leisure.  In contrast, because of that leisure and wealth, the rich had the opportunity to hire teachers to train them in specialized fighting techniques and the time to practice what they were taught.  This meant that when an aristocrat (or Buddhist monk or Daoist cleric) was attacked by ruffians, that the fight was sometimes very far from fair.

Take a look at the following scene from the film "Rob Roy".  Western, classically-trained actors are usually taught fencing as part of their training, which is why this scene is so realistic.  The guys really do know what they are doing.  This means that this scene is a little more realistic than many of the Asian martial arts movies.

Besides the issue of training opportunities, there is also the issue of weapons.  Martial arts are artificial constructs created by social limits being placed on what weapons are available.   Fencing with a rapier only makes sense when the opponent doesn't have any armour or a projectile weapon.  That means that they only became common after armour was made obsolete by black powder guns and stayed only until repeating pistols made them useless.  A rapier is worthless against a gangster who can buy a cheap automatic pistol, but very useful against an 18th century thief who probably cannot afford anything more lethal than an oak club or a dagger---especially if you are trained and he is using brute force. A musket with a bayonet would also be very good against ruffians, but would be a hassle to lug around to the whorehouse and gambling den, so a rapier and pistol it is.  There is always a chance that an aristocratic opponent might be wearing some type of armour under his clothing, but it would be useless against a pistol and would slow him down to make him an easier target to hit for that crucial single shot that muzzle-loading pistols allowed. (Plus it would be damned uncomfortable to wear and probably easy to spot anyway.)

Nowadays martial arts are pretty much worthless for most people.  We have very safe streets and very efficient police forces.  And anyone who is out to commit violence has ready access to really powerful weapons.  This means that the only really intelligent reaction in any but the rarest of instances is simply to run and hide, period.  If you believe that you absolutely must have some sort of self-defence system, then the logical thing to do is get a gun, a concealed carry permit and put your energy into learning how to shoot safely and efficiently.

The decline in the value of martial arts has meant that most of the European ones have died out.  Rapier fencing has survived as both a sport and as training for actors, but that is just about it.  In the East, however, because of the association between religion and martial arts, they have survived as methodologies for physical and spiritual cultivation.  I was, for example, taught taijiquan by a Daoist as part of a larger institution that included meditation classes and ritual worship at a Temple.   This connection has been formalized in "history" that suggests that Shaolin Kungfu was "invented" by the same Buddhist Monk who "invented" Zen.   Similarly, Daoist hermit Chang San Feng is supposed to have "invented" taijiquan.  (This is all nonsense, of course.)

In Japan a similar process was at work where people created the "do" (think "dao") way of understanding martial systems.  So "bushido" is "the way of the warrior", "Akido" is "the way of qi", "karatedo" is "the way of the empty hand", and so on.  The emphasis morphed from being specifically about fighting and surviving, and became that of learning to live a specific type of life.

This is all very well.  Indeed, I've pretty much built my life around this sort of thing.  But there are several real problems that can arise from this way of doing things.  First of all, young men have a genetic predisposition towards brawling.  (Think of young rams banging their heads together.)  The leaders of these schools have a strong incentive to completely remove sparring from the school, or, to formalize it to the point where it bears no resemblance at all to an actual fight.  Secondly, because the only reason why someone comes to a school in the first place is to learn something from the teacher, there is a tendency to artificially build-up the teacher to the point where they become just a tad short of Jesus Christ in the awesomeness department. The value of sparring is that it very quickly separates truth from bullshit.  And if your teacher is a real human being instead of a demi-god, you have a tendency to test what he has to say instead of just accepting it as a revelation from above.

Without this process of "truth testing", we can end up with this sort of situation developing:

I'm not about to make a decision one way or the other about what is going on the head of this Sensei.  It might be that he is a venal twerp who wants to either extract money from his students.  It might also be that at one time he decided that in order to make the rent and keep the kids around so he could teach them a little common sense, he decided to start making stuff up about qi.  It might also be that he was a very good teacher that ended up with a lot of very naive students treating him like a hero from a comic book and it went to his head.  Lots of different paths could lead to the place where he finds himself in this video.

What seems obvious to me, however, is that both he and his students are involved in a collective delusion about his supposed powers.

Again, it is possible to see how this could come about.  You cannot teach martial arts without a certain degree of play acting.  If you put people into a ring and try to get them doing stuff "for real" from the get go you are going to end up with broken bones, smashed teeth, concussions and lawsuits.  For example, this means that when you are learning joint locks you don't put maximum pressure on the limb and the other guy doesn't fight, he just passively flows into the throw.  The hope is that once you learn how it is supposed to work and do it so many times that it comes naturally, you will be able to use it in a real fight.  The problem is, however, that unless you actually try it out for real against someone who really is resisting, you never really know if it is for real or just baloney.

In the above, I'm assuming that someone is actually trying to do the martial art as primarily a martial art and only secondarily as a "dao".  But where someone can really go down the rabbit hole is when they give up on the self-defence elements altogether and start doing it for spiritual and health reasons.  This is because once you change the ultimate goal of the practice to that you remove any ability at all---even in theory---to check for self-delusion.  Any form of exercise will help people up a certain extent, but beyond that people can convince themselves that all sorts of things are happening in their body.  You can tell if someone is able to push other people around with their qi, by having some outsider actively resist and see if he still gets tossed.  But how do you argue with someone about what they are actually feeling in their bodies?  Or what sort of deep philosophical insight they are gaining from the practice?

Ultimately all we can do is look at their bodies.  Did the qi cure their cancer?  Or did they just feel good for a few months and die anyway?  Do they seem to be wiser and more insightful than everyone else?  Or do they do just as dumb and screwed-up things as everyone else?  At that point we are forcing martial arts to submit to the same sort of analysis as everything else in society.  To my mind, that means that we fall back on the old stand byes of scepticism:  logic and evidence.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Ability to Communicate

I recently got embroiled in a stupid argument with some neo-cons on a local newspaper's discussion board.  It was about a lawsuit that the municipality recently lost with a construction company about building a new City Hall. I made a mistake by confusing a figure ($20 million) that was being thrown around with regard to the suit.  The company asked for that as a settlement.  I assumed that this was for damages, whereas it appears to be a payment that the city refused to pay once it severed its contract.

To a large extent, the reason why I made the mistake was because of the bizarre way that one of the people on the list argues.  He doesn't actually write much of anything himself, he just cuts and pastes large swathes of legal information he finds on the internet and "lets it speak for itself".  When confronted by very large chunks of verbiage written in legal mumbo jumbo, it is very easy to miss the meaning.

What this has got me thinking about is how many problems in society come from people's inability to express themselves.  In a more mundane example, I remember being asked at work to locate power outlets buried under carpeting at work.  One of the day staff gave me a map that showed how to locate these outlets under the carpet.  She said that "its absolutely the same everywhere in the library".  I looked and looked, cut many dry holes in the carpet and didn't come up with anything.  I went back to her and said "I can't find the outlets, are you sure that that map is accurate?"  Yes!  She was absolutely adamant that everywhere in the library was the same.  So I went back, did some more measurements, cut some more dry holes, and still didn't find anything.  I went back a third time and said that I had tried and cut all sorts of holes and I still couldn't find anything where it was supposed to be in the reserve area on the first floor.  At that point she said "Yes, the map works everywhere in the library---except on the first floor."

I know that this woman wants to do the best job that she can.  I also think that she believes she does.  Moreover, I'm pretty sure that she thinks I'm a bit of a "screw-up" because I "waste" so much time thinking about things and questioning people about issues instead of just saying "yes sir!" when asked to do something.  And it isn't that she lied to me, it's just that she had used what I call "universal absolute" language when what she should have done is used "nuanced" language instead.  If she had said "almost everywhere in the library is the same", there would never have been any problem.  Just like if the person posting about the lawsuit had bothered to use his own words to explain that "this $20 million figure is not for damages but rather deferred payment" instead of cutting and pasting something from a judge's findings.

I used to get really outraged about this sort of thing because I saw it as being done for some sort of ulterior purpose.  That is, the guy who uses cut and paste to make his points was trying to confuse people on purpose to slag the Mayor, and, my co-worker got some glee out of seeing me get blamed for wrecking a carpet.  But over the years I've come to the conclusion that in the majority of cases this sort of thing happens simply because many people don't have the ability to express themselves with any clarity or precision.

It is the case, of course, that sometimes the point that is being communicated is not a literal piece of information, but rather that of the relative power of the players involved.   The famous scene from the movie "Cool Hand Luke" is about this power in-balance.  Luke, for one reason or another, seems to act as if he has more personal autonomy than the prison warden wants to allow him.

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, the problem with Luke is that he simply refuses to internalize the rules and culture of prison life. This really is a big problem for the warden, because it would be impossible to run a prison without the tacit cooperation of the inmates.  When a charismatic prisoner comes along who refuses to "play ball", the authority really does have to find some way of getting him or her to "play ball".  And in many cases, it does simply involve finding some way to communicate the new power balance.  This can include forcing him to wear leg irons or striking him every time he makes a smart comment. The same sort of thing happens in the army during basic training, which is all about teaching people to follow orders instantly and without question.  Since the whole point of the exercise is to by-pass the discursive intellect and get people to act without thinking, force is the main instrument of communication.

This issue of communication is important for anyone who is interested in Eastern Philosophy where it manifests itself in language that is often gnomic instead of clear and precise.  Consider the following scene from the sci-fi series "Babylon Five", which gives two neat examples of gnomic sayings in response to a specific question.

The initial snippet involves the Centari Ambassador, Londo, being asked to help the parents of a child to get "justice".  His answer is "how much justice can you afford?" The Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, is being asked if he will be willing to intervene to stop an operation by the station physician to save the life of a child.  (The procedure is against the parent's religious beliefs.)  Kosh's answer is "The avalanche has already started.  It is too late for the pebbles to vote."  Londo is asking for a bribe, whereas Kosh is suggesting that the situation is already beyond the ability of both the parents and ambassadors to influence.

Gnomic answers are used for a variety of reasons.  In the case of people, like Londo, asking for bribes, they help people avoid making any blunt statements that can be used against him at a later time.  They might also allow both parties to avoid offending their overt belief system by making what they are doing seem like a trivial exercise.  Bribes are often "tarted up" this way by calling them "gratuities" or "coffee money" and so forth.

The sort of answer that Kosh offers is used to brush off someone without diminishing his standing in their eyes.  As fundamentalists, the parents probably wouldn't be able to understand a more complex answer that tries to explain why their belief system is faulty.  Instead, they'd probably be offended, which might end up threatening the Vorlon relationship with their society.  So by tossing out some sort of enigmatic statement that pretty much absolves Kosh of any personal responsibility (after all, things are already beyond his ability to do anything), he not only avoids getting stuck to an ethical tar-baby, he also preserves the dignity and supernatural aura that adheres to the Vorlon "brand".

Language can also be used to answer a question by encouraging the person asking the question to go through a non-verbal exercise that helps them answer the question for themselves.  Consider the following from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

The Gates of Paradise 
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked:  "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin.  "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued:  "So you have a sword!  Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
Hakuin could have tried to explain to Nobushige that Heaven and Hell were metaphorical representations of mental states, but he probably thought that a soldier would have have had a hard time following an abstract argument.  So Hakuin decided that the best way to explain his position would be to try and force the soldier to recreate the mental states involved during their exchange.  The hope would be that it would be such a forceful experience that the Nobushige would have to acknowledge the truth of what Hakuin was expressing.

Yet another way of communicating with people is to use what are called "plastic words". defines these as "language twisted to fit various circumstances by politicians and other officials; words that can mean everything and nothing".  These are used by politicians and marketers because they allow people to talk to a group of people composed of folks who see things in various different ways, and yet seem to be agreeing with all of them at the same time.  The best example of this that I can think of is the phrase "sustainable development".

"Sustainable development" was crafted as a response to the Club of Rome's statement that said that there are "Limits to Growth" that a finite planet imposes on the human race.  It should be self-evidently true that the planet places constraints on how many people the earth can support and how large the economy can grow.  But this threatens so many entrenched elements of society that a huge backlash developed to the term.  As a result, a United Nations commissioned a group to study the relationship between the economy and the environment, which became known as the "Brundtland Commission" (named after the chairwoman.)  This group published a report, which ended up promoting the concept of "sustainable development" in opposition to "limits to growth".  Because there was so much institutional support for the former, and opposition to the latter, it quickly became the only language used.

  "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

The thing to remember about sustainable development is that depending on where you place the emphasis, it can mean two things that are pretty much opposed to each other.  It can mean "sustainability" to people, which means that the environment is being used in a way that allows it to exist in an non-degraded way for the indefinite future.  Or, it can also mean "development" to people, which means really fast economic growth for economies that are not at the same rate of industrialization as those of Europe and North America.  It also steadfastly refuses to admit that there is a inherent contradiction between these two agendas.  When I talk to people about this, it becomes very clear to me that the consensus amongst most people is that the sustainable development means "sustained economic growth" more than anything else.  This is the power of "plastic words", they can sound good but stop real conversation short because they ultimately do not mean much of anything at all.  In contrast "limits to growth" is the opposite of plastic.  Everyone knows right from the get go what that phrase means. That's why powerful interests moved heaven and earth to replace it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Individual Versus the Collective

I've finally published my book, so I think it's time I got back to blogging for a while.


I've just finished reading a couple very interesting books that catalogue various insights from modern psychological research and how they impact society at large.  The first one was The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker.  The second was Evolution 2.0, by Joseph Heath.

What is fascinating about both books is the way they encourage the reader to break down the Cartesian idea that human beings exist as individual, discrete entities who influence the world around them but are influenced very little by it.

Pinker's main thesis is that human society has become increasingly less and less violent over that past three or four hundred years.  He cites lots and lots of evidence for this argument, which is why his book is so long (over 700 pages.)  One startling part of this evidence is to show how social mores have changed over time.

Everyone is aware that public executions, horrific torture, etc, used to part of everyday civic life in ancient and medieval Europe.  What they don't understand is how brutal day-to-day life was.  For example, one form of "good clean fun" involved nailing a live cat to a wall and then having two people compete in battering it to death by butting it with their heads---while trying to avoid having their faces ripped to pieces or being blinded.  The point Pinker makes is that people nowadays would not only think that such a thing is cruel, they would be hard pressed to see how anyone could find the spectacle worth watching.  People's attitudes have evolved.

Another example he cites is the growth of table manners.  It used to be that people routinely belched, farted, picked their noses, etc, while eating.  In many circles people would get up and relieve themselves against the wall in the dining hall.  One particular point he makes is that the reason why  it became the custom to use dull knives while eating is because at one time people would simply use their daggers to cut their food.  The result, the times being what they were, it was frighteningly common for people to lunge across the table with their daggers at people they were arguing with.  This resulted in a significant number of people with their noses cut off!  We use dull knives to cut our potatoes now and it is rare to see someone without a nose.

Heath's book focuses more on the nature of human reason.  He argues that the ability to reason things out is a sort of epiphenomenon (something that arises accidentally from another process) in human beings.  Our brains have been selected to let us act instantly when we hear a rustling in the grass so we can avoid leopards.  That means we jump to conclusions before considering all the facts.   Evolution has also selected people to only think of family members as "us" and all other human beings as "others" so we maximize the chances of DNA similar to ours being passed on to future generations.  As a result, we demonize the "other", which causes racism and indifference to the suffering of people.

What we know as "reason" primarily exists, according to Heath, through cultural mechanisms.  For example, our judicial system has evolved to understand that police, prosecutors, judges and juries have an innate tendency to jump to conclusions and are indifferent to the plight of the "other".  As a result, a series of "work arounds" have been added to the criminal justice system to try and force individuals to stop their natural inclinations and do something that is unnatural---be fair.  One example is the concept that someone is innocent until proved guilty.  Another is the fact that all police officers have to read people their rights when being arrested.  Another is the right to be represented by a lawyer, who is bound by his professional code of conduct to defend the defendant to the best of his ability.  There are rules about what evidence may or may not be admitted, how someone is allowed to argue their points, what items a jury may consider while coming to a verdict, and, mechanisms for appealing findings that might have been unfair.

Similar sorts of work arounds exist all throughout society.  Peer review helps catch bad science.  Unions exert some control over the excesses of capitalism.  Governments have rules governing decorum and "checks and balances" to minimize the amount of bad laws being passed.  So on, and so forth.

The important point for me for all of this is that what we "are"---the choices we hold and the values we embrace---comes from equal parts genetics and culture.  "OK, nature and nurture", you might say, "so what?"   Well, the difference is that most folks have felt that nature and/or nurture created who you are and at some point the "you" it created took over and you became an autonomous human being capable of making your own choices as a discrete, atomic entity.  Pinker and Shaw are saying something significantly more radical than that.  They are saying that the milieu you inhabit has a constant and critical role to play in how you make decisions on a day-to-day basis and until the day you die!

Policemen are not ordered to read people their rights because the odd bad policeman either doesn't want to be or is incapable of being objective in the pursuit of their duties.  They have to read them their rights because absolutely every police office is non-objective at least some of the time.  The human brain is wired to jump to conclusions because when you hear a noise that might be a leopard getting ready to pounce on you, if you misread it and the noise was something else there was no real penalty.  But if it was a leopard and you didn't jump to that conclusion, you just won a Darwin award.  No DNA replication for you, dear boy.

But cultures evolve as well.  And any band of hunter/gathers who didn't develop mechanisms for forcing reason onto their collective decision making in one form or another also won Darwin Awards. It might be that the only way people overcame indifference and hostility to the "other" was by pushing it outwards to large and larger groups (ie:  people who are not part of your nation instead of anyone outside of your family), but it still meant that the group you identified with got much bigger and more powerful than the old hunter/gatherer bands.

What is the Dao?  I hear many people who describe it in terms that sound suspiciously like "God".  I don't like the idea of "God" because the more I think about it, the less think I understand.  But if we see the Dao as being "the sum of all that is", then every time we gain a little more insight into the world around us, we can gain a little more insight into it as well.  I would suggest that the cultural influence that the Dao manifest in the way we make decisions is one more way of reinforcing the Daoist worldview.

One last point.

I recently got into a bit of an argument with a fellow named Gary Weber  who was a guest on KMO's excellent podcast channel C-Realm, Radiant Sun. Weber has developed a meditation program that he believes can solve the world's problems by having people learn to shut down their individual thought processes (not all, of course, just the chattering of the "monkey mind".)   My belief is that this is naive.  It is a good idea to learn to cut down the horrible back-and-forth that goes on in one's mind.  (When my beloved wife is in a psychotic episode it appears to me that the monkey-chattering becomes deafening and is a major part of the problem.)  But it isn't, IMHO, sufficient.   That's because a very significant part of how our minds operate is because of the cultural context we inhabit.   Who we are, how we think, and what we believe comes from the cultural "work arounds" that govern the milieu we inhabit.  And the problem I find with most people who follow a spiritual or religious path is that they turn their backs on that cultural milieu because they decide that it is irrelevant to their progress.  That's because they cling to that Cartesian idea that we are all distinct, atomic individuals who can freely choose any course of action from the plate before us.

This belief allows them to disengage from society and stop working at the political and social process.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Political and social reform is the way we create those "work arounds" that allow us to slowly, collectively improve the way our minds operate.  And as evidence of this improvement, Pinker offers beyond the staggering decline in violence in human society, the amazing fact that human IQ has been increasing.  This is called "the Flynn Effect" after one of the people most associated with identifying it.  There is controversy about what is causing it, but one of the reasons that Pinker suggests is that with an increase in education people are becoming better at doing abstract reasoning, which is one of the key elements of IQ measurement.  More importantly for me, Pinker also suggests that the cultural work arounds that we use to keep our innate impulsiveness under control and help our emergent reasoning work more effectively are constantly accumulating.  For example, consider the  huge difference in trying to figure out a complex mathematical problem using Roman numbers versus our current Hindu-Arabic system.  It was such an improvement that almost the minute people in Europe understood how it works they adopted it.  As we culturally accumulate more and more of these things, our minds become both more disciplined and we have an easier time communicating in a rational manner with other people.

What this says to me with regard to spiritual practice, therefore, is that the cultural milieu that we inhabit as people who meditate and try to increase our wisdom has a direct bearing on the progress we make.  Paradoxically, the reason why I practice as a hermit is not because I want to become isolated from the wider culture and other people, but because I do not want to be free from having to limit myself to one particular subculture and keep the others at arm's length.  At the time I walked away from various institutional groups I didn't have a clearly articulated argument about why I was making this move. But I did have a vague feeling that I didn't like way these groups built themselves up by isolating themselves from others.  Now, thanks to Pinker and Heath, I can articulate why I think that this is a good idea.

This brings up one last thing.  Two of the really good "work arounds" that Heath identifies are books and blogs. They allow people the opportunity to concentrate and work through very complex arguments without being distracted.  This is something that biological evolution has not prepared us for, but which are absolutely essential to cultural evolution.  I hope you enjoy this work around and that it expands your consciousness.  ;-)  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finally published: Walking the Talk: Engaging the Public to Build a Sustainable World

I have finally published the book I've been working on for the past five years. It is for sale at SmashWords, Kobo and Kobo affiliated distributers (such as Chapters/Indigo.) I've decided to not publish on Amazon for various reasons (my understanding is that the company is not the best corporate citizen.) If you have a Kindle, you can download a copy that will be compatible with that device (mobi files) from Smashwords. If you aren't sure that you want to buy a copy right away, but are interested, you can download the first 20% from SmashWords just to see what it's like.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Journalists and Global Warming

(Howdy readers.  I've spend the last two years away from this blog working on my book, Walking the Talk:  engaging the public to build a sustainable world.   Since then I've started working on smaller projects.  Here's the latest one.  It is a response to all the jackass reporters that I've talked to over the years who seem to think that their paper should give equal time to climate change deniers.  The original piece has a lot of footnotes, most of which I haven't bothered to make into hypertext links on this posting.  If anyone is interested in seeing those references, please contact me and I'll email  you a copy of the original.  

I don't have any high hopes, but if anyone thinks that this collection of words might have some influence on either professional journalists or the lay public, feel free to contact me about having it published or even have me on a guest on a podcast or something.  I think that what I've written below needs to be said and I'm only writing it because no one else seems to have done it first.

As always rational comments and links to are always warmly appreciated.)  


Hollywood Science
“I don't care what the blind fools of the academy say!   I know that I'm right!  My research shows it!”   Victor's eyes lit up.  I couldn't tell if they shone with mental brilliance or mere insanity.
“But Victor, how can you be right and everyone else wrong?”
“Science progresses by such means.   Don't you know about Galileo?  Sentenced to house arrest for the crime of disagreeing with conventional wisdom?  Or Christopher Columbus?  People knew that the world was flat and that he would fall over the edge of the earth---until he proved Them wrong.  Every theory that exists is only true until someone proves it wrong.  After all, even Newton was proven wrong by Einstein, wasn't he?”  Victor cast an arched eyebrow in my direction, he had me there.
“They wouldn't publish my experiments in their damned journals.  'Too wild.'  'Too speculative.'  'Where's the proof?'  Well here in my laboratory you have the proof!”
And it's true, there upon the table lay the creature, proof that Victor was right and all the others had been terribly wrong----.

Look at most mainstream newspapers, magazines or websites;  listen to 'professional' radio or pod casts;  watch television news when it deals with scientific issues;  and you will invariably see reports by journalists who have been influenced by the above clichéd vision of science.  That understanding of the scientific method is profoundly flawed and badly distorts public discourse on a wide variety of issues, most particularly with regard to climate change.

This essay is an attempt to concisely explain to working reporters, editors, publishers, TV producers, and the general public why their preconceived notions about how science works are wrong and how this terribly distorts our collective conversation about how to deal with the existential crisis of climate change.  I also hope to offer some suggestions so they can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

Scientific Credentials
The first thing that reporters get wrong about science reportage is how they view scientists.  Often, they refuse to understand the very thing that makes them what they are, their credentials.  When someone graduates with a Masters or a Doctorate there is a special ceremony that takes place, one that more than anything else looks like the medieval process of being knighted or being ordained as a priest.  When I received my Master's degree, for example, I wore a special gown, went in front of the Chancellor of the University, kneeled on a special cushion, and had a hood drawn over my head.  I also received a document that stated that I had been granted “the degree of Master of Arts with all its rights, privileges and obligations”.  (My emphasis.)

In effect when anyone graduates from a program at a recognized University, they are recognized as having achieved a level of understanding that places them in a different class than the general public.  That's why there is a ceremony---it attempts to make obvious that there is a very important right of passage taking place.  It is also why the diploma says “rights, privileges and obligations”.  It means that society expects something more from people who have graduated from this process and in exchange offers more to them.

Why does society do this?

Primarily, it is because the opinion of someone with a graduate degree is expected to have a certain degree of trust-worthiness with regard to specific subjects that the general public (or even undergraduates) does not.  This means that if someone with a graduate degree is asked to give an opinion on the subject that they studied, it is expected that they will not lie and instead will restrict themselves to opinions based on evidence and logical inference.  In other words, someone with a graduate degree is a professional.

A “professional” is someone who is paid to render expert opinions on a given subject.  They are expected to live up to a specific code of ethics for their profession, and the trust that comes from that expectation is part of what they are paid for.  Lawyers, doctors and accountants are paid to give expert opinion about specific things that they know a lot about. We have to trust what they tell us, or else it would cause chaos in their profession that they follow.  In exchange, we usually listen to what they have to tell us.

So that is what the line “rights, privileges and obligations” on my diploma is all about.  Someone with a graduate degree has earned the right and the privilege to be listened to when she makes a pronouncement about a subject in her area of expertise, and, in turn she has an obligation to not lie, exaggerate, or, speak authoritatively outside of it.   The granting of a Masters or Doctorate degree recognizes this fact by being the basic requirement for being able to teach at the University level.

To be punk and plain, to get a graduate degree makes you a member of an elite.  That's why granting the degree has similarities to being knighted.  This rubs a lot of people, including reporters, the wrong way.  Why should the opinion of someone with a graduate degree in climate science be more important than mine?  Isn't this still a democracy?

Yes, it is still a democracy.  And all people still (at least in theory) have equal rights before the law.  But these rights are defined as rights of opportunity not rights of outcome.  That is to say, anyone (at least theoretically) who can pass the entrance requirements and get the funding to attend a university program has the opportunity to work for years and years and, if they pass the tests, graduate with a Masters or Doctorate degree in a specific field.  More importantly, it is almost impossible to get a graduate degree from a recognized institution through influence or money.  The important points are doing the work and passing the tests.
The Hollywood trope of scientific research almost never gives any idea about how much mind-numbing, “scut work”1 is involved in doing academic research of any type.  This involves doing extensive literature searches to read everything possible on the subject you are studying (this is much easier now with computer search capabilities than when I was a grad student, but still very time consuming.)    In my case, for example, one semester as one of several tasks, I had to read 900 thesis abstracts on “joy indicators” research for a prof who had a contract with the UN to do quality of life indicators research.  Grad work also involves learning the proper “finger exercises” necessary to be able to perform a technically demanding procedure consistently.  For example, I once met a grad student at a party who said he'd gotten a new position to work on an experiment.  His first order of business was to do 1,000 rat dissections in order to build up his surgical skill to the point where he could start the actual experiment.  It also often involves having to learn an entirely new area of expertise.  For example, many grad students have to teach themselves computer programming simply to be able to manipulate experimental data.  Once the more exciting work of designing the experiment is done, then the student will often have to engage in the process of selling it to a granting agency in order to find the money needed to actually do it.  And once this is done, the student often has to repeat it over and over again to create a large enough data set to be able to make any sort of broad generalization.  Finally, once the experiment has been done, he will have to write it up in a form that will be acceptable to both his thesis advisors and the peer reviewed journal he wants to publish his findings.

Getting a graduate degree usually involves doing a huge amount of work that is often numbingly boring, but when someone graduates with that degree, they enter into a specific body of intellectuals who have all been recognized as being “peers” and who are qualified to authoritatively comment on their specific area of expertise.  This small number of people who actually know enough to both understand an esoteric line of research and intelligently critique methods and claims made about it, are the only people who are qualified to make any sort of authoritative judgment about a specific statement made in that field of research.   So when a scientist writes a paper and sends it in to a scholarly journal the editor submits it to a number of experts in the field, the “peers”, who then look at the design of the experiment, the evidence presented and the reasoning of its analysis, and then decide whether or not the paper is worthy of publishing in the journal.  Once an article has been published in a peer reviewed journal, then it becomes part of the ever-expanding storehouse of human knowledge and other people use it as a building-block for doing their own research.

It drives people with graduate degrees to distraction the way reporters usually seem to totally misunderstand the importance of credentials when they write on issues like climate change.  In pursuit of that strange journalistic artifact known as “balance”, they routinely cite quotations and print op-ed pieces by people who have no credentials at all in opposition to people who have busted their butts in order to get them.  The only reason why that scientist is making a statement about climate change is because they have worked extremely hard to be able to be in the position where they have an informed opinion.  So it is profoundly insulting for a journalist to let someone else----who hasn't put in a similar amount of work on the subject---simply swan in and offer an opposing opinion.

I have mentioned this fact to reporter friends and they have replied that it is not their job to ascertain the credentials of people who issue press releases and submit articles for publication.  They simply go to a media event and report what is said.  But this is totally disingenuous. The fact is that editors routinely make decisions about which events get reported and who does and doesn't get quoted in the media.  That is why “balancing stories” never include quotes from janitors and why auto mechanics are never invited to write opposing op eds.  Instead, editors seem to decide who gets to have a platform based on two main criteria.

First, editors will send reporters to record statements by powerful and important people.  They will not send people to record the pronouncements of the janitor who cleans their washroom.  But if a man makes a huge amount of money running a cleaning company, and then uses that money to create a phony organization and hire glib spokespersons with bogus credentials, then they have no problem at all reporting on their every utterance (think Fraser Institute.)   The majority of reporters will not only not ask the people speaking what specific credentials empower them to speak authoritatively on the subject and whether the findings being cited had been published in a generally recognized, peer reviewed journal----they will usually get angry with anyone who suggests that that should be part of their job.  Moreover, they will often get positively indignant if you suggest that if these people do not have relevant credentials that should be a prominent part of the story or even grounds for not reporting this event at all.

Secondly, editors solicit and publish op ed stories on the basis of the above criteria and also because of the ability of a person to predictably write concise, easily understood and witty pieces of a prescribed size.   On television, the skill consists of producing short, easily understood “sound bites” on demand.  The problem with this is that the ability to do this has absolutely nothing at all to do with whether or not the person writing actually knows a damn thing about what they are talking about! Indeed, part of the process of learning how to be a scientist involves learning how to write in a specific, technical manner that emphasizes accuracy over all other criteria.  Moreover, in order to explain complex ideas it is often necessary to refer to procedures and use language that requires a lot more work to understand than the prescribed reading level that the mainstream media allows.  This means that given the existing criteria that are used to select for people to write opinion pieces or act as pundits in the mainstream media, there is a very strong bias against anyone with proper credentials being allowed to participate.

In the last American presidential election, the contrasting predictions of statistician Nate Silvers and the existing “pundit class” showed this problem in stark detail.  He was able to use scientific methods to accurately predict the outcome of the election months ahead of time.   In contrast, the media pundits chosen by mainstream media editors and producers were left sputtering on election night with predictions that were all over the map.  (Funny thing, though, none of them seem to have lost their jobs because of this fact.)  The same thing happens all through the mainstream media where “rock star” commentators like David Frum and Margaret Wente blather on endlessly about subjects that they know damn near nothing about, while people with real credentials are almost never seen.

Editors and producers might argue that these two criteria are perfectly adequate.  Rich and powerful people are, by definition, newsworthy simply because they are rich and powerful.  Society is controlled by these folk, so people want to read what they have to say.  The problem with this, however, is that science doesn't proceed on the basis of the relative wealth or political influence of the experimenter, but rather on the quality of their reasoning and the results of their experiments.  And the stories that deal with science, such as climate change, directly turn on the issue of science, not wealth and power.  Moreover, the stories that reporters present invariably frame scientific issues as if what is being reported is scientifically valid---even if the real reason why they are at the news event is because of the wealth and power of the people speaking.

Reporters have also told me that with regard to op eds, I am confusing “news” with “opinion”.  That is to say, reporters are supposed to tell the “truth” when they write something for the first page, but this isn't expected on the editorial page.  I find this distinction disturbing.  All opinions should turn on an understanding of the world of facts or else we call them “hallucinations”, “delusions”, or “lies”.  If we let people get away with writing op eds based on either ignorance or falsehoods, it profoundly distorts public debate.  With regard to an existential social threat, like climate change, this cavalier attitude towards public debate seems totally irresponsible.

It is irresponsible because people actually read this stuff and a lot of them also believe what they read.  I used to do some free lance journalism, have a graduate degree in philosophy (something that I have heard described as the “ultimate bullshit detector”) and am fully aware of how much stuff in the mainstream media is out-and-out baloney---and I routinely get sucked into believing stupid stuff.  How in heaven's name can the editors and publishers who shovel this cornucopia of crap into the body politic possible believe that it is totally harmless?  And need I remind anyone that in the case of climate change we are talking about the fate of the earth!

Hypothesis and Theory, or, Consensus in Science
I have had reporters counter that it would be wrong for them to pay too much attention to the pronouncements of establishment climate scientists because scientific “truths” are commonly disproved.   Even if 98% of them say that climate change is real, there is always the chance that the 2% who disagree are right and the others wrong.  Since all scientific pronouncements are ultimately provisional---a theory is only true until it is disproved by the next guy---what difference does it make if the reporter quotes someone without “establishment” credentials?  This notion---which is appallingly common amongst reporters---has everything to do with Hollywood science and nothing at all to do with the real thing.

The first part of understanding this is to understand the difference between a “hypothesis” and a “theory”.  People routinely confuse the two terms, and that confusion has tremendous implications.

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, suggested that in the vast majority of cases it is far easier to prove something wrong than to prove another thing right.  Primarily, this is because if your understanding of a situation is correct you can make predictions about what will happen.  For example, because Pavlov consistently rang a bell while feeding his dogs, he believed that the dogs would eventually begin to salivate when he rang the bell whether or not food was presented.  If he had not been able to show this result, it would have suggested that his understanding of how dog training works (what psychologists now call “operant conditioning”) was wrong.  It might be that there were other reasons why the dogs salivated, which is why, strictly speaking, philosophers of science do not like to say that an experiment proves an understanding as being correct.  But if the dogs had not salivated, it certainly would have shown that specific understanding of Pavlov was wrong.2

Please note that in the above paragraph I have been very careful to not use the words “hypothesis” or “theory” and instead have substituted “understanding” and “believed” instead.  I've done this because most people confuse the two and that dramatically affects their view of science.   In the case of Pavlov, his “hypothesis” was that if he trained his dogs in a certain way, they would begin to salivate when he rang his bell.  The “theory” is the psychological understanding of “operant conditioning” that resulted from a large number of experiments that he and other psychologists performed.  It is a consensus based upon the coalescing of the opinions of all the scientists who had the relevant credentials to be able to have useful opinions about the experiments that he had performed and his understanding that explained the results.

Let me reiterate, a “hypothesis” leads to a specific prediction that is based on an proposed understanding of a phenomenon.  Pavlov's hypothesis was that when he rang the bell his dogs would salivate because of how he understood what happens when he trained them.  The “theory” of operant conditioning is the collective understanding that has emerged from the work of all the scientists who have done similar experiments and come to similar conclusions.

Because people conflate “hypothesis” with “theory” they come to the conclusion that a theory is extremely provisional.  Experiments are designed to see if a hypothesis can be proved wrong.  And they often are.  But a theory is an emerged consensus amongst the scientific community that is nowadays almost never proved wrong.  Instead, theories are modified, expanded, or, limited.

I suspect that the reason why many people---and it seems, especially reporters---have problems with this idea is because they have a naïve understanding of the world that tells them that there is a very clear distinction between the two realms of “fact” and “opinion”.  The problem is, however, that every step that society has made to gain a greater understanding of the world around us has undermined this point of view.  Lots of things that are “obviously true” turned out to not be so.  The earth looks “obviously flat”, but it's really round.  The sun “obviously rises in the East”, but really the Earth rotates.  Etc and etc.  The obvious “facts” ended up being replaced with “opinions” that were based on a consensus amongst experts.

It is important to understand that what I am talking about is the development of a specific form of consensus amongst a specific set of people. There is a critical thinking fallacy called “argumentum ad populum” or “the appeal to the people”.  This is the fallacious idea that the trust-worthiness of a statement can be arrived at simply by finding out if a majority of people believe in it.  But the consensus building exercise that scientists use to develop a theory doesn't involve the general public.  The people in question are people who have the relevant credentials.  These are the people who have done all the nasty scut work at university and have really looked at the issue in question from a professional point of view (i.e. done the research.)  This is totally different from hiring a polling agency to call a sample of ordinary citizens on the telephone.

Skepticism and Truth
Reporters are often described as “skeptical” people, but truth be told, scientists are the real skeptics. Reporters look for a sort of TRUTH that exists before human beings ever existed and has nothing at all to do with the fallible activity of human kind.  This naïve epistemology3 means that they find it very odd when someone suggests that society should base public policy decisions on something as “soft” and “squishy” as the consensus of scientists from the relevant field of study.  But the fact of the matter is that that is all humanity has to go on.  It is what supports the technology of computers, space flight and everything else.  Sadly, this divide in understanding is also what creates so much terrible opinion writing and commentary.

Scientists understand that what they are doing is having an extended conversation in order to build a consensus amongst themselves---one that is based on careful observation, experimentation and logical discourse between people who are doing the same sort of work.  This means that they are not in the habit of making broad declarative statements or snappy “sound bites”.  Instead, they like to be precise and careful in their language.  But editors and producers don't like that mode of expression because it seems hesitant and boring, which they believe implies that someone doesn't really know what they are talking about.  Sadly, the opposite is almost always the case, hence the prominence of people like Margaret Wente and David Frum.  The people who sound the most sure of themselves are the ones that usually know the very least.    

Change in Scientific Theories
In the above discussion I mentioned in passing that scientific theories (as opposed to hypotheses) do not get proven wrong, instead they get modified. People routinely fail to understand this distinction when they say, for example, that “Einstein proved Newton wrong” or “Gould's notion of stepped evolution proves that Darwin was wrong”.    Then, based upon that misunderstanding of how science works, they go on to suggest that we shouldn't pay much attention to what scientific consensus says about issues of profound significance to the community, such as climate change.  After all, that 2% of the scientific community that is quoted as denying climate change could be right----.

But the problem with this view is that Einstein didn't prove Newton wrong.  Instead, he showed that Newtonian physics wasn't complete.  That is to say that Newton's equations work very well in a given context, but do not in others---such as situations of extremely high gravity and speeds approaching that of light.  Einstein's theories do not mean that you can no longer use Newtonian mechanics to describe the actions of billiard balls on a pool table with enough accuracy for pool “sharks” to be able to make a living.  But they do explain some minor ways in which the actions of the solar system's planets interact with the world around them.

For example, based on Newton's theories, earlier scientists had hypothesized that because of gravity, light from stars would be bent around the sun in a way that would make them appear in a different place than where they “actually” are.  (Think of the way water will create the illusion that a straight stick is bent when half of it is submerged.)  Einstein's theory of relativity also hypothesized that the light would bend, but twice as much as Newton's theory suggested.  Unfortunately, the sun is so bright that the light from any star that appears near it's edge will be overwhelmed, so both hypotheses are not testable under normal conditions.  However, during a total lunar eclipse the moon passes in front of the sun (relative to an observer on earth.)  This blocks the sun's light, making it possible to look at the stars who's light travels close to the sun's gravitational field.  Einstein predicted that the stars would appear in a different place than where Newtonian mechanics would.  This was tested during a total lunar eclipse in 1919 and the Newtonian prediction failed where Einstein's passed.4

This is an important point.  Science proceeds not only by consensus but also by increments.  In 1962, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that talked about the idea that science progresses through “paradigm shifts”. Unfortunately, this book has been tremendously influential in that broad swaths of the population now believe that science progresses through wild revolutionary changes.  But in actual fact, even Kuhn admitted that in most cases science progresses through incremental improvements.  And even when change happens very fast---as with the Newtonian revolution---there very rarely seems to be the sort of violent clashes that the general public associates with a “revolution”.  Perhaps some people smacked themselves on the fore-heads and exclaimed loudly when they read Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy5), but bye-and-large Newton's work was acknowledged as brilliant and useful once it was first read and understood.

Unfortunately, one of the things that the media absolutely loves is conflict.  The cliché from the newsroom is “if it bleeds, it leads”.  The fact is that for evolutionary reasons people are “hard-wired” to instantly pay attention to sex and violence, so their hormones kick in and focus on any depiction possible.  That's why newspapers will show totally irrelevant pictures of violence (if possible with a scantily-clad, vulnerable looking woman as the victim) on the front page.  It is also why newscasts routinely put on “teasers” talking about a future violent car crash or robbery with “full details” later on in the newscast.

Unfortunately, real science doesn't give a lot of opportunities for conflict, simply because it proceeds through boring hard work, consensus and incremental advancement.  But by golly, that doesn't stop editors and producers from working as hard as they can to produce conflict if they possibly can do it!  If they cannot create a “debate” amongst people with credentials, then why not invite someone who doesn't have any to “stir the pot”?  If someone complains, then you can toss around the old canard about “balance” being required to ensure “objectivity”.

Of course, the fact that the naïve general public is left with the impression that the most important public policy issue of their lifetime is part of a wild debate instead of a pretty clear consensus, seems to be irrelevant.

Anger at the Press
Recent surveys of public attitudes have shown that public trust of the media has declined quite dramatically during the past few decades.6   Consider, if you will, the following quote from a 2011 Pew research report:

The widely-shared belief that news stories are inaccurate cuts to the press’s core mission: Just 25% say that in general news organizations get the facts straight while 66% say stories are often inaccurate. As recently as four years ago, 39% said news organizations mostly get the facts straight and 53% said stories are often inaccurate.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why people do not trust the media any more.  It has fragmented, and there seems to be very obvious influence being exerted by wealthy interests in some reportage.  At the same time, there are well-financed campaigns to create mistrust against the so-called “liberal media”.  But I would suggest that at least a significant fraction of the distrust comes from the very things that reporters believe will gain them trust:  their commitment to “balance” and “objectivity”.

One of the key rules of “responsible” journalism is to always balance one “controversial” point of view against another.  The important point in this case is “controversial”.  No one, for example, would expect a journalist mentioning the time of sunrise in a weather forecast to “balance” this statement with another opinion from someone who believes that the sun will not rise at all the next day.  It is possible, therefore, to parse out all statements in news stories as belonging to either the class of “controversial statements” or “non-controversial” statements.   The president of the United States is a man who's father was an African.  This is a non-controversial statement and doesn't require a balancing rebuttal every time a journalist states it in either an article on the front page or an op-ed in the editorial section.  In contrast, whether or not NATO should intervene in the affairs of a specific Eastern European country is controversial and there are usually a wide variety of arguments one way or another about it.  In this case, it is right and proper for editors and producers to find a wide variety of sources and opinions to talk about all the different elements that should be considered.

Let me reiterate for emphasis: whether or not an issue ends up in one set or the other involves an implicit statement of fact.  If someone decides that a point of view is so controversial that it requires “balance”, they are saying that there is no consensus yet about what the truth of the matter.   So, in effect, when journalists say that a story talking about the existence of climate change requires “balance”, they are saying that there is no consensus in the scientific community about whether or not it is happening.  As such, the fact that they have parsed this issue into the set of “controversial” issues that requires “balance” is in itself a statement of fact---one that is flat out wrong if not bordering on being a bald-faced lie.  In effect, when editors and producers order reporters to find a “balancing” point of view they are fibbing about the issue at hand.  I know that amongst many of my friends this is one of the things that gets me absolutely furious with professional journalists.  We see it as evidence that “professional journalists” have nothing but contempt for the truth in an issue of tremendous importance to the public welfare.  

Some journalists spend time trying to be “objective” in their reporting.  The Wikipedia says the following about it “Journalistic objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and non-partisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities”.7

The first thing I'd like readers to recognize about this statement is that there can be a significant contradiction between these elements.  For example, what if the facts fall all to one side in an intensely partisan discussion?   Is an editor being “partisan” if he prints stories that show that one political party is flat-out wrong on a significant public policy debate?  If he crosses his fingers and publishes statements that are demonstrably wrong on his Op-Ed page, then what is his commitment to “factuality”?   What if he simply doesn't dig very hard because he knows that if he does he's probably going to find out that the important politician is lying?  How “fair” is that to the other side?

I have read arguments that suggest that the way to deal with these problems is to simply give up on the principle of “objectivity” and just let journalists be as partisan as they want.  If people don't like what they read, they can go to another news source.  I've always felt that this is more than a little self-serving, though.  Why can't we suggest that journalists should be factual first and let the other issues fall to the wayside?

Work Load
Journalists will often complain to me that they are so over-worked that they just don't have the time to do all the research that I am suggesting that they need to do in order to write good stories about things like climate change.  There is a significant amount of truth in this, but I would suggest that there are some things that they could do to dramatically increase their productivity while at the same time lowering their workload when it comes to dealing with science stories.

First of all, I'd suggest that journalists create the equivalent of a prostitute's “bad john list”.  That is, they need to create a website where professional journalists can list potential sources who have been caught making statements that are significantly not true.  These can include people who have been caught speaking outside of their area of expertise, making flat-out false statements, fudging their research, etc.  Cite their names, their source of funding if relevant (it often is) and the reason that they have been nominated as being “bad johns”.   In addition, this site should also cite bogus citizen's groups that have been created by disinformation campaigns, phony think tanks and non-peer reviewed journals devoted to publishing “junk science”.

This way when a journalist has a quote from someone that seems legitimate, she can then look the individual and citation up on the “bad john list”.  If he is there, she can either decide to not use the quote, or, look into the reasons listed for the citation and decide either to dismiss them as not being correct (and hopefully add an addendum to the shit list stating why she did this) or, make the fraudulent credentials or disinformation in the quotation a significant part of her story.

Creating the journalistic “bad john list” would significantly change reporting because it would introduce an element of collegiality to the profession and allow it to begin to make incremental improvements in the store of social information.  It used to be that journalists lived in a specific community and go to learn who could and couldn't be trusted to give an honest and informed quotation.  Nowadays, they get transferred from place to place and often do not even live in the community they serve.  This means that they rarely get the chance to create an informal network of trusted sources.   Formalizing this previously informal process could serve as a useful correction to the cornucopia of crap that gets showered on them daily by self-serving BS artists, crack pots and public relations flacks.  

In addition, journalists can do what many intelligent readers do when they read a story that doesn't smell right, they can go to Professor Google.  I routinely do Google searches that say something like “problems with X” or “critiques of X”.  I am amazed at how often stuff falls into my lap that dramatically undermines the “truthiness” of what I have just read.  I am not saying that journalists should believe everything that they read on line, but if professor Google says something stinks, it should be followed up in order to truth test the quotations or statements in an Op Ed piece.

Also, news media need to make up their minds about factual issues and stop giving platforms for people who are making factually incorrect statements.  To cite a precedent, the “Los Angeles Times” has a policy of refusing to publish letters that suggest that climate change is not taking place.  The letters page editor, Paul Thornton, made his case very succinctly.  “Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”8  There is no reason at all why any news organization cannot make a similar decision about all parts of it's platform.  It routinely does this sort of thing with regard to racism, sexism, crackpot ideas about the earth being flat and the moon being made of green cheese.  Why not exclude equally loopy ideas about climate change?  Think about how much easier it would be for journalists if they simply didn't have to report stuff that is crap without having to come up with reasons why it is crap every time someone makes a wild statement?

If someone argues that this sounds suspiciously like censorship, I will counter by asking if his news organization prints every single opinion and statement that comes its way?   There is always a criteria used to filter out some stories.  I am just suggesting that it be done in an open and honest way using something like a rational criteria.  This will allow journalists the freedom to start asking questions like “Why is this person pushing this false narrative?”  or “What is the best way to prevent the worst elements of climate change?” instead of endlessly perpetuating a “debate” that has been settled long ago by the people who actually know what they are talking about.

Bogus Credentials
I mentioned above that graduates have an obligation to not “speak outside of their area of expertise”.  It is tremendously important for journalists to understand exactly what this means.  Just because someone has a graduate degree in one discipline doesn't mean that they are equipped to make expert pronouncements in any other field.  No journalist would cite quotations from a 'Class A' auto mechanic with regard to heart surgery, yet they routinely give time to the prognostications by economists on climate science.  Why is this?

Perhaps part of the reason is because journalists don't understand how much science is based on reliance of those “picky details” that were learned when those graduate students did all that “scut work” at university.  To illustrate this point, consider the case of the “hockey stick graph controversy”.

In a grotesquely simplified nutshell, the “hockey stick” is a graph that shows how global temperature has slowly declined from about 1000 AD to the beginning of the industrial revolution, where it started to increase at a much faster rate than it had been declining.  That's pretty much what one would expect to happen if climate change exists and it is being driven by industrial processes.9  The “controversy” comes from a concerted push by various climate change deniers who argue that the graph is a result of incompetence, malfeasance or a combination of both among professional climate scientists.

Now, let's look at one of the key pieces of “evidence” that is used to cast aspersions on the hockey stick.

In 2003 a retired mining executive with a Bachelor's in mathematics and some graduate work in economics, by the name of  Stephen McIntyre; and an economics professor by the name of Ross McKitrick published a paper in a journal titled “Energy & Environment”.  It was titled  “Corrections to the Mann et. al. (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemispheric Average Temperature Series”. It was published in “Energy & Environment”.10  Later on, in 2005 there was a reference to their work published in “Geophysical Research Letters”.11

Now, there are several things about what I have written above that journalists have to understand if they are going to make sense of the science involved.  First of all, McIntyre and McKitrick are not climate scientists.  They have a background in economics.  This should set off wild alarm bells in the minds of any journalist that gets a press release or op ed about climate science with their names on it.  This is because they didn't do all the picky “scut work” involved in getting a post graduate degree in the subject of climate science.  They are auto mechanics telling you how to do open heart surgery.  McIntyre and McKitrick are commenting on a technical subject that is outside of their area of expertise, which is a total no-no.

Secondly, journalists should have taken a look at the two journals that I mentioned above, namely “Energy & Environment” and “Geophysical Research Letters”.   The first thing to remember is that “Geophysical Research Letters” makes no real attempt to be peer reviewed.   The first thing to remember is that while "Geophysical Research Letters" is peer reviewed, it is not strictly speaking a scientific journal. Instead, it is meant to publish brief “head's up”s from researchers about the work that they are doing so if anyone else in the field is interested in the same thing they can connect with them to ask questions and share information.  Of course, editors have to use discretion about what they do or don't publish, but the burden of proof to get published in this journal is not as high as it might seem.

Also, McIntyre and McKitrick shopped around their paper to various journals who refused to publish it.  Eventually, they sent it to “Energy & Environment”, which did.  The thing to remember is that that journal is not listed as either a climate science journal or even a “hard” science journal at all.  Academic librarians use various tools to keep track of academic journals in order to help researchers.  One tool is the “Web of Knowledge” database.  One of the things it does is assign a specific category to a journal, and “Energy & Environment” is not listed in its science database but rather it's social science category.  So strictly speaking, McIntyre and McKitrick not only are not climate scientists, but their article wasn't printed in a journal of climate science, or physical science of any form.

If you look at “Energy & Environment”'s website you can see the following description of it's purpose.

Energy and Environment is an interdisciplinary journal aimed at natural scientists, technologists and the international social science and policy communities covering the direct and indirect environmental impacts of energy acquisition, transport, production and use. A particular objective is to cover the social, economic and political dimensions of such issues at local, national and international level. The technological and scientific aspects of energy and environment questions including energy conservation, and the interaction of energy forms and systems with the physical environment, are covered, including the relationship of such questions to wider economic and socio-political issues.12

Clearly, this is not a technical journal devoted to climate science, but rather something more concerned with social and economic issues.  In publishing a technical analysis of the mathematics behind the Hockey Stick graph, it was stepping outside its area of expertise, which is a real no-no too.

Finally, journalists who write about science should understand that all academic journals are not created equally.  Some are very prestigious, and some are totally ignored because they are either considered at best not terribly useful for future research or at worst, repositories of junk science.  It is not a trivial task to find an objective criteria to do so, but there are systems that can be used. Two systems have been developed for measuring the importance of a journal are “Impact Factors”13 and the “Eigenfactor”14.  Doing a search using the Web of Knowledge I sought out the highest ranked journal devoted to physical chemistry and the top scoring one is “Nature Materials” which has an Impact Factor score of 35.749 and an Eigenfactor score of 0.22815 . When I looked up “Energy & Environment” the Impact Factor was 0.319 and the Eigenfactor of 0.00045 .

OK.  The authors were not experts and they published in a journal that has no expertise in selecting and refereeing complex articles about climate science.  So what?

Well, this is so what.

An blog by the name of “Real Climate:  Climate science from climate scientists” exists to try and sort things out for the interested lay person.15  It's statement of purpose is as follows:

RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.16 

“ReaClimate” has published extensively on the McIntyre/McKitrick paper.  I will attempt to summarize what they say in the following.  I am not an expert, and I make no claims about being one, but I suspect that unless I try to come up with something like what follows, some readers will simply dismiss what I have to say about McIntyre and McKitrick out of hand.

The gist of McIntyre and McKitrick's complaints against the hockey stick is that the temperature data that was used to create it came from ground-based weather stations that had been contaminated by localized heat coming from nearby economic activity.  If a local temperature testing site is next to a city that has a lot of heat radiating from things like parking lots (the “heat island effect”), for example, that will skew the numbers in the direction of showing increased global temperatures.

The first problem that RealClimate cites is that McIntyre and McKitrick didn't acknowledge any data that had been added into the hockey stick analysis that came from sources that could not possibly be attributed to the heat island effect.  This includes things like temperature data from satellites and the sea.  The heat island effect certainly exists, but it cannot be used to explain increases of temperature measured in the middle of the tundra and North Atlantic.  

Secondly, the computer software that they used made a fundamental error in estimating the area of land being sampled.  In effect, it was found that the software calculated area based on radians and McKitrick entered the data in degrees.  This is comparable to confusing gallons and litres of fuel when loading an airplane with jet fuel----and the results are just as catastrophic.

Finally, the author looked through the methodology that McIntyre and McKitrick used to analyze the data from ground-based temperature measurement and found that they did not use proper statistical procedures to manipulate their data.  He then went on to test their results by re-running their own models using a standard test that others use, and found that when this was done, the results that the authors identified disappeared.17

I am aware that I am not doing this argument justice and may have balled things up.  I have never studied statistics and am not a climate scientist.  But the point I am trying to make is neither are the journalists who refuse to defer to expert opinion on climate change stories.  We lay people simply do not know enough to be able to judge a statement on its own merits.  And the opinions of experts about McIntyre and McKitrick is clear---they are at best a couple of buffoons who don't know what they are talking about, or, at worst con-men who are actively conspiring to sow confusion and doubt in the public in order to prevent any serious attempt to deal with climate change.  Serious editors and producers should never quote, publish or interview anything at all that comes from their mouths.  THEY HAVE ZERO CREDIBILITY.  

Crappy academic journals exist and they publish rotten papers.  And they are ignored by the scientific community and rarely cause any stir.  But the difference with McIntyre and McKitrick's offering was that a very powerful public relations machine kicked into over-drive and promoted it to the mass media, business leaders and the political classes.  And because the editors and producers who's job it is to ascertain the worth of a particular piece of news were totally asleep at the wheel, this piece of poisonous crude was allowed to set back public debate about an existential threat to the human race.

Let me repeat one more time for emphasis, journalists simply do not know enough about things like statistics and other aspects of science to adequately decide whether or not a statement is true or false.  Sorry if that sounds elitist, but higher education and scientific research are elitist in nature.  What journalists can do, however, is learn how to distinguish between sources that have adequate, relevant credentials and those that do not. That means when you are writing quotes, soliciting op eds, and so on about climate science, the only people you should be quoting are climate scientists with a relevant credentials who work for some sort of mainstream institution.

A Note About My Credentials
At this point no doubt some readers are thinking to themselves “he goes on and on about the necessity of credentials, what exactly are his?”   Well, I am not a climate scientist.  But I have a Master's degree in philosophy, something that probably almost no one reading this essay will know much about.  So let me give you the short explanation about why I think I am qualified to write this essay.

Simply put, philosophy is training how to tell a good argument from a bad argument.  Part of that includes the study of how science works.  Another element is the study of how the human psyche influences how people differentiate between truth and falsity.  Yet another is trying to understand how  human culture influences the discovery and dissemination of knowledge.  On a practical level, philosophy students also learn many of the academic “tricks of the trade”, primarily, how to use an academic library for research.

Finally, I do have a certain amount of experience writing for newspapers.  I wrote a weekly column for my local daily for three years and sold a fair number of free lance opinion pieces before the market for free lancers dried-up in the late 20th century.

How Journalists Can do a Better Job Reporting Science
When an editor gets a press release or an op ed submitted to them the first thing that they need to do is think about the credentials of the person involved.  Do they have the actual piece of paper that says that they know what they are talking about?  If they don't, then the first thing they should do is ask the people involved what gives them the right to speak authoritatively on the subject.  If the response is some sort of rhetorical tap dance about freedom and fairness, or, a blizzard of confusing statements that you don't know enough to evaluate or even understand, they should be shown the door.

Secondly, no matter who sends the story, the journalists need to have it vetted by an expert.  There should be a list of experts on file that the news organization can trust.  Universities are full of people, paid for by the tax payer, who are experts on given fields and who are often quite happy to help a reporter figure something out.  Call them on the phone or send them an email.  Forward what you have in hand and ask them if it passes the smell test.  It might be a good idea to consult Professor Google to see if some expert doesn't have a blog where he has gone to great lengths to show some chicanery behind the slick press release.

Third, keep some sort of running tally for the entire journalist community.  If some person or organization gets caught deliberately playing fast and loose with the truth, then put them on a “bad john list” and refuse to publish anything from them ever again.  Bogus “think tanks” and “astro-turf” organizations shouldn't be able to constantly pitch stuff over and over again at journalists in order to see what they can get away with.  All knowledge ultimately comes down to trust between individuals with specialized experience.  Once we allow individuals to betray that trust, we imperil the entire edifice of information.  Fool me once, shame on you---fool me twice, shame on me.        

If you think that this is too much work and takes too much time, then think about how you can make the work you do on truth testing cumulative.  In addition to the “bad john list”, have a central expert list that every reporter can use.  That way reporters can benefit from the work of all the other reporters in the area or field.  Also, make editorial decisions and stick to them.  Take your thumbs out of your butts and make a statement that says “climate change exists, it is being caused by mankind” and simply state that you will no longer give a platform to anyone who says it isn't because they are either misinformed or lying.  Period.  With this decision, the reporters don't have to do any work trying to disprove every crackpot or public relations hack that darkens the door.

Finally, pay attention to the comments you receive when you publish a story.  Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of comments on most stories are moronic.18  But fairly often someone will make a comment that shows that they really know what they are talking about, and they have found a huge mistake in a story.  I almost never seen journalists acknowledge or fix an error, or use the comment to generate a follow-up story.  Sad to say, more often, I've seen them delete a comment that makes them look foolish.  Usually, they just ignore it.  This is terrible practice and totally unprofessional.  It is one of the things that infuriates the public about the media.