Thursday, August 30, 2007

Denialism Redux; Who Should Fight It and Why

SciBlogger Abel Pharmboy, of Terra Sig Illata, has written a very interesting post about the paper I posted about yesterday. Abel makes a very good point that I would very much like to expand upon.

Before I started reading science blogs, much less starting my own, I had no idea how widespread the misconception was on the web denying that HIV was the cause of AIDS. I have to assume that many working scientists like me would also be surprised at the prevalence of this faulty logic.

But another great contribution of the article is the call to arms it makes to all scientists that we be more engaged in public sentiments about science and medicine

I would add to this, that I hope this is a call to arms for scientists to function as a support mechanism for the non-scientists who give a damn and want to fight denialism. Not exclusively of HIV/AIDS, but denialism of many stripes. This is something that I really appreciate about Seed's SciBlogs collective. Many sciblogers there have been a great source of great information about a variety of subjects. Not just accessible through the posts they put up, many of them are also accessible through comment threads and via email.

The thing is, in the fight against denialism and it's real consequences, real evidence is absolutely essential. Scientists who help accumulate that evidence, interpret it, explain it, in laymen's terms, are essential. At the same time, people who are not scientists, are the critical link to reaching the general public. It is important for those of us who are not science professionals, to say "hey, wait a minute," when we here someone spouting off inane bullcrap. If it goes against what you know to be true, jump on it. If it goes against what you believe to be true, find out about it, research a little, see if it's true or not. If it's not, jump on it.

Why you or me? Why is it our responsibility, why should we even care? Because a lot of brands of denialism, carry real world consequences. For denialism such as neurological disorder denialism or evidence based medicine denial, the consequences can be profoundly damaging, even deadly. For HIV/AIDS denialism, the results are quite often deadly, especially when it affects public policy. Even for less dangerous denialism, such as holocaust denial or evolution denial, the consequences are anything but benign. Both promote ignorance and are often indicative of other, sometimes far more insidious forms of denialism.

Like I have said before, people rarely stop with one. Credulity is pervasive, often pathological. Ignorance can be and too often is, very nasty business indeed. Far too often, far too many people are happy to speak with assumed authority, from a position of ignorance. Unfortunately, many who speak such, manage to sound really good, to sound like they're right, when they do so. Thus we have a responsibility as members of our society to educate ourselves and at the least, not to speak from ignorance, if we're afraid to speak truth to ignorance.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Egregious Use of State Authority, Right in my Home City

I was in a hardware today, getting some supplies for the job I am doing. While I was there, a news crew showed up. When I asked the clerk helping me, why, she explained that our municipal government just passed a measure requiring every store in Multnomah county, that sells spray paint and other "graffiti paraphernalia," to keep it locked up or behind the counter. Too, they must now demand photo ID and fill out a form, every time someone buys spray paint or other such paraphernalia. Here is a link to the ordinance, passed today.

This is even more ridiculous than making cough medicine OTC. This will also create a huge pain in the behind for anyone who needs to actually buy spray paint, not to mention the stores that sell it. When I am in the middle of a job and happen to need to run to get spray paint, I am often times in a hurry. I don't to spend ten minutes filling out a form, stating the purpose I intend to put the spray paint to, the colour I am buying and all that jazz. This is a minor, yet egregious invasion by state authority. Absolutely absurd.

America's Antithetical Seizure Laws

Yet another example of our seriously screwed up seizure laws, via Dispatches and The Agitator.

Anastasio Prieto of El Paso gave a state police officer at the weigh station permission to search the truck to see if it contained "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the federal lawsuit Thursday.

Prieto told the officer he didn't have any needles but did have $23,700.

Officers took the money and turned it over to the DEA. DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto over his objections, then released him without charging him with anything.

Border Patrol agents searched his truck with drug-sniffing dogs, but found no evidence of illegal substances, the ACLU said.


DEA agents told Prieto he would receive a notice of federal proceedings to permanently forfeit the money within 30 days and that to get it back, he'd have to prove it was his and did not come from illegal drug sales.

They told him the process probably would take a year, the ACLU said.
I am heading out to work, so don't have a lot of time to comment, but Radley is right, this is nothing more than petty theft. There is no reason, no excuse for taking this guy's money. It is absolute insanity that we live in a nation that claims such high standards for criminal law, yet ignores it when they have the opportunity to feed the cash cow.

I am not averse to law enforcement having the ability to freeze assets in conjunction with criminal investigations. I have no problem with them being able to seize assets. But the burden of proof, should always, always, rest with the state, not the accused.

Monday, August 27, 2007


It could be better, he could go to prison for his crimes. But for now, I'll settle for this.

Ellery Schempp

A quick note about an undersung American hero.

Fifty years ago, then seventeen year old Ellery Schempp stood up against mandatory prayer in his public school. This made way for an important court ruling, the first of many that paved the way for our public schools to become free of proselytizing and religious discrimination. The associated press has a great article on Mr. Schempp and an upcoming book about him, by New York University law proffesor, Stephen Solomon. At 67, Mr. Schempp is still active in the fight for the separation of church and state.

Thanks to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Getting Busy

I am trying to finish a couple of shorter posts and get moving forward on a couple of longer posts. I will try to have a couple of new posts of my own up this week, as well as a couple of guest and crosspostings. I will not be getting a lot done quickly however. I just picked up a job that keeps growing and growing.

I went to look at it Saturday, with the understanding that there was a big list of really small jobs. Then we discovered the mold, black mold, a bad infestation of black mold. So we decided that it would be a very good idea to rip out the bathroom in the customer's basement. When I started ripping into it today, I discovered that the source of the moisture that provided a positive environment for the mold, was multiple plumbing leaks, in several drains and water supply lines. As there is a significant amount of plumbing to deal with, we are considering taking out the old tub and replacing it along with some other work in that bathroom.

the high and the low of it is, I am going to be really busy taking care of this. I do not like to leave people bathless, even though the customer is located within blocks of her daughter's home, where she can bathe. I will be putting in as many hours as I can handle to get this finished in a timely fashion - unfortunately, this will cut into my blogging time. Fortunately, this will go a long ways toward paying the bills, so I can't complain.

If anyone has something they would like to post, please feel free to let me know. I could use some more posts to put up. . .

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Great Article About HIV/AIDS Denialism

Thanks to Orac, I found this great article by SciBlogger, Tara Smith and academic neurologist, Steve Novella. I am also very excited to discover another great neuroscience blog.

I highly reccommend the reading. As Orac writes, it is essential reading on HIV/AIDS denialism. I have very personal reasons for my extreme objections to this brand of denial. It is nothing short of deadly. Watching loved ones waste away slowly, is horrible. I've lost an uncle and a couple of friends to it. I will not go into great detail, but I volunteer some of my time providing in home help to those with HIV/AIDS.

I have no tolerance for people who spread this kind of bile. Anyone who wishes to spread this kind of bile, will not be tolerated here. I don't have the patience for it.


I seem to be getting a lot of traffic to this post, which I did not expect. So I feel that I should expand a bit on this, I would have done so initially, but I wrote it just before I went to bed and posted a different time stamp so it would go up this morning - kind of an experiment with that idea.

I am learning more and more, that denialism is rather like those old commercials for Jay's potato chips, denialists just can't stop with one. Since I have been tackling the issue of neurological disorder denial, I have gotten a few cranks emailing me, one of them nearly every day. Not a one of them has stopped with their pet theories about neurological issues, more than one has referenced HIV/AIDS denial, cancer denial and evidence based medicine denial, along with several different varieties of denial.

To anyone who has read this blog with any regularity, it is well understood that I have a very personal connection to neurological disorder denial. Here, I have explained something of my personal experience with HIV/AIDS, which explains my anger at this particular brand of denialism. But this is a problem that runs much deeper than any one brand of denialist woo. For many denialists, as I mention above, it is a pervasive mode of thinking. I term it pathological credulity.

Folks that have read this blog fairly regularly, probably understand something else about me, I am not afraid to talk about my faults. I like to think that I'm a pretty decent person, but I also think it's important to take ownership of my faults. In that vein, I will admit that I am those, i.e. I am pathologically credulous. This is, in large part, why I think that it is all important to fight denialism, to respond to it with as much evidence as possible. Aware of my problem, I do my best to compensate for it, through education. Unfortunately, many others who fall into this category, do not wish to do this. They will buy into the most insane, obvious crankery and accept it as gospel.

The problem is that too often, they are very adept at sounding sciency, as it were. A whole lot of damage is done, because normal, sane people listen to what they say and because it sounds like they know what they're talking about, accept it. This is especially dangerous when it comes to HIV/AIDS denial. African nations have set public policy in accordance with this brand of woo. I have a friend who is dying because she listened to this bull and refused to take medicines that could have extended her life indefinitely, until disease had ravaged her body beyond repair. There are some anecdotes in Tara and Steve's article that talk about others who have been and are being victimized by this pervasive, deadly denialism.

It would be wonderful to just be able to dismiss the cranks. Unfortunately, there are real world consequences, sometimes dire, to denialism. It is important that we fight it. It is important to be aware of it, to not accept something on it's face, just because someone saying it sounds like they know what they're talking about. Mark and Chris Hoofnagle, at Denialism Blog are an excellent resource, in this fight. Chris has written an excellent piece on recognizing crankery for what it is, across the board.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Privacy and Personal Information

I would like to thank Icepick, whom I ran across in comment at Respectful Insolence, for allowing me to post this comment on the front page. Icepick is a human resources guy, who blogs at The Kitchen Drawer, even more sporadically than myself.

He describes himself thus, in response to my accusation of libertarianism;
I appreciate the kind words. However, I would like to correct one perception - I'm actually a (small-government) conservative and not a libertarian. While I generally like the idea of less government, I'm not as adverse to the idea of government as libertarians are, especially at the local level. I tend to think of government as a necessary evil, but the "necessary" part is just as important as the "evil" part, and I think libertarians badly underestimate the importance of government.

I would just respond that I actually agree with the sentiment, with the adjustment that few would call me very conservative. . .

HR departments have access (directly and indirectly) to lots of personal information, and we have a responsibility to protect that info, both from the public at large and even (for the large companies) from individual supervisors and such.

Great care has to be taken so that the HR departments don't even get some of the employee info. For example, HR departments should not have access to individual employee medical records. Most of the large companies these days are self-insured on the medical side, and so they do have an interest in managing employee health. To that end, third party providers generally manage the healthcare delivery system, and provide the companies carefully scrubbed data about employee health - records shouldn't be connected to individual employees.

The funny thing is this: I personally believe privacy is a dead concept in any event. (Note that in practice I excercise great care to protect the confidentiality of any records I deal with. It is my job afterall.) Technology has become so advanced that the idea that information can be kept private seems ludicrous to me. If someone REALLY wants to find out the facts on somebody else, they can do so if they're willing to spend the time and money to do so. As technology progresses it will become cheaper and easier to peal back the layers of privacy. Satellites can increasingly look through walls and ceilings, and if they can the tech they use can certainly do so at closer range.

I do believe we're rapidly approaching the day when we will all effectively live in glass houses. I'm not happy about this development, but I believe that's where we're headed nonetheless.

What IS Privacy?

I would like to thank BobApril, regular commenter at my brother's blog, Dispatches, for allowing me to cross-post this article on privacy. This will be one of two guest posts on privacy, from very different angles. BobApril is a military guy, who often adds an interesting insight to many conversations.

The right to privacy is much in the news of late. Apparently this right, while not explicitly stated in the Constitution, underpins Roe v. Wade. It’s the main reason for the uproar about President Bush’s authorization of wiretaps without warrants. But what are we talking about, exactly? Let’s look at some examples. In which case or cases is privacy being violated, and in which is it not?

1. A husband and wife are prosecuted for sodomy for consensual acts perfomed in the privacy of their bedroom.

2. An unmarried man and woman are prosecuted for sodomy and adultery for consensual acts performed in the privacy of one of their bedrooms.

3. A married man and a woman not his wife are prosecuted for sodomy and adultery for consensual acts performed in the privacy of a motel room.

4. A man and another man are prosecuted for sodomy for consensual acts performed in the privacy of one of their bedrooms.

5. A married man and a female prostitute are prosecuted for sodomy, adultery, and prostitution for consensual acts performed for money, in the privacy of a motel room.

6. A husband is prosecuted for sodomy, battery, spousal abuse, and rape for acts he forced on his wife in the privacy of their bedroom.

I will grant that in most of those cases the prosecutor is going to have a heck of a time gathering evidence – but let’s assume that all of them were caught red…um, handed, in the various acts while the police were searching the house under a legal warrant for an unrelated offense. That (unlikely) circumstance would make it all admissable in court…and under laws still on the books in some states, ALL of those cases are illegal!

Let’s try another one.

1. A government agency records a phone conversation, without a warrant, including the following sentence: “I plan to get bombed at TGI Fridays in Pentagon City this weekend.”

2. A government agency records a phone conversation, without a warrant, including the following sentence: “I’m planting the bomb this Friday in the Pentagon. Stay away from the city this weekend.”

I don’t know about you, but in one of those cases, I’d really sort of like to find out the NSA was listening…but isn’t it still a violation of privacy? I’d really like to find a way to define privacy that would provide for reasonable violations for appropriate causes, but still protect me from unreasonable invasions. I just cannot for the life of me imagine a way to word a definition to control those limits.

For that matter, I have some question about the whole need for privacy, at least in terms of government intrusion. After all, if I’m not breaking any laws, what do I care if someone knows what I’m doing? Obviously, I don’t want it all released to the media, or posted on the Internet, or whatever…but as long as my personal information is used ONLY to prosecute legitimate crimes, I can’t see a real problem with having a camera in my bedroom, or attached to my arm, or whatever – 24 hour surveillance. After all, if everyone is being watched, that serves to PROTECT me from any number of crimes that might affect me – from terrorist bombs, muggers in dark alleys, even idiots who run red lights.

I really believe that most people’s fear of invasion of privacy stems from their suspicion or solid knowledge that some of the things they do are at least immoral, and probably illegal. In some cases, I believe that means the law should be changed, so that people can do what they want, as long as no one else is harmed without their consent – such as the laws against prostitution, drug use, and driving without a seat belt. In other cases, the world would be a better place if people could not get away with their crimes – such as rape, selling substandard prescription drugs, or driving with small children without child seats.

If our laws were written to protect us from others, instead of protecting us from ourselves, we wouldn’t need privacy. Since they’re not…I’d like to keep my privacy intact. I just wish I knew for sure what I’m asking for.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Framing Morality: In Support of Moral Relativism

There is a very interesting conversation about morality and faith, happening at my brothers blog, Dispatches From the Culture Wars. It is attached to a post about Brian Tamanaha's response to Emory University legal scholar, Micheal Perry. I am still working on what's becoming a very long piece on morality, faith, evolution and cognition. It was my original intent that this article be focused on the neurology of violence, especially torture, but I am finding it very hard to stay within those parameters, anyone familiar with ADHD, will understand why. I will address the topic of torture in the near future, but in a slightly different context. When I got into the discussion at Ed's blog, I wandered rather off and on the beaten track, so I felt it would be a good idea to bring it over here.

Micheal Perry, makes the assertion that the foundation for morality and indeed, human rights, is found in religion. He questions whether those without faith can have any real basis for morality or support of human rights. Brian does a decent job of responding to this notion, but I think, still misses the mark. When I get finished with and start posting (in multiple sections) a long article on morality that I am working on, it will become rapidly apparent that many folks subscribe to the notion of universal moral axioms. Such folks are almost universal in their support of socially constructed moral frames. In a distinct minority, not only do I think this is a bad idea, I think it's a dangerous idea. In large part, I think this is a semantic discussion.

It should be noted now, that this should not marginalize the discussion. While pedantry annoys the hell out of me sometimes, it's important to remember that language largely defines the reality we live. It is easy to decide that people are parsing things rather fine, indeed I am about to do just that, but often times, that is when language becomes most important. There are times when absolute precision is very important, in my mind, this is one of those times. I am going to take this opportunity to define the terms that I will be using in this post and future posts about moral philosophy. I should note that these will be my definitions, not necessarily that which other's who post here might be using.

What this discussion boils down to, is the difference between external and internal moral frames. While much of society puts a lot of focus on externally constructed moral frames, I am a believer in focusing on internally constructed moral frames. I should add, that I will, in future post go into much greater detail in these definitions.

External moral frames, are socially or religiously constructed moral frames. In religion, the obvious example is the dogma of the church, or other body of worship, as well as the dogma of holy texts. These are what outwardly defines or codifies right and wrong. In secular society it is more complicated. The short hand, would be defining the external moral frame, in terms of secular law. To an extent this can be accurate, but it is less than complete and sometimes counterintuitive. So added to this, are too often presumed universal axioms, such as “don't harm others,” or “don't infringe on the rights of others to be.” Finally, we have simple social pressure. This would be a secular amalgam to church dogma, in that it is more relative than any other aspect of moral framing. What it really boils down to is conformity. We want to fit in, so this aspect of morality often becomes assumed.

Internal moral frames, on the other hand, are that which are inherent to the individual. There is ample evidence that some aspects of morality, may well be genetic, or evolutionary in nature. This does not mean that that they are universal. Indeed, I accept that they may well be genetic, but would tend to reject the idea that they are evolutionary, simply because evolution implies that they are species wide. Being a Christian, I must also point out the biblical support for this aspect of internal moral framing. Rather than accepting dogma as the end all of moral framework, many Christians believe that the conviction of the Holy Spirit is the progenitor of our conscience, I take this a step further and claim it as the progenitor of our internal moral framework. Some, though certainly not all Christians would probably agree with me.

The thing is, that our inherent moral frame is also influenced by environmental conditioning. This makes for a messy, complicated situation. Indeed, this alone is a good argument against attempts to instill universal mores and external frames. Individuals are just that, individuals. We all react differently to the same stimuli, because we are different. While the internal moral frame certainly takes social pressures and religious dogma (for those who are religious), it is in no way dependent on them. In effect, the difference is that one should reject the idea that social pressures or religious dogma define morality. Instead, we should define morality as what we know inherently, to be right and wrong. This is not parsing it as fine as it seems and I did mention that to me, this is largely a semantic discussion.

To use the example of sexuality. Even in today's largely secular society, there is a strong tendency to equate "loose" sex, with immorality and not just in religious circles. This would be an example of what I consider an amoral ideal. Very few people in todays society, actually manage to live up to that ideal, even if they believe that not doing so is immoral. So you have people committing an act that they believe is immoral. What this in turn does, is weaken their adherence to the rest of their moral frame. In effect, it become easier to commit immoral actions, thus making morality essentially meaningless.

Ideally, morality should be the ultimate governor of our actions. Above the law, above social pressures, above dogmatic framing, morality should be the overwhelming control on our actions and behavior. For it to be effective in this regard, it by needs, must come from within. Anything that weakens it, makes it easier to commit acts that we consider immoral, essentially weakening our discernment of what is truly right and wrong. Morality must come from within. Whether through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, through genetic inputs, through environmental conditioning, or, as I believe, through all of the above, the moral framework, constructed from within, is a far more powerful governing force than any external construct can ever be. Yes, this is indeed moral relativism, but to date, no one has really come up with a coherent argument for why moral relativism is actually a bad thing. For that matter, no one has really come up with a coherent argument that morality is anything but relative or in any way universal.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sanitizing Language to "Eliminate" Social Ills

Syncronicity. I was recently involved in a altercation in a comment thread at Respectful Insolence. This was the same day that I narrowly managed to keep a roof over my family's heads. To say that I over-reacted, would be putting it mildly. A commenter there, made a rather innocuous reference to persons of the lower-socioeconomic-class, which is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine. I got rather angrier than was remotely warranted and lashed out with assumptions about the commenter, based only on that reference and similar language.

I am also currently watching the series Babylon 5, on DVD, in the middle of season three. At this point in the series, the earth alliance president has been assassinated by his vice president. In an effort to consolidate power, the new president has been making end runs around the constitution. One of those end runs, is the appointment of political officers to military and military run outposts, including the space station Babylon 5. In episode eight, the commander of Babylon 5, is asking the political officer about the claims she is making about the supposed utopia that earth has become. He asks about various social ills and she claims they no longer exist, by giving them new names. The homeless and impoverished, are merely the voluntarily dispossessed, who have chosen to live as they do – for of course there are plenty of jobs for all.

This is a pervasive mentality, even outside of moderately bad science fiction television. It is not a right/left dichotomy, rather, it is a social phenomena. It is a method by which we can make ourselves feel better about negative aspects of our society, that we have given up hope of solving or dealing with. It allows us feel better about very bad decisions we make. Make it sound pretty, make it sound romantic, make it go away. Allow us to sit in our comfortable little lives, blissfully unaware of the nasty bits of reality all around us, able to ignore our crimes – for a little longer. All we ever seem to look for, is a little more time for a little more ignorant bliss.

The poor, living in soul sucking poverty, become the lower-socioeconomic-class. Criminals are simply the maladjusted, misunderstood. Xenophobic prison compounds, became internment camps. Mass sterilization programs, well, we just try to avoid talking about that. Illegal spying on American citizens, becomes the terrorist surveillance program. The dismantling of our constitution and stripping away of our civil liberties, becomes a “temporary necessity” for our security. Pretty words to make the poison palatable. Unfortunately, the problems are still there when the whitewash is stripped away, festering like a septic wound.

I will continue with some of the direct results that this whitewashing can have, after I get some sleep. I will focus on the “lower-socioeconomic-class” and the “terrorist surveillance program.” The world has always been a frightening place, but today, we live in interesting times.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Biology, Morality and Religion

I would like to thank Oran Kelley, of Adverse City, for sending in this essay. There has been a lot of exhaustive discussions on this topic at a number of Seed magazine's science blogs. I have noticed Oran's very thoughtful comments on many of those comment threads and was quite pleased, when he agreed to put up a post here.

From Oran's site;
In the way far north, one man attempts to stay connected with his intellect, his culture and his sanity.

I have been invited to write on this topic by our kind host here. The invitation stemmed from some discussion surrounding the "New Atheist" writings of people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

These are different writers who have written different books, but I feel that there is fairly good reason to speak of them as a sort of movement. But we should remember (I should remember) as we move along that these writers have written distinct books and what is attributable to one is not necessarily attributable to them all.

The focus here, as it has been in most discussions I've seen on the web, will be on Dawkins. Dawkins' book The God Delusion was published in 2006 and has sold more than a million copies to date, which is remarkably successful for a book advocating atheism or for a book written by a scientist. If the goal of such a book as this is to nudge public discussion in a particular direction, then Dawkins has succeeded. It has been a long time since atheism has gotten as much sustained and serious attention in the popular media as it has over the past year or so.

Before I venture forth, I'd like also to point out that this is an essay--there are lots and lots of assertions here without real evidentiary support. But this is in keeping with the tradition of the essay. So how does one evaluate these assertions? Not by rejecting them because there is insufficient evidence provided here. In fairness, take a minute to think about a) what might have prompted me to write what I have and b) what specific arguments you may have against my assertion, and if you think you've got a valid criticism or something that could be interestingly hashed out: post away!


The rise of the "new" atheism has a lot to do with the political changes wrought by the election of an evangelical christian as President of the United States, the attack on the US by Islamic fundamentalists on 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the general divisiveness that has arisen in US politics through all this and two very closely contested presidential elections.

And Dawkins's book is not at all immune to this air of contention. In fact, Dawkins wrote a much-publicized (metaphorical) call to arms against religion in the immediate aftermath to 9/11. And while The God Delusion has been a great success in many regards, some have pointed out a certain contemptuous disregard--by which I mean not just a lack of respect, but also a lack of attention--for his subject in the book, religion.

And that is more or less where I come in: complaining about the fact that The God Delusion reads more like wartime propaganda than the work of a prestigious scientist helping the public delve into a difficult subject. Not to say that Dawkins ought not have an agenda, but to say he ought to pursue that agenda while upholding a certain level of scholarship.

Here is Dawkins in a atheist FAQ:

    Q: There are billions of people across the world following their faiths and living their life. How do you describe them?

    A: Of course, there are billions of people living their religious life and most of them are harmless people. But, they are carrying a virus of faith with them, that they transmit from generations to another, and could create a 'epidemic' of faith any time. As I said, I am a kind of person who cares about the truth and also want to see people following the truth. The truth is not a revelation, but truth that has been established though evidences and repeated experiments.

And what repeated experiments have established the existence of this "virus?" Metaphor has been a powerful force in Dawkins' career, for both good and ill*1. And here I think we see it used decidedly for the ill. Religion is to be thought of as a force of nature, as a thought contagion colonizing human minds because otherwise we'd be forced to ask, "What good does religion do that so many people adhere to it?" And that, for very unscientific reasons, is a question Dawkins just doesn't want asked.

One of the "goods" that religion has traditionally been thought to deliver is "morality." Dawkins also specifically addresses this issue in the same FAQ:

    Q: Religious people claim they derive their morality from religion. Where from an atheist derive his morality?

    A: Religious people do not derive their morality from religion. I disagree (with the interviewer) on this point. Almost all of us do agree on moral grounds where religion had no effect. For example we all hate slavery, we want emancipation of women - they are all our moral grounds. These moral grounds started building only a few centuries ago and long after all major religions were established. We derive our morality from the environment we live in, Talk shows, Novels, Newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents. Religion might only have a minor role to play in it. An atheist derives his morality from the same source as a religious people do.

This actually makes for a pretty good starting point for a discussion of biology, morality and religion.

First off, I'd agree to some extent that people do not derive their morality from religion. Religion is the invention of man, and whatever is in it, whatever it inculcates or demands of us, man put in there. And so we'd have to look elsewhere for the ultimate origins of our morality.

But this does not mean that most people have not derived their morality through religion; that religion may be an important delivery system for things like morality.

Secondly, I'd point out that this passage represents an interesting departure from some of Dawkins' earlier assertions on this subject: there is no mention of innate empathy, which figured prominently in the last chapter of The God Delusion.

I don't have a copy on hand so this summary from John Hick will have to serve will have to serve :

    Richard Dawkins, in his widely read book The God Delusion speaks of 'our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity . . the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain' and 'the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom we shall never meet' (215); and he has his own biological explanation of this. He lists four Darwinian sources of morality. One depends on what he calls 'the selfish gene'. He says that 'a gene that programs individual organisms to favour their genetic kin is statistically likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene frequency can increase in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm' (216). Hence, he thinks, parents' care for their children, both in humans and other animals. This care is undoubtedly the case. But whether an individual 'selfish gene' wants to benefit itself by making unconscious statistical calculations about how best to do this, seems to me to be suspiciously like an anthropomorphic fairy tale. And indeed how does it benefit an individual gene that there exist many copies or near copies of itself? The second Darwinian source of morality, according to Dawkins, is reciprocal altruism: 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. This occurs not only within but between species. 'The bee needs nectar and the flower needs pollinating. Flowers can't fly so they pay bees, in the currency of nectar, for the hire of their wings' (216-7). This is the basis of all barter, and ultimately of the invention of money.

So, why doesn't innate empathy figure prominently in the 2007 FAQ? Dawkins certainly still believes in it, I'm sure, as do I. But I think Dawkins may have come around to my point of view as to how important it is since he wrote the last chapter of his book. What would now be considered abhorrent practices--like slavery, the mass execution of war prisoners, the suppression of women, the exposure of children, the wholesale rape and slaughter of non-combatant populations--all of these things thrived for quite a long time before the emergence of a sensibility which could effectively suppress them.

In other words, morality is historical to some extent: what we consider abhorrent was once considered acceptable or even praiseworthy. So, apparently, a fairly broad variety of human practice can be accommodated to our innate altruism. The line that Dawkins has previously taken up, that religion is the "root of all evil" so to speak in that it allows us to rationalize our behavior when it defies our altruistic instincts is only half true.

Human beings have a great many other innate drives aside from empathy. Some of them lead to behavior that we would regard as selfish, acquisitive, violent, and paranoid. So when I ask myself whether or not I should seduce my neighbor's attractive wife, my empathy for the plights of the cuckold and the guilty wife are only part (and perhaps a small part) of what goes into the moral calculus behind the decision.

So, moral decisions often involve a conflict amongst our instincts and between our instincts and our reasoning abilities. As Dawkins would readily point out, one role that religion has undoubtedly played over the millennia is as a mechanism by which one set of instincts may be assuaged when we choose to follow another, conflicting set of instincts.

But, this critique of religion has its limits. First, religion is but one mechanism that can accomplish this task of adjudicating between our good and bad angels. When the Mongols swept over the Eurasian landmass, destroying entire cities and spreading terror over two continents, they were not driven by religion, and they did not justify themselves through religion. Religion is just one way for a people to justify the rape, murder, dispossession and even elimination of other peoples.

Also, the mechanism works both ways: I can tell myself that though burning people alive for what they believe seems brutal, when it is done for the greater glory of god it is alright. But I can also tell myself that though my selfish instincts cry out when I give my wealth to the poor, that I am paving my way to heavenly rewards by doing so. The idea, which Dawkins endorses, that "you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion," is just plain wrong, and oversimplified wrong at that.

People commit evil acts, even atrocities, out of all kinds of motives, some evil, some mistaken. And religion, as I point out above, doesn't just cut in one direction: toward justifying evil. It justifies all kinds of acts, kindly and self-sacrificing ones as well as vicious. The balance between the two is dictated not by religion itself, but by our nature and the nature of our social behavior.

What Dawkins and his adherents should acknowledge on the point of human morality is that all the elements at play here--empathy, altruism, reason, greed, glory-seeking, selfishness, xenophobia, brutality and rationalization--all of these things logically precede religion.

While morality can indeed be said to derive ultimately from some of our kinder social impulses, what we recognize today as our "moral consensus" does not just arise naturally from innate empathy. That moral consensus has a pretty specific and well-known history.

Religion in some sense of the word--animism, ancestor worship (?)--no doubt precedes civilization. And the impulses that drove these earlier forms of religion are doubtlessly still important in people's personal adherence and belief, but as Dawkins has pointed out elsewhere, his real beef is with more developed forms of religion. The kind that arose with civilization.*2

The rise of the city took us out of the simple contexts (small bands of related individuals with more or less constant mutual surveillance and strong hierarchal relationships) in which our instincts--selfish, empathetic, greedy, fearful--were a reliable guide to social behavior. As cities grew, with large numbers of unrelated people performing differentiated tasks grew, something that would shape and guide those instincts had to arise with them.

The state and its organized violence (executions, seizing & destruction of property, enslavement, forced exile) were one way of accomplishing this, but attempting to avenge every crime takes up a lot of resources. It is far more efficient to have the people police themselves. Hence the rise of "The Law" (e.g. the Torah) as a set of rules that not only lay out those practices that will (if discovered) result in immediate stoning, but a set of rules you ought to follow in order to be righteous and deserving in the eyes of the gods (or god).

Religion, therefore, could be quite useful in inculcating forward-thinking behavior among those who were less inclined to it; in regularizing people's expectations of one another; in encouraging solidarity and socially-beneficial self-sacrifice in time of war; in wealth redistribution.

Unfortunately, religion could also put at the service of all the bad motives of those in charge, as well. And it could become the vehicle through which the mania of an individual or a small group could be given the force of an entire society.

Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses. But it is much, much more than that: it is the hallucinogen of the masses, its stimulant and sedative. Actually drugs are probably too limiting a metaphor: Religion is a mechanism through which the play of reason and instinctive impulses in a large and disparate population can be affected to create outcomes we would not otherwise expect.

Dawkins, no doubt, has plenty of reason to hate religion, but I think this is one that he hasn't openly acknowledged. Religion is to be hated because it throws into high relief the limitations of his own field of study: biology. The virus (or meme) explanation for religion is more or less his white flag. Religion makes it obvious that culture creates forms that are too complex and distinct to explain easily in terms of biology, much as biology creates forms that are too complex and distinct to easily explain in terms of chemistry. Since he is unwilling to admit the limitations of his explanatory tools, Dawkins' only recourse is to the mythological: memes.

But I digress.

One of the things that will no doubt be pointed out is that I have dealt with religion and morality in a very non-personal way--from the perspective of a putative social entity. I take this tack because I think that it is in its social role that I feel religion is primarily important in our world. Religion as a truly and deeply held belief system with all the attendant consolations is important, but, I would argue, for a relative few.

More important is religions role in structuring society and helping create a certain kind of social imaginary. For most people religion is important less on a personal basis but rather on a basis of the fact that it helps create predictable interactions with others. It is less important that I actually believe in a resurrected Christ than it is that I believe that others believe (or at least others will behave much as I do) and that the socially prevalent version of Christianity (which may have little to do with textual Christianity) will serve as a rough framework guiding most people's behavior.

It is only for a select few sensitive and discerning souls that the qualities of the religion itself--its poeticism, its ability to capture and express the human situation, its plausibility, whatever--is a great matter of import. Religion is not one's personal relationship with God. It is one's personal relationship with the mass. Of course, religious people will vehemently deny this. But remember, these are the same people who claim to believe people like Joe Smith.


Our modern sense of morality developed just as the first great challenge to religious belief arose in our civilization. The Enlightenment was inspired largely by the challenge to custom--religious and other customs--that was presented when Europeans encountered civilizations--both ancient and contemporary--that were coherent, accomplished, even noble, but which had no notion of the western god.

The Good Life apparently was not dependent upon one particular religion. And philosophers began working on ways in which morality could be thought about without recourse to revealed truth. Kant's categorical imperative is probably the most famous of these efforts: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

The retort "Why should I?" has never been sufficiently answered.

Ultimately, as Kant intimated in his Critique of Judgment these things come down to an aesthetic judgment on the part of the agent, and that judgment probably comes down to certain inherent capacities we have as well as "talk shows, novels, newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents." But the final outcome of our individual moral judgments ends up being highly contingent, not universal. And even if they were, there is no universal police force enforcing the secular universal law, and the temptation to be a free rider on this moral system is obvious--"let everyone else embody universal law, I will look to myself" would appear to be a highly profitable strategy in a Kantian society.

Thus we have the moral crisis depicted in so much literature created in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Secularism brought Raskolnikov onto the readily imagined horizon of possibilities. It doesn't matter that there will never be many Raskolnikovs in any readily conceivable society, it is the fact that such a man is easily imagined is the key factor.

Now, instead of imagining a moral order shaped by a common, sometimes deeply sincere, sometimes hypocritical belief in religion and religious morality, I imagine a world of moral free agents all susceptible to the same temptation toward low-consequence free-riding as myself. In such a situation defection--acting selfishly rather than morally--seems a more reasonable course.

I should note here that the two social imaginaries I have depicted here--one of Christian regularity; one of moral free agents--always co-existed in Western societies. The key factor is the balance, the relative strength of the two visions. And religion, so far, has been an important factor in managing that balance.

We cannot just rely on our innate empathy to see us through this one, because there are (at least equally strong) innate impulses pulling in other directions. We can't relay on pure reason, either, because a) the moral reasoning vs. amore-propre is always a bad bet from a social perspective; and b) because reason will probably tell us to defect more often than any society can live with.

We have to create social structures and well-accepted guarantors of social reciprocity in order to encourage what we would call morally acceptable behavior and social stability. And it is only through stability that the billions of people who inhabit this earth will have any hope of the good life at all.

The question for activist atheists is what those social structures will look like in the absence of religion. Atheists have to stop thinking about religion as if it were a way of explaining the world the way science is, or as if it were a leach that must be pried from the skin of our culture. It is a social structure with functions. Functions that must operate within the moral universes of illiterate peasants as well as for clever college undergraduates.

Religion is here and has been here for reasons. Whatever its origin, religion has come to serve important functions within human societies. Otherwise it would not be as widely practiced as it is and we wouldn't currently be arguing about whether it is time to jettison it.

I am personally all for moving forward to a post-religious future. I just think we ought to have a cold honest look at what religion is and how it works before we do that. So far, none of the new atheists has gotten very far in doing that.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What's happening. . .

I would like to apologize for the dearth of posts lately, especially those pertaining to human rights. Things have just been very chaotic for me lately. Actually, they usually are, it's just been worse than usual lately, what with almost ending up homeless. On top of that, the youth minister at my church recently fell off a ladder and broke his back. It wasn't a bad break and it will heal with minimal permanent damage, but it does mean that he is unable to finish getting his house ready for painting and the paint on. I have been helping him build his house over the last year and a half. As such, I know better than anyone, exactly what needs to be done, so I am coordinating the final steps to make sure it's painted before winter. As I am unable to climb ladders, this is a rather complicated, inefficient process.

I would also like to thank those who emailed and commented on my situation. I would especially like to thank those who offered to help us keep a roof over our heads. It was really appreciated. I meant to move the post about it below the denialism posts, but accidentally backdated it by several months instead of several days.

I am almost finished with my own posts on ADHD and neurological disorder denialism. I am still hoping to get more posts up by others and will undoubtedly have more of my own thoughts on the subject, but after I get the last two parts of my story up, I will definitely be taking a break from writing on this topic.

I am also almost done with my reading list for the post on morality, torture and the neurology of violence. It will probably take a bit for me to finish writing that post though, I may even split it up into multiple posts. There is a lot of information that I want to get out there. I would like to take this opportunity, to direct you to a short post at Nuerophilosophy, about torture. Actually, Mo's got several really cool posts up that are worth checking out.

Having gotten through a lot of the reading, my opinion about morality has not really changed. I am realizing though, that this is very much a semantic discussion, more than anything else. This is not to imply that framing it thus makes it any less important, language in many ways defines social interaction. However, I think it's important to realize most people have very different ideas about what defines morality. Indeed, many people use more than one definition of morality, depending on the context or axioms being discussed.

At first, I was trepidatious about getting into the discussion of morality. I didn't really think it was particularly relevant to the discussion of human rights. But after receiving a couple emails admonishing me to consider it's relevance more, I realized that not only is it topical to the discussion of human rights, it's fundamental. A large part of my desire to start this blog (aside from whim) was to explore the foundations of human rights, to get to the fundamentals. So not only do I feel more comfortable with bringing morality onto the table, it is my intention to focus on morality quite a bit in the near future.

This brought me to consider the relevance of my recent foray into neurological disorder denialism, and neurological disorders in general. On several different levels, this is also relevant to the discussion of human rights.

First, I think it's important to recognize that neurodiversity is a very good thing. For every negative aspect of most neurological disorders, there are positives that need protection and fostering. The main reason I am so excited about all the advances we are achieving in neuroscience, is that I believe this will lead to a greater understanding of how to preserve the richness of neurodiversity, while compensating for the negatives that accompany it. The status quo is focused on elimination of the symptoms, rather than compensating for them. The problem with that is that we lose something on the process, something of immeasurable value. The goal should be finding ways for us to fit into the structure of society. The goal should most assuredly not be to turn us all into neurotypicals.

Second, this touches on a discussion that was discussed very briefly here. That is, the rights of children, versus the rights of their parents. There are very few contexts for this discussion more important and more ambiguous than the context of mental health. Having suffered as a direct result of my parent's denial of my neurological disorders, this is a topic that hits close to home, obviously.

Finally, this touches on the very real problem of persons with neurological disorders that seriously compromise their ability to reasonably function in the framework of society. Where is the line drawn, where should it be drawn? What restrictions are appropriate and where are they appropriate?

As always, I welcome cross-posts and guest posts. If you have something to add to the discussion, I would be happy to check it out and probably put it up. Even, maybe especially, if you disagree with me on something. I would appreciate dissenting points of view. I would also welcome some relief from the pressure of trying to keep posts flowing. In any case, thank you very much for stopping by. I hope to hear from you, as I really appreciate feedback.

The Neuroscience of ADHD - Dopamine Abnormality in ADHD

I can't begin to describe my appreciation for both Shelley Batts, of Retrospectale and now, Joseph, of The Corpus Callosum. Indeed, I should also express my appreciation to the denialists that I tangled with in comments, attached to Shelley's post about The Neuroscience of ADHD, for motivating me to do this. I would ask that you please follow the link and read Shelley's post, it is fairly quick reading and well worthwhile. As she doesn't offer explicit permission to repost her writing, I will not do so here.

Joseph, on the other hand, offers a similar license to the one on my blog, so I will reproduce his post on Dopamine Abnormality in ADHD, here, with comments. To be clear, he has not offered specific permission for me to reproduce it and probably does not know that I have. He is however, kind enough to license his writing under a CC license, the details of which can be found here.

From Joseph's site;
Corpus Callosum is written by a psychiatrist at a small community hospital somewhere in midwestern USA.

A while back, Shelly wrote a nice introduction to ADHD at Retrospectacle: The Neuroscience of ADHD. Read that first, for background, then consider this to be a minor addendum. There are still people who believe that is not real. This is a good example of the scientific findings to the contrary. It is an open-access article (there is one every month) at .

Depressed Dopamine Activity in Caudate and Preliminary Evidence of Limbic Involvement in Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Nora D. Volkow, MD; Gene-Jack Wang, MD; Jeffrey Newcorn, MD; Frank Telang, MD; Mary V. Solanto, PhD; Joanna S. Fowler, PhD; Jean Logan, PhD; Yeming Ma, PhD; Kurt Schulz, PhD; Kith Pradhan, MS; Christopher Wong, MS; James M. Swanson, PhD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64:932-940.

Context Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most prevalent psychiatric disorder of childhood. There is considerable evidence that brain dopamine is involved in ADHD, but it is unclear whether dopamine activity is enhanced or depressed.

Objective To test the hypotheses that striatal dopamine activity is depressed in ADHD and that this contributes to symptoms of inattention.

Design Clinical (ADHD adult) and comparison (healthy control) subjects were scanned with positron emission tomography and raclopride labeled with carbon 11 (D2/D3 receptor radioligand sensitive to competition with endogenous dopamine) after placebo and after intravenous methylphenidate hydrochloride (stimulant that increases extracellular dopamine by blocking dopamine transporters). The difference in [11C]raclopride's specific binding between placebo and methylphenidate was used as marker of dopamine release. Symptoms were quantified using the Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scales.

Setting Outpatient setting.

Participants Nineteen adults with ADHD who had never received medication and 24 healthy controls.

Results With the placebo, D2/D3 receptor availability in left caudate was lower (P < .05) in subjects with ADHD than in controls. Methylphenidate induced smaller decrements in [11C]raclopride binding in left and right caudate (blunted DA increases) (P < .05) and higher scores on self-reports of "drug liking" in ADHD than in control subjects. The blunted response to methylphenidate in caudate was associated with symptoms of inattention (P < .05) and with higher self-reports of drug liking (P < .01). Exploratory analysis using statistical parametric mapping revealed that methylphenidate also decreased [11C]raclopride binding in hippocampus and amygdala and that these decrements were smaller in subjects with ADHD (P < .001). Conclusions This study reveals depressed dopamine activity in caudate and preliminary evidence in limbic regions in adults with ADHD that was associated with inattention and with enhanced reinforcing responses to intravenous methylphenidate. This suggests that dopamine dysfunction is involved with symptoms of inattention but may also contribute to substance abuse comorbidity in ADHD.

One of the key points in this study is that they did the brain scans on ADHD patients who had not been treated with drugs. One of the problems in studies like this is sometimes that it is hard to know if the abnormality was caused by the treatment, or by the condition. In order to get around that, you have to find patients who have not been treated. Then, you run the chance of biasing the results by selecting a nonrandom sample, but there is no easy way to avoid both problems simultaneously.

The study indicates that persons with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine in the emotional center of the brain (the ).

I notice the last sentence in the abstract: "This suggests that dopamine dysfunction is involved with symptoms of inattention but may also contribute to substance abuse comorbidity in ADHD." I am not sure why the reference to substance abuse belongs there. It is true that there is an association between substance abuse and ADHD, but that is not the point of the study.

So there really isn't much for a laymen to add. While having ADHD certainly offers a decent perspective on the discussion, I am not a neuroscientist, nor am I anything more than a reasonably educated laymen, when it comes to psychology.

That said, Joseph's comment about the appropriateness of the comment correlating dopamine dysfunction and substance abuse, really jumped out at me. This seems like a no brainer to me, but then, I'm not a scientist. It may just be, that as this was not the stated intent of the study, it seemed an odd thing to comment on.

The thing is, that I don't think the dopamine hypothesis is a new idea. Nor is the notion that the tendency for persons with ADHD towards substance abuse being due to lower levels of dopamine very new. I mean it makes sense. The stimulant medications for ADD/ADHD stimulate the production of dopamine. Studies also seem to indicate that persons with ADHD who are medicated for it as a child, have far less a tendency for the substance abuse problems that plague many, if not most people with ADHD.

Still, it is very exciting to see more research and more studies that bring us closer and closer to understanding the physiological aspects of neurological disorders. As I have mentioned before, I see my neurological disorders as much more blessing than curse. The more we understand where they come from, how they work, the better we'll be able to deal with the harshest aspects of them, while maintaining the most positive aspects of neurodiversity.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Living With Bipolar

I would like to thank Tyler Pietro, of PowerUp, for contributing some of his personal experience with Bipolar disorder, to the discussion of neurological disorder denialism. It is especially hard to deal with this brand of denialism, when it's one's own parent or parents in denial. In large part, this is why I this discussion is so very important to me.

Again, if anyone would like to contribute their story to this effort, please let me know. I would be happy to hear from you.

From Tyler's blog;
I'm an ubernerdly atheist liberal with an interest in mathematics and computer science, as well as side interests in traditional forms of geekery (video games, electronic gadgets, anime, etc.).

There are multiple reasons people get involved in combating crankery and denialism. Some people do it simply because they find stupidity irritating. Some people do it because their profession in particular is attacked regularly by denialists and cranks. However, I'd venture to guess that the greatest class of people (in terms of cardinality, for you math geeks out there :-] ) is composed of those who do it because they know of it's consequences. HIV denial kills people, creationism condemns children to ignorance and superstition, global warming denial sidelines efforts to curb potentially catastrophic environmental impacts, etc.

In terms of mental illness denial, I'm actually familiar in a very intimate way with what denialist rhetoric can do. My immediate family was dead against it when school administrators became increasingly suspicious about my mental health. I suffer from bipolar disorder, and it was around high school that my outbreaks started occurring. I started to experience severe mood swings, spells of depression and intense anger, and even suicidal timulations on an increasingly frequent basis. It was in particular when one of my freshmen year teachers discovered some "disturbing" writing in my notebooks that I was admitted to the social workers office.

When that social worker suggested that I see a psychiatrist, my family went into uproar. That was when I became familiar with all the standard mental illness denialist canards: "everyone has 'mental illness', no one's the same", "it's just an excuse for personal laziness, quit being so narcissistic", "they're just pulling disorders out of their hats to sell pharmaceutical drugs", etc. I pretty severely affected my family life for a good while, eventually climaxing in a hospitalization that finally forced my family to recognize the reality.

Personally, I suspect it is people who have problems who are the most vulnerable to this sort of rhetoric. Especially in cases of psychotic depression, people are far more prone to blaming themselves for their problems. Taking drugs and receiving regular therapy is a moral failing and makes you a weak individual in the eyes of many, and often times it's not too hard for people to convince themselves of the worthiness of such an idea. But in cool-headed moments you can realize several things that denialist mind-readers can't: flying in and out of depressive and manic episodes isn't some sort of "lifestyle choice", I didn't need a psychiatrist to brainwash me into thinking I had a problem, and refraining from treatment causes severe problems.

Welcome to My World - Living With ADHD Part II; School



While I had a lot of behavioral issues, the first experience that comes to mind, when I think about how ADHD effected my education, is from kindergarten. Indeed, this is about the only thing that I remember about kindergarten. My class was supposed to be writing out the alphabet. I knew the alphabet, quite well at this point. One of my brothers managed to teach me to read, when I was only two years old and taught me to write, when I was three. I had even written the alphabet out, several times the night before, to get practice making my letters as perfect as I could, in anticipation of doing it the following day. But when the time came to actually do it in class, I simply couldn't do it. It was a rather hot day and all that I could think about, was getting out of school to climb the tree in my back yard. It didn't help that at the time, we lived right in front of the school, the windows in my classroom looked right out on my back yard, right out on the tree that I so desperately wanted to climb. Too, many of the kids got finished very quickly and were playing just a few feet away, so I was thinking how nice it would be to join them, how nice it would be to climb the tree. Then I got to thinking how much fun it would be to take the book I was reading up into the tree with me and laze around in the shade, with the book about Duncan, the alpine rescue dog - perfect antidote to the hot weather. Did I mention that I was also getting hungry? By the time lunch rolled around, I wasn't even to L yet. The teacher told me, through my tears, that I would not be joining my class for lunch, until I finished the alphabet. I got into a world of trouble, when I decided to put it away, half finished, to join my class for lunch. Twenty-six years have gone by and I can still remember that experience with a clarity that I have trouble focusing on my memories of last week.


When I was seven, I was put on ritalin. This was when I was first diagnosed with a form of ADD, which would later be labeled ADHD. Unfortunately, it was a multi-dose pill. On occasion, a dose would be missed. When this happened I would get severe migraines, very shaky and feel quite nauseous. When it happened at school, I would have to go home for the day. Even when I was on my regular doses, I would often times focus on the wrong things. I don't really remember much of this time, except as a feeling of general dreariness and discomfort. After a few months, it became quite apparent that ritalin, in that particular form, was not appropriate for me. There are two reasons why the ritalin experience was an important aspect of my life. First, it made me very skeptical of medicating children. I am still very reticent to use medication to deal with ADHD. To me, it can only be an absolute last resort. The other reason had a very profound impact on the rest of my education. I believe that this was when my dad really became something of an ADHD denier, at least as it related to me. He was firmly convinced that it would be possible to punish the problems away. It is easy to see why. Not to be arrogant, but I am a very bright person. This was shown when I learned to read at two and in the prolific testing that was done over the years. I had unbelievable potential but consistently failed to measure up. While I was in elementary school, this was mostly expressed through behavioral problems, rather than academic failures.


When I got into middle school, I was tested by the school and they suggested that I might respond well to special education classes. Not for everything, indeed while I was in middle school, it consisted only of taking a study hall that provided special helps, where I was having trouble at any given moment - which was pretty much with everything. The thing that really stands out in middle school, was the introduction of the Math & Science Center, advanced classes for kids who were especially talented in those areas. To make this understood, I was an abysmal failure at math. Not because I couldn't do math - I could. I could even do rather complex problems in my head, which I still can. The failure was in my inability to do math problems the way that the teachers wanted me to. I could do the problems, get the answers right, I could even write down the steps I took to get the answer. The problem was, that they weren't even close to the steps I was supposed to be using. So I failed at pre-algebra, never made it past. When I asked if I could take the test, to get into the MSC, my math teacher actually got annoyed with me, thinking I was just trying to get out of class. I found out later, based in some assessment tests I took as a part of the special ed program, I would likely have passed it. At the same time, it is also probable, that without medication, it would have been impossible for me to handle the curriculum.


I was entirely incapable of doing homework. The biggest problem was, that it was infinitely easy for me to get distracted. Trying to do the banal, pointless worksheets, always led to getting distracted by something in the work and going off on a tangent. I.e. reading up on the answers, might send me off on a reading frenzy, starting with the topic I was looking up and ending God knows where. It was very easy for me to spend several hours on one question - and never actually get the question answered, because by the time I was winding down the tangent, I was so far off I had forgotten where I started. This was made much more difficult by the fact that I had very little problem with quiz's and tests. I knew the material after reading the text (usually within a few weeks of the beginning of the semester) and half heartedly listening in class.

Writing papers was even worse in some ways. Worse, because I actually wrote decent papers, I just rarely managed to keep them on the topic I was assigned. My best example of this, was an assignment to write a three page paper on Thomas Jefferson. In the process of researching it, I went off on a Ben Franklin tangent and ended up turning in a fifteen page paper about him. I actually would have gotten a reasonable grade, had I talked to the teacher about changing the topic and had kept it close to the page limit. Because I did neither of those things, I got a C-. He didn't want to fail me, because it was a decent paper.

There is so much that could be said about school, I may add more another time. However this is getting fairly long for a blog post and I still have adulthood to cover.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Welcome to My World - Living With ADHD Part 1; Introduction

This has turned out to be a lot harder discussion to get started, than I though it would be. I have never been one to hold anything close to my chest. As a songwriter, I have often written very personal, very harsh self assessments into my songs. I have never been afraid to discuss my feelings, good or bad, never been afraid to talk about the very worse aspects of who I am. I have hurt people, used people and even, though not purposefully or with malicious intent, abused people. I have been 'heroic" in my abuse of various substances, mostly hallucinogens. I spent the early years of my adult life, having sex, doing drugs and playing music, the epitome of irresponsibility. In short, I am not afraid of talking about myself, good or bad. But talking about my life with ADHD, has not been coming out so easy. Which is funny, because ADHD has been such a large part of my life. Not just ADHD, but insomnia and, so I'm told, bipolar disorder as well. I suspect that the symptoms of bipolar are actually the result of a lifetime of sleep deprivation. So my life with ADHD, is more than simply ADHD, but a couple of neurological disorders, as they are commonly called.

So I think the first thing that I must do, is clarify my take on neurological disorders. The word disorder can be a bit misleading, as it has rather negative connotations. To be very clear, I do not regret who I am, or in any way wish that I was neurotypical. Yes, there are problems, yes, it is very, very hard sometimes, as the following post will make clear. But everything hard about it, every silly mistake, is balanced by the rich tapestry that is my mind, who I am. Every minute, of every day, I am constantly inundated by five to eight lines of thought at the same time. All right there in my conscious mind. It's hard sometimes, trying to focus on any one thing, even something as simple as day by day interactions with others. At the same time, it means that my mind is always at work, mulling through this and that - going off on tangents brought about by combining separate lines of thought. Some of the best writing I have produced, the best ideas that I have had, are a direct result of becoming distracted. It is not nearly so simple, as black and white, good and bad. Even as they are a curse, ADHD, bipolar and insomnia are, excepting my family, my life's greatest blessing. It is my greatest hope that for my son, it will never be a curse.

I have decided to split this up into sections, as it is getting quite lengthy. The next post will be my educational experience. I am also changing the date on it, so it remains at the top for a while. I will try to ensure that this series stays in order, from beginning to end. When it is all up, or other posts on neurological disorders go up, I will let other posts get ahead of it. So ignore the date it claims to be posted.

Posted 8/3/07

My Egyptian Readers

So I check my site meter every day, curious about how many people are stopping and how often. Unfortunately, I don't get a whole lot of readers, but I am getting some steady readers and seem to be growing. One segment of my readers that I have found interesting, is some folks from Egypt. At least, I am assuming there are more than one, as they seem to be from different providers and ISPs. Of course it could be that it's the same person, using wireless cafe's. I am steadily getting one to three hits per day, coming out of Egypt.

Having, as I do, a fascination with geography, coupled with an insatiable curiosity about the lives of people from other countries and other cultures, I am rather excited by this. I would really appreciate hearing from my Egyptian reader/s, either in comments or email. Specifically, I would love to know, what here is of interest to you. Actually I would like to know that of everyone who stops. I would also enjoy corresponding with people in Egypt. Ever since reading a variety of great novels that were about adventures that took place, or more often started, in Egypt, I have been particularly fascinated with the top of Africa.

So while I would love to hear from everyone who stops by, I would be particularly pleased to hear from Egypt.

Not a Good Day

I was a bit hasty in posting this earlier. I should clarify that my partner and I, are expecting our second child in December. One of the tests done Monday, was to asses the risk that our child will have down syndrome.

I just got a call from my partners doctors office, while Cay and I were at the park. The results of one of the tests they ran Monday, show an elevated risk for down syndrome. To put it mildly, I am not handling this well so far. For those who are into that sort of thing, please keep us in your prayers. We will be going in for an appointment either tomorrow or Monday to find out more and schedule further testing.

I am almost finished with the post about my life with ADHD. I am going to get that up and any other stories that come in about the experiences of others with neurological disorders. I am really hoping that I can get some more guest posts, as I am taking some time off to decompress. I want to keep this forum going and growing. I also really want to get a variety of discussions going on here, so please, even if you don't really agree with me on a lot of things, feel free to email me with ideas for posts you would like to write. Especially right now.

The Culture of Disrespect for Life

I want to thank Beth, of Five Ft Three, for writing a guest post response to my post about our rights to control our own bodies. I will probably respond in comments, when I have a chance, possibly even write a post in response, but for now, I leave it to everyone else. I would add again, I am accepting guest posts , including responses to the posts on this site.

From Beth's blog;
Some things you cannot change, ones height for example. Some things you can change, like people's minds. I would prefer not to be so short, but what can I do? Nothing! But maybe I can enlighten someone in my ramblings.

I am pro-life. Generally being pro-life means of course against abortion, and against the death penalty. But it means even more than that to me, it means having respect for all human life, from natural conception to natural death and everyone in between. I feel that many issues today that are becoming mainstream sort of ideas however are leaning towards a disrespect for life, and it is a disturbing trend for me.

This spiraling downward of respect of course started when Roe v Wade made abortion legal. Yes, I do realize that women were having abortions before January 22, 1973, however when something is legalized the stigma is gone and the whole process becomes rather socially acceptable. I say that attitude is unacceptable. Once we decided that a human life has no value because it is still developing within his mother’s womb, I think we started justifying all sorts of valuations on other people’s lives.

Take Terri Schiavo, many people said her life was worthless, because she was disabled. She was not the person her husband had married, and so judges and lawyers starting justifying ending this woman’s life, and not even in a humane way.

Then there are harden criminals, even some pro-life people justify their killing since they are not innocent. The devaluing of that criminal’s life is justified because of his or her crime.

Then we come to embryonic stem cell research, and suddenly a human life is made into a commodity (oh look, it DOES have value) but it is destroyed then in the name of science. Well of course we must justify this, we are saving people’s lives (or improving their lives) EXCEPT that we do it at the expense of another’s AND adult stem cells are a very viable option so I don’t understand why destroy life if not needed.

Now in DuWayne’s first posting to his new blog, he talked about assisted suicide, and although this disrespect for life is self-inflicted unlike the others, it still says we think there are lives not worth living.

The culture of disrespect for life isn’t just about ending lives, but also about not respecting the lives of the people we interact with every. DuWayne has brought up his own difficulty of growing up with ADHD, and how people who didn’t understand it made his life very difficult. People on the streets, well they are treated as bums, and why don’t they just get a job? That is devaluing a life and being disrespectful. I even fault fellow pro-lifers who parade pictures of aborted babies to make their point, talk about disrespect to that child! I prefer to show the amazing pictures from an ultrasound to show life in a beautiful and positive way.

So basically do I fault Roe v Wade for the shift in our thinking? Yes, I do. We have to stop justifying and assessing values on human lives and treat all people with the respect that we all would like ourselves.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Formatting Questions

I have now received an Email about something that I have been considering. Should I either change the name of this blog, or set up another one, to deal with the posts about neurological disorders? At the moment, I am disinclined to do so, but would really like to know what those who stop here think about it. I really don't want to start a whole new blog for it, as I am planning on starting another blog about education and childrearing, that I hope to have several people involved with. But I could consider changing the name of this blog.

I am also wondring if anyone would be interested in a blogroll. I have not done it yet, because I really haven't had the time and almost all of them would be Seed magazine's science blogs, which provides the bulk of my reading.

Finally, I am considering putting up google's adsense. I have no idea what it would look like or how it works. But my thinking is that it could generate a little bit of revenue. The thing is, I am not sure it would generate enough to be worth taking up the space. Too, I use FireFox's adblocker add-on, so I would feel mildly hypocritical.

Please let me know in comments, what your preferences would be.

Sheril Kirshembaum on Fundamentalism, Faith, Athiests and Science part I: Faith

Sorry, but in my ADHD world, this post, which should have gone up a long time ago, has waited until now. Indeed, I have a lot of other posts in the works, but as I seem to be getting quite a few hits from searches for Sheril, I thought I thought it would be a good idea to get this one up. Especially, as I am having a time of it, writing about my life with ADHD. So here is something a little different.

This post is going to be very link heavy, I will link to several pieces that Sheril has written about the interface of faith, atheism and science. They are all well worth the reading in their entirety, as I think Sheril does an excellent job of addressing this issue and the issue of fundamentalism.

In the first article, The 'F' Word, she starts by explaining why she has not jumped into the discussion of religion, very appropriately;

Simply put, what I believe is that faith has no place in science. Will someone please stand up and explain the circular argument, the rhetoric, the tomfoolery and fiddlesticks that is the age old debate on how these two worlds converge?

I think it is very important that people understand this very simple notion. Science is about observing the natural world, creating hypothesis about the natural world and testing those hypothesis rigorously. We should not simply accept religious explanations for certain aspects of the natural world, unless those claims can and have been rigorously tested and evidence to support them is found. This is not to say that religion is wrong or that faith is meaningless. All that it means is that God did it, is not enough and ignoring the evidence to perpetuate ideas that are demonstrably false, simply because they contradict a religious view of the natural world is wrong. Rob Knopp, writes;

Several hundred years ago, it was considered essential to the Christian faith that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, and that everything revolved around Earth. Galileo was placed under house arrest and was considered a threat to Christianity because he made observations of Jupiter's moons, conclusively showing that something was orbiting around a body other than the Earth. Today, anybody even mildly educated knows that all of the planets, including the Earth, revolve around the Sun, and nobody considers that a threat to their Christianity.

So acceptance of scientific explanations of the natural world, far from dooming faith, in my opinion, make it that much richer. But back to Sheril;

What is fascinating to consider in the discussion is how religion currently shapes life on this planet with arguably every bit as much force as the biological processes driving evolution, adaptation, and extinction.

Spot on. While faith and science do not and should not mix, it is important to try to understand religion on a very fundamental level. This is why, though I firmly believe that religious explanations of the natural world, should never be accepted on their face and dismissed when they are shown to be demonstrably false, it behooves us not to separate religion from the natural world. I am a theist. I do not however, accept the notion of the supernatural. If the spiritual is real, then it is just as natural as anything else and at least carries the potential for being observed and understood, no differently than gravity. That we lack the ability to do so now, does not mean that it is impossible. The only way that it could be impossible to observe it and quantify it, is if it does not in fact exist.

The end of Sheril's first post on Faith, is the most important. I think that it also is a great tool for identifying fundamentalists, whether they be atheist or religious, because only fundamentalists would disagree;

Scientist need not equate with Godlessness. Period.


The other, related posts by Sheril, that I will be addressing, though probably only in one or two more posts;

The "F" Word Offends Again
Faith, Framing and PZ
Another Dangerous "F" Word, Fundamentalism
Is Science About Converting People