Why shouldn’t aliens look like us?

“There are good scientific reasons to believe that extraterrestrial life forms might resemble human beings.

…Since the Copernican revolution in the 16th century, indicating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, we have been conditioned to reject the anthropocentric viewpoint. In interpreting observations, scientists try to exclude human values. But we shouldn’t be afraid of imagining the simplest solution: that ET might be just like us.” (Guardian.UK)

Here’s how to get on my longlist

Novelist Tibor Fischer reflects on what he learned in reading 126 novels as a Booker Prize judge:

“Taste: there’s no escape. Nevertheless, there are books that I don’t like, but I can see they are proficiently written and that others might enjoy them. Yet some entries were so execrable I reckoned they must have been submitted as a joke.

Those that were a discredit to the industry numbered no more than half a dozen. More remarkable was the number of novels that were pointless. Not bad, not reproachable in any way except one: they were utterly nondescript (mind you, there’s always been a clique in literary London who feel that real literature should be dry, colourless, a bit of a penance — if you’re enjoying it, it can’t be literature). I’d estimate nearly a third of the submissions fell into this category.” (telegraph.uk )

A fear of the faithful who mean exactly what they believe

Review of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris:

“Sam Harris is tired of being nice to religious people. Why, he wonders, should we be expected to respect individuals who in the year 2004 still believe in virgin birth? And Christians rarely return the favor. Instead, they’re down in Washington holding prayer breakfasts and smiting ‘sinners’ through mandatory drug sentences, intrusive sex laws and prohibitions against stem cell research.

If Harris mistrusts Christians, he’s openly mocking of Muslims, whose beliefs, he suggests, ‘belong on the same shelf with Batman.’ In fact, he doesn’t like any religion much at all. As he points out in ‘The End of Faith,’ believers of every denomination constantly engage in civil wars. They are also responsible for such historical lows as the Inquisition, witch hunts and the sustained anti-Semitism that eased the way for the Nazis.

What most annoys Harris, however, is that the faithful are averse to development and change. Fixated on ancient scriptures, they ignore the accumulating insights that have transformed the world. Every other field redefines its positions in the light of fresh data. Only religion takes increasing pride in being backward…” (San Francisco Chronicle )

The Terrorism to Come

Walter Laqueur: “Reducing poverty in the Third World is a moral as well as a political and economic imperative, but to expect from it a decisive change in the foreseeable future as far as terrorism is concerned is unrealistic, to say the least. It ignores both the causes of backwardness and poverty and the motives for terrorism…

In 1932, when Einstein attempted to induce Freud to support pacifism, Freud replied that there was no likelihood of suppressing humanitys aggressive tendencies. If there was any reason for hope, it was that people would turn away on rational grounds that war had become too destructive, that there was no scope anymore in war for acts of heroism according to the old ideals.

Freud was partly correct: War (at least between great powers) has become far less likely for rational reasons. But his argument does not apply to terrorism motivated mainly not by political or economic interests, based not just on aggression but also on fanaticism with an admixture of madness.

Terrorism, therefore, will continue not perhaps with the same intensity at all times, and some parts of the globe may be spared altogether. But there can be no victory, only an uphill struggle, at times successful, at others not. ” (Policy Review)

Buyer’s Remorse

“Why should we worry? Why be of two minds about what we buy and how well we live? Most of us have earned what we possess; we’re not members of some hereditary landed gentry. Our material success isn’t to blame for anyone else’s poverty—and, on the contrary, might even ameliorate it (even Third World sweatshops have this effect, much as we might lament them). So how come we’re so sheepish about possessions? Why do we need a class of professional worrywarts—a.k.a. the intelligentsia—to warn us, from the stern pulpits of Cambridge, Berkeley, and other bastions of higher education (and even higher real estate prices) about the perils of consumerism run amok?” — Daniel Akst (Wilson Quarterly)

In Defense of Memorization

“If there’s one thing progressive educators don’t like it’s rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who’ve never memorized much of anything. Even highly educated people in their thirties and forties are often unable to recite half a dozen lines of classic poetry or prose…

Should we care? Aren’t exercises in memorizing and reciting poetry and passages of prose an archaic curiosity, without educative value?

That too-common view is sadly wrong. Kids need both the poetry and the memorization. As educators have known for centuries, these exercises deliver unique cognitive benefits, benefits that are of special importance for kids who come from homes where books are scarce and the level of literacy low. In addition, such exercises etch the ideals of their civilization on children’s minds and hearts.” (City Journal)

Better Living Through Lobotomy:

What can the history of psychosurgery tell us about medicine today? An interview with Elliot Valenstein, author of Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness (Basic Books, 1986).

“STAY FREE!: What brought on the backlash? How did that come about?

VALENSTEIN: Well, there were some scientists who argued that, since we now know a lot more about the brain, psychosurgery should be revisited. This was at a time when there was a lot of public concern about violence in the streets. Two doctors, Frank Ervin and Vernon Mark, had published a book called Violence and the Brain, which argued that brain abnormalities can cause violence. Word got out that the Department of Justice, which maintains federal prisons and special prisons for violent inmates, had some exchanges with the authors. There was a lot of suspicion that the Department of Justice was going to perform massive psychosurgical procedures on violent prisoners as a means of social control. So it became a big issue in some circles. I was at some neuroscience meetings that discussed the biology of aggression, and people came in and broke up the meeting and demanded time on the program.

STAY FREE!: Was there any truth to the rumors that lobotomy was being performed in prisons? “

(Stay Free!)

What do we call the enemy?

This devastating piece by The Nation‘s Tom Englehardt dissects the failures of current Iraq reporting, now that we are familiar with the NY Times‘ and Washington Post‘s mea culpas for their pre-war coverage. Englehardt catalogues the aspects of the war discussions of which are missing in action in the major media:

  • Al-Sadr’s fighters are called ‘cowardly’ for taking refuge in a holy shrine, but the real cowardice lies in the increasing resort of the US military to devastating air power
  • “…If you don’t grasp that, from the beginning, the Pentagon was planning a major string of “enduring camps” in Iraq, then you really can’t grasp why the Bush administration had no exit strategy from that country — because, of course, it had no plans to depart”.
  • When Baghdad fell without a struggle, those who had worried that US forces would be bogged down in street-to-street urban guerrilla warfare were dismissed and the subject forgotten. Now, in a range of Iraqi cities from the north to the south, the US and British forces’ worst nightmare is largely coming to pass, only nobody takes note of the fact that we told you so.
  • After the handover of power to the Allawi government at the end of June, the US plan to get the American strategists of the occupation behind the lines in the Green Zone to become invisible has largely worked. The combination of coverage of Iraqi government statements and the US military policy of emphasizing that they are doing Allawi’s bidding whenever questioned (e.g. on the run-up to the Najaf offensive) go unquestioned, but it is “obvious to any sane observer that the Americans are still in charge and that American strategic decisions are largely being implemented by Americans, not Iraqis”
  • While the Imam Ali Shrine is routinely referred to as “holy” in all coverage of the current fighting in Najaf, American ignorance about Islam and Shi’ism has not been countered with sufficient background about how centrally holy it is to that faith and why the American threat to the mosque is so unnerving and enraging to Muslim and other observers around the world. “It matters that we, who simply read about this, can’t even begin to put ourselves in the shoes of Iraqis experiencing it — although this should at least give us insight into why American policy makers and military men, no less ignorant than the rest of us, can make such staggering tactical blunders.”
  • The administration’s characterization of the elements of the Iraqi uprising against the occupation as outlaws, terrorists, ex-Ba’athists and foreign elements (and, I might add, the rhetorical tactic of contrasting them with ‘Iraqis’ and ‘the Iraqi people’) goes largely unquestioned. In fact, it is the US that is more in the role of the Saddam-era ‘Ba’athist’ counter-revolutionary crushing of popular resistance to its rule. In a similar vein, al-Sadr is perennially labelled a ‘rogue cleric’ and his forces always referred to as a ‘renegade militia’, Allawi’s puppet regime in Baghdad inevitably gets described as a ‘fledgling government’.

Note the emphasis on language. The cruelest confirmation of the Whorfian hypothesis is in political reporting — what you call something imposes subtle but firm constraints on how you think about it. (Serendipitously related: this New Scientist article). Englehardt concludes (in the should-go-without-saying category), “How the naming of embattled reality is brokered in our newsrooms and how it changes is a fascinating subject, though one you’re unlikely ever to find discussed in the press itself.”

The first part of Englehardt’s piece, from last week, is also quite worth reading if you missed it:

“There is probably no longer a way out for the Americans — other than out. And here’s the sad thing: we know that the Pentagon develops contingency plans for just about everything. There are, at this moment, undoubtedly plans somewhere in the Pentagon for the insertion of American forces into Albania, or Guinea-Bissau, or the Sudan. But I’d put a few dollars on the fact that there isn’t a single contingency plan anywhere in the Pentagon or the Bush administration for the withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. When our commanders speak of being there for another five years, they just mean for the illimitable future. When John Kerry speaks of drawing down American forces within a year, he has to promptly deny that he has a “schedule” for such a move. Originally, of course, we had no “exit strategy” because the Bush administration never planned to depart. Now, we have none because we’ve trapped ourselves in a strategic prison of our own making, a cell that President John Kerry (if elected) will be no less capable of occupying, as columnist William Pfaff recently made clear, unless his position on Iraq undergoes significant changes in the coming months…”