(Formerly "The Gadfly's Blog")
I offer below,
random musings, reflections, correspondence, scraps of
work-in-progress, and other such miscellany, perchance worth sharing
but not ready for the prime time of formal publication.
Much of this
material has been adapted from personal e-mail
correspondence. While I am perfectly free to use, revise and expand
on my side of these exchanges, use of the "incoming" correspondence
is problematic. I have neither the right nor the inclination to
include the words of my correspondents if they can be identified
either by name or description.
If I am confident that the correspondents can not be identified and
if their part of the exchange is essential to the exchange, then I
might quote them directly. Otherwise, their ideas will be briefly
paraphrased, only to supply context to my part of these
conversations. In no case will I identify the correspondents by
On the other hand, signed letters to The Crisis Papers and The
Online Gadfly are fair game as are other comments published in the
internet. They were submitted with the clear understanding that
they, and their signatories, might be made public.
Incoming correspondence will be identified by italics. My
contributions will be in plain text.
January 8, 2008
Originally posted in The
January is the
traditional month for the checkout counter tabloids to publish the
unfailingly inaccurate astrologers' predictions for the coming year. Never,
in those same publications, will you find rational rebuttals to this ancient
About ten years ago, I
wrote this manifestly unpublishable refutation of astrology. This season of
the year strikes me as an appropriate time to post it again. EP
"More than one-third of American adults believe astrology has some
scientific merit. Nearly one in seven regularly reads horoscope columns." (Los
Angeles TIMES, May 10, 1992).
Except possibly for the persisting public
preference for "creationism" over evolution, nothing more clearly indicates
the dismal failure of science education in the United States than the public
acceptance of Astrology.
Never mind, that this ancient superstition
is devoid of any theoretical structure and routinely fails all controlled
attempts at validation. To wit:
It is never explained just what independently
identifiable universal forces, laws or principles should link the
positions of the stars and planets at the time and date of one's birth,
with one's subsequent personality or the events in one's life -- much
less, how this
linkage takes place. As one skeptic has pointed out, the tidal force of
Jupiter is less than that of a truck driving past the hospital delivery
room. So why should Jupiter's position at the moment of a person's birth
be of any significance whatever?
Astrologers triumphantly report their
"hits" (first formulated in vague and ambiguous language), but never
their "misses." For an annual New Year's amusement, try saving the
"psychics' predictions for the next year," as published in the
supermarket tabloids, then read them a year later. The best years yield
about a two-percent success-rate. (I entertained my classes with this
stunt throughout most of my teaching career).
Numerous experiments inviting
astrologers to correctly associate birth dates and times with
individuals have failed to come up with "matches" far removed from
statistical random chance. (I have conducted many such experiments in my
own classes, with the same results).
Astrology developed in ancient
civilizations (Egypt and Babylon) amidst astronomical beliefs (e.g.,
geocentrism) which are universally rejected today. Yet astrology, with
all its foundational cosmology stripped away, is still believed.
(And this is my personal favorite):
Even if, however incredibly, there were something to astrology at the
time it was formulated some four-thousand years ago, it would be invalid
today, since, due to the precession ("wobbling") of the Earth's axis,
the apparent positions of the zodiacal constellations are quite
different than they were when astrological principles were first
And that is just the beginning. A large
book could be written, collecting such objections and reporting the abundant
empirical refutation of this ancient superstition. In fact, many have. (To
find some of these, check out the website of the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:www.csicop.org).
And yet, a third of our compatriots
"believe that astrology has some scientific merit."
Well, so what?!
For starters, a public capable of
believing astrology (and disbelieving evolution) is capable of believing anything. If
you doubt this, just consider the state of our our political discourse. And
if you think that public credulity is harmless, tell that to the McMartin
family in Long Beach and to other victims of the thankfully subsiding
witch-hunt for "child-abusers" accused by "victims" of "repressed memories."
It is a chilling thought that one day we might be judged by a jury of such
Perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of
the popular belief in astrology and other public superstitions (e.g. the
Bermuda Triangle, Water Dowsing, Atlantis, Noah's Ark, Alien Abductions,
Rosswell, etc. ad nauseum) is that this kookery is promoted on the
public airwaves by individuals who should (and in all probability do) know
better. What they surely know is how to count "market share," and that is
all that matters. The ensuing corruption of the public intellect is an
"externality" of no interest to them.
Cases in point: "The
History Channel," "The Discovery Channel" and "A&E." These cable channels,
which claim to be "educational outlets" have instead become marketplaces of
the occult -- television equivalents of The
National Enquirer. We
normally stay clear of this nonsense, unless drawn now and then by a morbid
curiosity about just what is being fed the public these days. Usually, what
we find is much worse than we feared. In one series, "In Search Of," we are
greeted by the smooth Vulcan voice of Leonard Nimoy. ("Gee,
Maude, there must be something to it: that's Mr. Spock and he's the Science
Officer of the Enterprise!). In
a recently viewed half-hour episode on astrology, we heard perhaps two
minutes of debunking by a professor of astronomy. The rest consisted of a
promotion of the superstition, featuring extended interviews with the likes
of Sidney Omarr.
But don't look for "equal time" on
commercial TV from the scientists or the skeptics, except on an occasional
episode of PBS's excellent "Nova" series. Yet there are learned and eloquent
individuals in abundance, ready to present the case for reason and
"intellectual sales-resistance" -- individuals such as James Randi and
Steven Jay Gould, and organizations such as the American Association for the
Advancement of Science and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of
Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
Unfortunately, so long as the public,
encouraged by the media, prefers astonishment to enlightenment, and
entertainment to education, there is little prospect for improvement. "The
Mushroom Rule" prevails: "Keep
'em in the dark, and feed 'em bullshit."
That splendid Scottish skeptic, David
Hume, said it best:
The passion of surprise and wonder,
arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible
tendency towards the belief of those events from which it is derived.
And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure
immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are
informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at secondhand or by
rebound, and place a pride and a delight in exciting the admiration of
"On Miracles," Section X of the Enquiry
Concerning Human Understanding
Non-Mysterious Origins of Kookery -- A Postscript
Online Gadfly, c. 1999. Discontinued)
Back in February, 1997, I viewed (and
fortunately taped) a most amazing program on NBC-TV (network, notice,
not cable): "The Mysterious Origins of Man," which was narrated by
Charlton Heston (Ronald Reagan, not being available). Here we learned
that homo sapiens was
alive 200 million years ago, co-existed with the dinosaurs (there are
footprints in Texas to prove it!), that the sphinx was built 25,000
years ago, and that (this is my favorite!) the site of Atlantis is
beneath a mile of ice in Antarctica.
Antarctica?! How is that possible, you ask? Well, you see, as we all
know, the earth's outer crust rests upon syrupy stuff call "the mantle."
It so happens that every 20,000 years or so, the polar ice caps get
sufficiently heavy to cause the crust to slide, like a big toboggan,
some 2,000 miles or so. Thus, not so long ago (geologically speaking),
McMurdo Sound was somewhere up around where Buenos Aires is today.
How strange that there is no fossil evidence of these dramatic climate
changes, elsewhere around the globe. Well, maybe there is. As the
"scientists" interviewed on the program explained, their findings have
been suppressed by a grand, world-wide conspiracy of "establishment
scientists," who are more interested in defending their reputations and
research grants, than they are in facing up to the "evidence" offered by
these maverick truth-seekers. It's the same debunk routinely used today
by global warming deniers.
Needless to say, Science
Magazine (published by
the American Association for the Advancement of Science) takes a dim
view of these shenanigans, noting, in a recent article, that "scientists
have tried without success to get a response" to their complaints, from
NBC. "When Science contacted
NBC Entertainment ... the division that aired the show, a spokesperson
said, 'we don't have a statement because to my knowledge, there have
been no complaints.'"
For more pro-science, anti-kookery
reflections, visit "No
Mo Po Mo" at The
January 23, 2008
More about Mormonism.
Internet responses to my essay,
this 'Mormonism' Thing" (December 18, 2007) were heated,
voluminous, and for the most part, favorable. Two that were not were
from faithful Mormons. However, because they were sincere and
thoughtful, they received careful and extended responses from me,
which you will find below.
But before we get to them, I am including here my response to a
query from the producers of the four-hour PBS Frontline series, "The
Mormons" that was broadcast last April. It was, and is, an
outstanding piece of broadcast journalism which I highly recommend.
(The series can be seen at
this PBS website).
This, in part, was the question I was asked:
At the end of the 19th century, the Mormon
Church was a provincial backwater and today it is an
international powerhouse. In the 19th century, the Mormons were
seen as a licentious group of theocrats; today they are running
for President. At the start of the 20th century, the church set
their financial house in order and adjusted to secular politics.
They've faced up to some of the most important modern challenges
-- lifted the ban on blacks in the priesthood, developed their
own system of welfare -- both for their own people, but also for
victims of Katrina and the Tsunami. All this while, as you know,
the church has grown increasingly conservative. Why? What has
driven Utah from the independent conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt
to become the reddest of the red states?
My best guess about the LDS official turn to the right:
The religious right is far more concerned with
(personal) "virtue" than with (social) "justice." Hence the
emphasis on chastity, sobriety, anti-gay, anti-abortion, with a
neglect of such issues as poverty, economic injustice, racial
ethnic and sex discrimination, international law and peace. This
is a pattern that is long established in Mormon history.
The extraordinary success of the Mormon financial
"empire" has oriented the Church toward the business community.
Paraphrasing Calvin Coolidge, "the business of the LDS Church is
business." This emphasis inclines the LDS church and membership to
Combine this with theocratic dogmatism and
anti-intellectualism. I seem to recall an oft-cited quotation from the
LDS general authorities: "When the prophet has spoken, the thinking has
been done." ("Prophet" meaning the LDS presidents, past and present).
Science and scholarship have not been friendly to the LDS Church: e.g.,
contra biblical literalism (cf. evolution and historical geology),
American archeology (cf. The Book of Mormon), critical historical
scholarship (vs. "the Mormon myth").
The US and the world are changing ever more rapidly, and out
of the control of the church. Bush claims to be "born again" and the GOP
supports an "establishment" of religion in secular life and government. This
is appealing to the LDS leadership and members.
Sociologists will tell you that, almost inevitably, radical and
innovative religious and social movements, if they are to survive, must become
institutionalized, with articulated rules, leadership structures, lines of
authority, an "identity" recognized and defended by both leaders and
rank-and-file members -- in a word, they become "conservative." This was true of
early Christianity, of Protestant denominations, of Soviet Communism and other
communist states (cf. Cuba).
That's my best take on LDS "conservatism." I hope that it is
helpful. For more of my ideas about the alliance between fundamental Christians
and the secular right, see my
for Jesus," the second section of Chapter 20 of my book in progress,
Conscience of a
Next, an exchange that was published in OpEdNews in response to my essay:
Dear Dr. Ernest Partridge,
Your amazing rant against the religion of your fathers betrays the fact that
while you may have scaled the Olympian peaks of your chosen profession
(philosophy) you have never bothered to "waste" much intellectual effort on a
serious investigation of Mormonism. Your Loony-tunes summary of the "basics"
sounds, in fact, like it was cribbed from some anti-Mormon site.
Perhaps your disdain for Governor Romney is because you know that he is a very
intelligent and accomplished person and you feel threatened that he hasn't come
to the same conclusions, philosophic, religious, and political, as you?
Romney's faith cannot be explained by stupidity. (Google [Mormon education
religiosity].) How could it possibly be that 75% of LDS scientists have a very
strong belief that Joseph Smith was inspired by God, with an additional 12%
having a "strong" belief? (For what it's worth, I'm among the 75%.)
As for the "great difficulty" of having your name removed from the records of
the Church, google [Mormon remove name] "I'm feeling lucky!" Yes, there are
indeed plenty of ex-Mormons willing to support you in the Herculean task of
composing, printing, and mailing a letter!
Before you mail that letter, however, I beg you to exercise your synapses a bit
more and spend a few days seriously investigating the religion for which your
noble great-great-grandfather, Edward Partridge made such great sacrifices.
You might start by googling [alma 36 chiasmus]. Don't believe in miracles?
Surely it is a miracle that in 1830 an unschooled 29-year old farmer on the
American frontier produced such a chapter -- and such a book!
If you find Alma 36 in any way intellectually stimulating, then take one more
step. Try the suggestion of Nephi and "liken all scripture" unto yourself, for
your "profit and learning." (1 Nephi 19:23). After all, your article does
suggest that you are pretty much in the same path that Alma was in before his
If you can put yourself in Alma's shoes, then perhaps the core of the message to
his son, which is at the center of the "chi" (X), will sink deep into your
"And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked,
even with the pains of a damned soul.
"And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was
harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have
heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus
Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
"Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O
Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness,
and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
"And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more;
yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
"And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was
filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!" (Alma 36:16-20)
I don't know how much religiosity is programmed into Edward
Partridge's Y-Chromosome, but since that chromosome is contained in every cell
of your body, you have the potential to undergo a powerful physical and
Edward Partridge lives on in the spirit world, of course, and surely he is aware
of you, and praying for you. May the spirit of Elijah yet work its wonder on you
and turn your heart to the promises made to your fathers. (Malachi 4:5-6, 3
Nephi 25:5-6, Joseph Smith History 1:38-39, D&C 110:13-16)
With sincere best wishes,
Tracy Hall Jr
Ernest Partridge replies to Tracy Hall:
Without citation, your statistic that "75% of LDS scientists have a very strong
belief..." doesn't impress me very much. Who conducted this study? What was the
sample, and sampling method? As you state it, this statistic is strangely
circular. An "LDS scientist" would, almost by definition, be assumed to have
such a belief. I would be much more interested to find out how many scientists
have, as a result of their scientific education, left the Church. Unfortunately,
I know of no such study. I am personally acquainted with many such persons, but
of course, anecdotal evidence is also not very impressive.
That there are some accomplished scientists that are also devout Mormons is also
a known fact, which I will freely stipulate. I've known a few of these also. Dr.
Harvey Fletcher, a pioneer in acoustic physics and audio technology, was a
member of our New Jersey ward, when I was a child. The physicist Dr. Henry Eyring, as
Graduate School Dean of the University of Utah, signed my Masters Thesis. The Dean
who signed my Doctoral Dissertation, and coincidentally also served on my
dissertation committee, was an agnostic "social Mormon," Dr. Sterling McMurrin.
(McMurrin once remarked to me, "if you want your child to have a graduate
education but also remain true in the faith, then have him study the physical
sciences or engineering. But be sure he stays clear of the social sciences, and
above all, history.") But all this is moot. I don't base my fundamental
convictions on the testimonials of others.
Reports and summaries of extensive scientific studies, on the other hand, I take
very seriously. And the reports from new world archeology, physical anthropology
and linguistics have convinced me that the Book of Mormon is not authentic. All
claims to the contrary are from LDS sources. In "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Thought," Summer, 1973, new world archeologist Michael Coe wrote: "as far as I
know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon,
who sees any scientific justification for believing the [the Book of Mormon
accounts] to be true,... nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any
New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the
Book of Mormon... is a historical document relating to the history of early
migrants to our hemisphere." (pp.42, 46)
Coe's report is corroborated by
this statement by the Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian Institution:
"Smithsonian archeologists see no direct connection between the archeology of
the New World and the subject matter of [the Book of Mormon]... Certainly there
were no contacts with the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, or other peoples of
Western Asian and the Near East." Perhaps you are aware of this statement. If
not, you should be.
The Smithsonian Institute statement reports that "American Indians had no wheat,
barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels
before 1492." (New world camels and horses became extinct about 10,000 years
ago). In addition, "iron, steel, glass and silk were not used in the New World
before 1492." The Smithsonian might have added that the wheel and axle had no
practical application in the New World, and are only found as Inca toys.
Steel, iron, wheat, horses, chariots, etc. are all mentioned in the Book of
Mormon. Yet not one steel artifact, not one chariot wheel, not one pre-Columbian
horse bone has been uncovered in the New World. Surely, if wheat and other
near-east plants had been cultivated prior to 1492, they would have survived the
extermination of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Yet, not a grain nor a leaf is
in evidence. Add to all that, the DNA studies which have conclusively
established the Asiatic origin of the American Indian.
Presumably, you can set all this aside and base your conviction on something
called "faith." I can not, for I am fully aware that other "faiths," of equal
strength, conflict with yours: faith in Catholicism, in Islam, in the "inerrant
Bible," etc. So instead, I turn to evidence.
I do not share your conviction that it would be a "miracle" for Joseph Smith to
produce the Book of Mormon. Smith was clearly an extraordinarily intelligent and
creative individual. But even if you were to convince me that Joseph Smith could
not have written the Book of Mormon, it does not follow that the book is
authentic. Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, for example, were well educated,
and talk of the Indians as "lost tribes of Israel" was commonplace in the
mid-nineteenth century American revival. The Book of Mormon is astonishing, but
less than "miraculous."
While I have focused my attention on question of the authenticity of the Book of
Mormon, it is only a small part of the inventory of reasons that I can no longer
believe the claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I have
never written out an extensive account of these reasons. However, I have more to
say about my solitary journey away from Mormonism in the unpublished works
mentioned in my essay: "A Peculiar People," and
"Religion, Education and
Morality: A Dialogue."
Finally, my exchange with a Mormon who wrote a lengthy, point-by-point, rebuttal
to the essay
which you can find here,
(along with his name which I need not disclose).
Two paragraphs from a subsequent e-mail from this critic sets up my reply
I would guess that the wrong assumption that's causing
you problems is that the LDS religion is false. I do know that this is
incorrect, the religion is true. And it's an important point.
If you fight against the Lord's restoration, try to discourage others from
it, you will have problems. It's inherent. You can't make the religion false
by wishing it were, or by any fiat man can do. And maybe you're finding this
out, and it's an irritation.
I understand the strength of your convictions -- in the face of overwhelming
empirical, historical and scientific evidence to the contrary -- because long
ago, I shared them.
It is equally the case that "you can't make the religion TRUE by wishing it
were," yet that's the central function of "faith" -- the faith of a catholic
priest, of a devout Moslem, of a rapturite fundamentalist, etc. "The substance
of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1 --
conventionally believed to be by St. Paul, but textual analysis shows this to be
I respect your faith, understand that it is untouchable, and thus see no point
in discussing it with you. I doubt very much that your faith in the LDS
religion, which is to say your certainty as to it's "truth," is any more fervent
than the contradictory faith of the aforementioned priest, Moslem, rapturite,
"Lo here, lo there."
Given that logical impasse, I have no recourse than to look to the evidence --
historical, scientific, textual, etc. This was the decision that led me away
from the LDS faith, during my freshman year at BYU. That evidence led me to
conclude that Genesis is, scientifically and historically, bunk, from beginning
to end, that there is no independent evidence whatever of the events depicted in
the Book of Mormon or of the Semitic origin of the Amerinds. In addition, the
butchery and genocide described in the early books of the Old Testament are
deeply offensive to my sense of morality, and contrary to the morality of the
"minor prophets" (Hosea, Micah, Amos) and most of all, Jesus of Nazareth, which
I endorse. A just God would not order, much less condone, the slaughter of the
residents of Jericho, the Canaanites, the Mideonites, etc.
Just as I respect your faith, I ask that you respect my perspective. (And
please, don't tell me that my secular/scientific point of view is "just another
faith." It is qualitatively and logically different, as I argue in my
Just Another Dogma?").
You are asking me once again to travel down a road that I have traveled before
and have observed and assessed scrupulously and objectively. I have come to a
different conclusion than you have. And I see no reason to revisit that road.
"What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to
walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8). No mention here of faith, repentance,
baptism, and the laying on of hands.
Regarding (the word) "media."
On January 15, 2008, The Democratic Underground posted my essay, "The Great
American Election Charade." There were forty replies to the essay, half of which
were about the trivial question of whether or not the word "media" was singular
or plural. By itself, that question is not worthy of notice. But it did raise
deeper questions about the nature of language, which might be of some general
Immediately below is the reply to my essay that initiated the discussion. Next a
very intelligent rebuttal, and finally my concluding comment.
"crud76" objects to "media" as singular:
"Media" Is Plural Form Of "Medium."
To say, "Following the conventions, the mainstream media rolls out the heavy
artillery..." is incorrect since you're referring to more than one medium,
be it TV, radio, etc. The correct way to say this is "...the mainstream
media roll out..."
. . . . .
"In the 1920s media began to appear as a singular collective
noun." It was incorrect then too!
Popular misuse of a term DOES NOT make it correct.
"When referring to the media, as in the mass media, i.e.,
the mass-communication industry comprising journalism and entertainment,
media is usually held to be a singular noun (because it is not the plural of
medium. It is a term derived from the concept of an industry communicating
through different media, e.g., newspapers, television, films, magazines). In
all other cases, it is the plural of medium, whether one is referring to
artistic media, storage media (e.g., blank media, such as CDs), media
. . . .
"Media, like data, is the plural form of a word borrowed directly from
Latin. The singular, medium, early developed the meaning “an intervening
agency, means, or instrument” and was first applied to newspapers two
centuries ago. In the 1920s media began to appear as a singular collective
noun, sometimes with the plural medias. This singular use is now common in
the fields of mass communication and advertising, but it is not frequently
found outside them: The media is (or are) not antibusiness."
... . .
The language is a living thing. You DO believe in evolution, don't you?
Some things I found:
"People also use media with the definite article as a
collective term to refer not to the forms of communication themselves so
much as the communities and institutions behind them. In this sense, the
media means something like “the press.” Like other collective nouns, it
may take a singular or plural verb depending on the intended meaning."
"Quite frequently, however, media stands as a singular noun for the
aggregate of journalists and broadcasters: The media has not shown much
interest in covering the trial. This development of a singular media
parallels that of more established words such as data and agenda, which
are also Latin plurals that have acquired a singular meaning."
"However, "media" is today very often used as a singular noun to refer
to all the agencies of mass communication as an entity. This usage is so
widespread that it can no longer be considered incorrect."
"Media can take either singular or plural and both are completely
"Latin plurals: Treat words like media as singular nouns (e.g., "the
media is...," not "the media are...").
"Oxford Dictionary citation from 1966 notes the use of media as a
"Although “media” is plural, it is used increasingly as a singular noun
to refer collectively to the agencies of mass communication. Thus, the
singular verb is used in cases such as “the media is responsible for the
increase in violence”."
"Many authorities nowadays approve sentences like "My data is lost.""
Have you ever been to an opera? Would you have said, "The
opera was wonderful." or "The opera were wonderful."?
"OPERA": Singular noun. Plural form of "opus" (meaning a creative work) is
-My data is lost.
-The City Council
agenda has been set.
-The opera was lovely.
-The insignia was applied to the plane.
media is fucked.
I found this to be particularly interesting: "Media and data are nearly
always treated as singular in English. To treat them as plural is precious
and rather like waving a little flag inscribed, 'Hey! I studied Latin.' I'd
suggest that when writing you give priority to expressing yourself clearly
and not to sending irrelvant and distracting messages about yourself."
Partridge's (concluding) response:
"Troubleinwinter" has it nailed: language evolves. And his supporting evidence
Modern (descriptive) linguistics: "Correct English is what most English speakers
Old-fashioned (prescriptive) linguistics: "Correct English is what English
English professors today accept the "modern" interpretation. Don't take my word
for it, Dr. Elinore Partridge, Professor Emerita of English and Linguistics,
told me so. And in this house, she gets the final word about things linguistic.
Crud76 writes that "popular misuse of a term does not make it correct." Well,
yes and no. If a few people use a term contrary to ordinary usage, then they are
"incorrect." But if more and more adopt that usage, it becomes more and more
"correct," even though determined resistance to the change might remain among
some professions. (Thus English, strictly speaking, is a collection of dialects;
professional and vocational as well as regional). When a usage grows (evolves)
from a few non-conformists to universal use, it becomes "correct."
Example: "disinterested." A generation ago, this meant "unbiased," as in "a
disinterested judge." Now, to my great regret, it has become synonymous with
"uninterested." So I have given up using the word "disinterested," and use
Another example: Scholarly types recognize a crucial distinction between "imply"
(an objective, logical, function) and "infer" (a subjective, psychological
function). E.g. "The prosecution presented evidence which strongly implied the
guilt of the defendant. The jury inferred that he was, and returned a verdict of
guilty." In casual discourse, "infer" and "imply" tend toward synonymy.
As for the singular/plural status of "media," "Troubleinwinter" has given us a
wealth of examples of plural words that have "evolved" into singularity. "Data"
is the word that comes immediately to my mind. Also, I would never say that
"Tosca" is my favorite Puccini Opus -- it is an Opera. Until I read this page, I
had never encountered the word "insigne," the singular of "insignia," which has
itself become a singular ward.
"Media" as singular and "media" as plural have distinct connotations aside from
mere number. Singular "media," as in "mainstream media," suggests unity and
perhaps collaboration, whereas plural "media" suggests diversity. It is clearly
the former, not the latter, that I wish to convey with "mainstream media."
Oh, and I almost missed this from "Troubleinwinter:" the plural of "medium" (as
a "channeler" with the dead) is "mediums," not "media." Terrific!
The English language is not a perfect entity, which must be perpetually
protected by us "educated elites" from desecration by the "ignernt masses." It
was not given to us, intact, by God Almighty. It is not a perfect Platonic Form.
It is the collective "property" of those who speak it. English is as English
does -- as it is spoken, written and read.
And yes, it evolves.
So too does every natural and living language.
April 29, 2008
On Libertarianism: Two Objections with Rebuttals
The following two messages, responding to my essay
Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians,
were sent to my personal e-mail address,
unsigned and with the "From" and "Subject" lines blank. Thus I have no
idea of their origin. Even so, they pose worthy questions and deserve
a thoughtful reply,
While I would like to send my replies directly to my critic(s),
they have afforded me no means to do so.
Thus I can only hope that they will somehow find the following.
Perchance, they might even identify themselves, if that is not
asking too much.
About "The Argument from Authority:"
In logic there is something known as the Ad Authoritatem fallacy. It
is committed by this article wholesale. It offers nothing as evidence
but the words "scientific consensus." There used to be a scientific
consensus that humans could not fly. That is not sufficient to make it
so. Every paper I have seen written in standard English that argued that
there was any sort of human-caused global warming appealed to other
papers, which appeal to other papers, ad infinitum, you never find the
actual evidence other than a few false equations of correlation and
causation, or on one occasion even an argument that assumed global
warming as a premise in order to prove it.
OK, I'll admit it: I rely on authoritative information (informally,
"someone else's say-so") almost all of the time.
When do I, instead, accept direct knowledge? Let's see: When I
"know" that it is cold outside. When I "know" that I'm hungry. When
in "know" that my car needs to be washed. When I "know" that the car
is almost out of gas. No wait! Strike that last one. I
take it on someone else's "word" that the gas gauge is telling me
that the tank is almost empty. I haven't the slightest idea how the
information that the tank is empty is relayed to that gizmo on the
Otherwise, 99% of the abstract knowledge that I have is via someone
else's say-so -- i.e., "ad authoritatem." So too with anyone
else, including my anonymous critic. It is an inevitable consequence
of specialization and the division of labor, which are pre-requisite
to the civilized condition. Thus we rely, every day, on the
"authoritative knowledge" of doctors, lawyers, mechanics,
accountants, store clerks, and (if we are unduly gullible) the mass
Just try doing without "authoritative" knowledge for as long as an
hour, and you will see what I mean.
"Critical thinking" consists, not in the total rejection of all
second-, third-, and N-hand knowledge-claims, which is flatly
impossible, but in the ability to assess such claims. This is a
skill that can be acquired through education as well as through
And one of the best sources of authoritative knowledge is
information gathered and validated by the sciences.
Science is not a perfect source of knowledge: no human institution
is perfect. But it is the best that we we have, and for reasons that
can be clearly identified and explicated (as I have done in my
Is Science Just Another Dogma?).
Scientists have, of course, been wrong in the past, as, for example,
in the case of the Piltdown Man hoax. But it is worth noting that
all scientific errors, like the Piltdown hoax, are exposed and
corrected by better science.
And scientific laws and facts, in their application, are proven
every moment. If any of thousands of proven and applied scientific
facts, laws, and equations were false, my computer would not boot up,
my car would not start, and aircraft would never get off the ground.
My critic takes me to task for relying on scientific papers that
cite other scientific papers. What would he have me do? Accept the
undocumented word of a citation-less paper? Apparently that is
exactly what he expects of me when he writes, sans citation, of "an argument that
assumed global warming as a premise in order to prove it." What
"argument"? Where? By whom? With what credentials? Never mind all
that, he seems to say, just accept what I say, "ad authoritatem."
Meanwhile, reject the "scientific consensus" regarding global
warming. It's merely "ad authoritatem."
I "offer nothing as evidence" of that "scientific consensus," simply
because I am fully aware, as my critic should be, of where one might
find that consensus. Read the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the National
Center on Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, numerous refereed scientific
journals, etc. and etc. Will all that be "consensus"
enough? For some, apparently, it will not.
Those reports, of course, will contain citations of other reports
and papers, leading back to rigorously controlled scientific
observations and experiments.
Why should we believe these citations? Because refereed scientific
papers, qua scientific and refereed, contain information that
is public and replicable. As noted, errors appear from time to time
in scientific literature, but it is the task of journal referees to
spot them and cull them out prior to publication. Deliberate fraud
in refereed scientific journals is extremely rare, not because of
the moral probity of most scientists, but because the sanctions
against fraud are extraordinarily severe: nothing less than disgrace
and the termination of one's career.
The findings and the projections of the "consensus" of climate
scientists are dreadful. While I sincerely hope that they are
mistaken, I fear that they are not. I would welcome any news that
these scientists are mistaken and the human prospect is more
But I insist that such news be based upon the same rigor, discipline
and solid evidence that has brought forth the ominous "scientific
consensus" that I cite.
Otherwise, why should I believe it?
About Libertarianism, and the "initiation of force:"
Libertarianism can be put much more simply: it says you cannot initiate
force against someone else. Times when you can use force are limited to
self-defense and force against a criminal that has used force or fraud.
If Ernest Partridge says he is not libertarian, I hear him saying that
it is okay to use force against honest, peaceful people, to achieve some
But in general, I have looked at some government sponsored data. When
you look over a several thousand year or tens of thousands of years, the
temperature data seems clear to me that any current upswing in
temperature is miniscule compared to wide variations as shown by studies
of ice in Greenland, for example. If there is data that shows that the
temperature variation is more the two standard deviations away from the
norm, I can be proven wrong. Anyone have such data?
I've about shot my bolt on global warming in the above rejoinder.
Suffice to say that if we are in for the sort of temperature change
that took place tens (and hundreds) of thousands of years ago, as
indicated by studies of Greenland ice cores, we are in big trouble.
I don't have access to those ice cores, and even if I were in the
cold rooms that store them, I'd have no idea how to study them. But
those who do the studies seem to be sending out the warnings of
So yes, there is such data. You have a computer, access to the
internet, and Google. So go find it. Provided, of course, you
are willing to trust the reports of qualified "authorities."
Now about libertarianism.
What you (and the libertarians) call "force against someone else," I
call, with Justice Holmes, "the price we pay for civilization."
"Semantic escalation" does not constitute a valid argument.
Civilized society creates the conditions that allow most of us to
prosper and for some to accumulate enormous wealth. It seems
reasonable to require those who benefit from civilization to pay for
the maintenance of the institutions that are requisite for that
prosperity and wealth: institutions such as public education,
courts, infrastructure, scientific research and development, and
yes, government regulation of commerce and industry.
Even the most dogmatic libertarians condone what you
denounce as "use [of]
force against honest, peaceful people, to achieve some societal
goal." Those libertarian "goals" are the protection of the basic
libertarian triad of rights to "life, liberty, and property." Hence
the legitimate existence of the police, the military, and the
This is all the "force" that the libertarians will sanction in their
Liberals insist that this "minimalist state" is insufficient to
sustain a civilized condition. Without more "mutual coercion,
mutually agreed upon" (as Garrett Hardin puts it), which includes
taxation to support the aforementioned institutions, society
regresses to a Hobbesian "state of nature" of "war of all against
I submit to you that this is precisely what is happening today in
the once-prosperous United States of America.
Meanwhile, the more enlightened nations of western Europe, having
adopted a liberal "social democracy," are doing quite well, thank
you very much.
This is merely a sketch of a reply to libertarianism, which requires
a much more deliberate and extended treatment.
For that analysis, see my book in progress,
of a Progressive, which you can read if you follow the link.
See especially, Chapters Four through Ten.
June 3, 2008
A Farewell to an Old Friend
Bruce “Utah” Phillips, a friend of almost fifty years, died a week ago
Friday. A pacifist, activist, poet, folklorist, and song writer, Bruce
Phillips lived an uncompromising life of protest, independence and a
celebration of humanity that those who knew him could admire though scarcely
equal. He never copyrighted his songs, on the principle that “the
talents that the Good Lord, or nature, or whatever” gave him for free, he
would not charge others. When Johnny Cash offered to record some of
those songs, Bruce declined. He preferred not to “feed the [corporate]
as he put it. He is survived by his words, his music, and the fond memories
of his friends. And if his spirit survives, it is joined today in a grand
celestial hootnanny with his heroes, Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill.
Amy Goodman recorded these reflections from Utah Phillips. It is a
memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been
taken away from us. You haven't gotten it in your schools. You're not
getting it on your television. You're being leapfrogged from one crisis
to the next. Mass media contributed to that by taking the great
movements that we've been through and trivializing important events. No,
our people's history is like one long river. It flows down from way over
there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived
flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I
have the courage to go out and ask questions."
Follow this link to see or hear Amy Goodman's fifty minute
tribute and interview with Utah Phillips.