Book Review: A Higher Loyalty

comey

 

If you don’t think that Trump is a dirtbag right now, as CNN’s Phil Mudd calls him, you just might after reading this book…but even if you don’t, even if you are an Always Trumper, if you are an honest one, this book is still fascinating on several different levels

I first watched James Comey giving testimony in a senate hearing. You notice him because he is tall, and not a little geeky, with his ‘Lordy, lordy’ expression he seems not to have extirpated from his speech patterns. Very quickly, as I listened to him, I got the impression he was honorable, honest, and desperately trying to do the right thing.

A lot of people like to criticize him, though, because many think he single-handedly (with the help of Russia, and a little Hillary) brought down Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president, or worse, elevated Donald Trump to where he is today…which frankly can make Comey the anti-Christ to Democratic eyes.

The Book

James Comey was the seventh director of the FBI, appointed by President Barrack Obama and fired by President Donald Trump. He had served George Bush as  Deputy Attorney General under AG John Ashcroft, where he had opposed that administration’s use of surveillance and torture, but his most recent notability has been his awkward ouster by Trump for continuing the Russian probe and declining to swear fealty. The book is not just payback; it may more rightly be a rallying cry for presidential impeachment.

Comey outlines his early years as a wimpy geek who grows to an awkward 6 foot 8 inch and achieves his desire of a position at highest levels in American law-enforcement, that might allow him perhaps to save the country…it’s too early to tell. In the course of his description of events in his life, we experience his take on, and successful opposition to some sinister legal procedures of the ‘W’ administration, his investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco when she was Secretary of State, which lead to her political upset, and the initial phases of the Russia Investigation which shines an ominous light on the 2016 presidential election, not to mention Trump’s toxic narcissism. Comey’s major conclusion is that Trump is morally unfit to be president, and is quite possibly guilty of obstruction of justice necessitating the appointment of  perhaps yet another special prosecutor.

Media Opinion

Pundits who have not yet read the book…it just came out today (April 17th, 2018)…are critical of the excerpts they have seen, and interviews of Comey himself, because they find the descriptions of Trump’s urolagnia and enjoyment of Russian sex trade, tawdry, and thus unbecoming of Comey’s position as a former Director of the FBI (perhaps forgetting the first director). The mental image of the President of the United States of America titillated by watching two prostitutes urinate on a bed once used by Michelle and Barrack Obama, however true it might be, seems to be a picture too voyeuristic for television political junkies. On CNN, coming from this conservative nerd, it seems out of place, but within the description of the entire book, it is rendered more of a police blotter report, making one think the excerpt has been salaciously selected for best marketing.

The journalists all question Comey’s motives as a disgruntled employee, bent on getting even for the nasty way

384px-James_Comey_official_portraithe was fired.

The pundits quibble that he should not be talking at all because he is leaking classified information (he is not…some of this info has never been classified, and he is now a private citizen, thanks to Trump).

The talking heads seem to think he should just accept Trump’s dreadful epithets and lies, but Comey will not.

 

It is breath-taking how they expect the bar of behavior to be so incredibly higher for Comey than the one expected of Trump himself, who has actually called for (well, tweeted for) Comey’s immediate incarceration (trial? what trial? who needs a trial?).

Trump is claiming the former director of the FBI is exhibiting impropriety, uncivil behavior (for which Comey should be jailed?).  Partisan surrogates, otherwise known as Republicans, say ‘good riddance’ to an honest man.

Comey is accusing Trump of being morally unfit to be president, and in this even Comey’s detractors probably agree.

Dishonest?

Yes, they call him dishonest, while Trump calls him ‘Lyin’ Comey,’ apparently forgetting he applied this appellation to ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz’…you remember, that guy whose father, according to the dignified Trump, was an assassin of John F Kennedy.

In this book, the beginnings being a short auto-biography, Comey exposes with considerable transparency his craven behavior the night Ramsey the Rapist threatened him and his brother, reflected by his leaving his neighbor’s wife and daughter locked outside with the rapist during the melee. Fortunately, they were unharmed.

He also confesses his weaknesses. “Some of mine, as you’ll discover in this book, are that I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego. I’ve struggled with those my whole life.” Frankly, to the reader, this seems very much like the reverse or other side of some Dunning-Kruger effect applied to character rather than intelligence. I frankly see none of those faults.

Comey describes his own insecurities which culminate in one of his worst ever sins, trashing some unpopular kid’s dorm room in order to get along with his peers, “Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself,” he writes. Is this something Trump might write? You know better.

Comey is guilty of lying about his basketball prowess in order to avoid ubiquitous comments about his excessive height. “I don’t know why I did that. Maybe I was insecure. Maybe it was just easier.” You know to Trump and his surrogates, this will be the greatest lie ever.

Petty Descriptions

One of the biggest criticisms of the book is that Comey appears to belittle Trump based on his appearance, including Trump’s ridiculous hair, orange tanning outline to his eyes, and the question of Trump’s small whatever. Out of context, in the marketing excerpts, it does sound pretty petty, but within the book itself it is simply part of the paragraph of description of Comey’s first meeting with Trump. Nevertheless, one of the fascinating insights of the book is how the media scramble to find some egregious criticism…and this was it.

 

This was the first time I’d ever seen Donald Trump face-to-face. He appeared shorter than he seemed on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton. Otherwise, as I looked at the president-elect, I was struck that he looked exactly the same in person as on television, which surprised me because people most often look different in person. His suit jacket was open and his tie too long, as usual. His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his. I remember wondering how long it must take him in the morning to get that done. As he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.

Remember how it was portrayed on CNN? Here, this appears a description of someone, who, in 100 years, will be hopefully just a footnote.

Clinton

It is easy to see why Hillary is bitter about Comey, and Comey’s explanation of the email debacle is tricky, difficult to follow, but fascinating. It is hard for me to see this as attempts at self-aggrandizing, though; more likely naive expectations that he might effect some correction to what he saw as a flawed and unfair process for both himself and Clinton. It all depends on how much liberty you give the man. It could simply be a desperate struggle of someone trying to do the right thing when there was really no ‘right thing’.

The explanation, however, exposes a lot of misinformation of the pundits and talking heads, conjuring up rules of behavior that are undefined. But, as Comey writes, “There was much hysteria about how we were violating Justice Department rules and policies. Of course, there were no such rules and there had never been another situation in the middle of an election like this.”

It is notable that Chuck Schumer and Barrack Obama acknowledged the impossible position Comey was in. Comey was in a lose lose situation which the book explains moderately well, though you have to read this part carefully.

In Return

In contrast to the minor faults of the author which even people on his side of the argument try to exaggerate, the description of the president’s behavior is every ill that we have come to normalize about the most powerful leader in the world.

Trump is accused roundly in the media and by Comey of many things: egotistical in the extreme, ignorant of anything (let alone nuance) remotely related to governance, flagrantly and willfully dishonest, clearly immoral even by today’s loose  sexual revolution standards…but by far the worst characteristic which is not out and out illegal, Trump is really, really nasty.

Nasty

We saw some of that with his manipulation of the firing of Andrew McCabe, engineering the event to rid him of his pension just two days before the limits. We see it again when Trump turns a private conversation with McCabe (it is hard for decent people to read this passage):

Still in a fury at McCabe, Trump then asked him, “Your wife lost her election in Virginia, didn’t she?” “Yes, she did,” Andy replied. The president of the United States then said to the acting director of the FBI, “Ask her how it feels to be a loser” and hung up the phone.

McCabe’s wife is a pediatrician and Democrat who ran for public office and lost. The president of the USA is behaving like a hideous fourteen year old.

Nudged by the president on several occasions to swear some oath of loyalty to Trump,  Comey steadfastly declines. Trump fires Comey in the most petty, childish act possible, allowing him to discover his own loss of employment as TV monitors about the room in which Comey was addressing an audience of FBI staff displayed the announcement of Comey’s resignation, then swiftly it changed to Comey’s firing. Comey was mid-sentence when he saw this above his audience in California. Contrast this despicable example of Trump’s type of human interaction, with Comey’s subsequent and immediate consideration:

I told the audience, “Look, I’m going to go figure out what’s happening, but whether that’s true or not, my message won’t change, so let me finish it and then shake your hands.” I said, “Every one of you is personally responsible for protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution of the United States. We all have different roles, but the same mission. Thank you for doing it well.” I then moved among the employees, shaking every hand, and walked to a private office to find out what was happening.

This is leadership. Trump’s behavior is pure childish vindictiveness. All this for the man that Trump had openly praised only three months before, but Comey would not kiss Trump’s ring, and that was the non-kiss of death.

Trump’s attempt to insult and embarrass Comey even went so far as to deny Comey access to the FBI plane that brought him out to California, though the Deputy Director Andrew McCabe authorized Comey’s return by that flight, raising the fury of Trump that his childish sadistic prank was subverted.

Unfit

While Comey paints a picture of an impulsive, selfish, nasty, vengeful, ignorant imbecile in the country’s president, whose morals and treatment of people is despicable, Comey also builds a case for obstruction of justice with respect to Michael Flynn (over whom Trump tries to negotiate with Comey regarding Flynn’s illegal behavior) and to Trump’s  own alleged culpability in the Russian probe (trying to prevent Comey from pursuing the investigation into Russian meddling, and the distinct but currently alleged possibility of Trump’s election being illegitimate in the first place because of  collusion with Russian oligarchs).

Comey calls for a special prosecutor to find the tapes Trump referred to of Trump’s many conversations with his administration and possibly uncover a plot of obstruction of justice.

Without a doubt, the picture Comey paints of Trump is of an incredibly insecure  man devoid of ethical behavior or a desire to lead and filled with vituperative vengeance. Comey comes across as honest and transparent man dedicated to the law and protecting others from the bullies that made his own childhood miserable.

Does Comey come across as weak, as some partisan pundits argue? Well, he is taking on the most powerful man on earth who wants him jailed immediately without bothering with a trial. He is opposing his own political party. He has a past history now of taking on the most powerful woman in the USA in the pursuit of truth and the law.

No, he is not weak. Will he win? I doubt it, but I truly hope so.

Conclusion

I will add to this, and clean it up a bit, but there will be errors in my haste to get this out (the book went on sale yesterday, and I read it in a single twelve hour sitting, sidelined as I was by a knee injury). To this point in time, I see the media making some disparaging claims about the book which I attribute to the fact they have not yet read it…when put together as this is, the result is actually horrifying about the alleged behavior of the 45th president of the United States.

There is a curious unexplained entry which has, as yet, not been touched in the media.

First, in mid-June, the Russian government began dumping emails stolen from institutions associated with the Democratic Party. It began with entities calling themselves DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0. They were stolen emails intended to harm Clinton and the Democrats. This made very real the prospect that the classified material relating to Loretta Lynch might drop at any moment, not decades from now. [Emphasis added.] As noted earlier, the release of that material, the truth of which we had not verified, would allow partisans to argue, powerfully, that the Clinton campaign, through Lynch, had been controlling the FBI’s investigation.

The potential exposure of unverified classified information about Loretta Lynch seems to have altered Comey’s thinking about what to tell the American people, but we may never know how, nor just what that material was.

My own conclusion is that Comey’s primary reason for this production is to call for the investigation of a man whom he believes may be dishonest, illegitimate, criminal and possibly treasonous. James Comey is the former director of the FBI, former Deputy Attorney General of the country, and a man known by his friends, acquaintances and enemies as honorable, honest, moral and yes stubborn. I think Comey is right, and I think we should all buy and read his book. The counter-punch is coming as soon as Trump gets someone to read and translate the best parts to him.

By far, the most startling statement in the entire book, one that runs a chill up your spine and essentially commands all Americans, and many others around the world, to read this book:

Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation. We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty. We are fortunate some ethical leaders have chosen to serve and to stay at senior levels of government, but they cannot prevent all of the damage from the forest fire that is the Trump presidency. Their task is to try to contain it.

This, from a man heretofore well known for his integrity and honesty, a man who was the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and formerly the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, a man who was praised frequently by both sides, and a man who, mistakenly or not, did what HE thought was right, a slave perhaps to his own righteousness, even though he must have known the incredible dangers.

The stuff that gets me the most is the claim that I am in love with my own righteousness, my own virtue.

But you should be in love with your own righteousness, when you think about it. You should want to protect it at all costs, even your career. You should be proud of your own righteousness. God knows Comey has earned it. Can ANYONE say the same of Donald Trump?

Buy the book. If you Americans love your country, buy the damn book.

Sure, this will make him money…he’s going to need it.

 

Notes

 

Comey, James. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.  ISBN 978-1-250-19246-2

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A Level Playing Field for Capitalism

800px-Chimpanzee_and_stick
Early use of tools

The Child Grows Up

I learned, very young, not to use my precocious mesomorphic stature to ‘beat up’ on the competition in the schoolyard. Youngest in a family of three boys, living in the back woods of southern Ontario, rough and tumble play gave way to down-right nastiness, until that fateful day I found myself dominating my eldest brother. It was a shock to us both, I being fourteen years old, he nineteen. And although he would forever tower over me in my mind, he was already diminutive on my path to 5’ 11 3/4”. His 5’ 6” just didn’t cut it.

We had passed the level playing field unnoticed some time before, and this test of strength found him face down in the yard, with me holding him in a hammer-lock. It proved a Pyrrhic victory.

“Go ahead. Break it,” he growled through the dirt, rather than capitulate, and my own conquest melted away in my horror. I was defeated by my own sense of fairness, of decency (there are those who say I should have broken his arm then and there). In an instant it was obvious this would never again be a ‘fair fight,’ just as it had never been a fair fight during all those years that I had suffered.

But then, we never fought again; his abuse of me became one that earns the ninth level of Dante’s inferno (treachery), rather than simply the seventh (violence).

I was a peculiar child, introverted in spite of obvious athleticism, lost in my thoughts and aware of my intelligence which blessedly loomed larger as well.

Lucky Advantages

It was about this very moment that I drew the analogy of strength as an unfair and undeserved advantage, to intelligence as a cudgel I also must not abuse. I actually reasoned, philosophically at fourteen, eschewing philosophy publicly for the rest off my life, that to ‘beat up’ on someone intellectually was just as bad as to do so physically.

I was a peculiar child. Thoughts like this should not have surfaced for at least forty years.

Since then I have watched the constant tennis match between the Left and the Right, the spectator calmly rotating his head back and forth following the long rallies.

Pock, pock.

Survival of the fittest because incentives work. Capitalism.

Pock. Pock.

Universal basic income because nothing works. Socialism.

Pock, pock.

We used to have a dog, a large Springer Spaniel, that would chase our tennis balls in those halcyon summer days before courts had ball-encompassing wire fences. The dog’s incentive was a morsel of white bread. WonderBread, in fact. The balls would come back a little slimy, sometimes canine punctured, especially when the bread was stale, but dutifully dropped in the centre of the court.

Milly_Springer_Spaniel
Retrieving is what I do!

That is, until we ran out of bread. Curiously, then the balls started disappearing, hidden deep in the surrounding forest, only to reappear the next day when we came with a new supply of fresh bread.

Incentives work, and the damn dog was beating up on us intellectually.

I needed a level playing field with my brothers, my schoolmates, and even my dog.

The polarization of the political landscape in the USA has captured my attention for these last fifteen months. Distracted by that orange orangutan who inhabits the building we Canadians desperately tried to burn down in 1814, my thoughts have turned obsessively, repeatedly, to solutions that might bring those opposing political ideologies together.

Capitalism works, but gouges deep caverns out of playing fields, creating socioeconomic gaps which destabilize the populace. As a spectator in a country that enjoys its socialism without daring to call it socialism, that enjoys universal health care which does not suppress business development, that enjoys a moderately effective safety net, that enjoys a democratic government which actually has a process for extirpating orange orangutans who accidentally gain ascendancy…we Canadians collectively watch the ball going back and forth, in that country to our south.

Pock. Pock.

Contradictory Platform

I fantasize running for some political office in the USA, standing on a dais in front of a crowd as a Democratic candidate and fool them all by cheering on Capitalism. 350px-Roll_call_DNC_2008Let the race begin. Survival of the fittest. Spoils to the winner. Work hard and make it big, the American Dream.

But…

Start from a level playing field. Start with the basics as equivalent as possible: intelligence, education, health, safety. Then fire the starting gun and let them go.

House them comfortably and nourish them, keeping families together with dignity. Educate them as far as they can productively progress. Secure their minds and their bodies with universal, free health care. Provide them with basic room and board. Keep them safe.

Then let them compete for the largesse. Some will innovate, work hard, get rich by the sweat of their brow. Some will discover cures and stars and ideas. Some will entertain. Some will govern. And all will be paid accordingly. But all will start, at the very least, with the basic health and education, room and board, safety and governance, under a progressive tax system which still maintains substantial incentives.

Remove inheritance. Reduce class divides. Remove the initial imbalances. Include many more people in the workforce at appropriate levels of ability.

Socialism Through Capitalism

Capitalism, with a level playing field. Capitalism without the handicaps. Capitalism without the cheating. Capitalism without the poverty, without the monstrous gap. Capitalism without personal empire. Capitalism with nobody left behind.

There are those who would say that some will freeload. Some will simply enjoy subsistence living. Drugs and a life of crime offset by policing and governance. Well, so what? At least you don’t have that guilt of the uncaring middle-class.

There are those who will claim it is against God’s commandments. There are those who will say, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ever the harking call of the strange business-Evangelical bedfellows (1.) who want wealth redistribution wrested from big government and given, far more cheaply, to big religion where it belongs. Soup kitchens dragging in the faithless indolent to become the faithful penitent, amounts to the ‘right’ type of progress.

There are those who would claim the right to perpetuate family dynasties. Tell them they should earn it at each generation. Or show them the orange orangutan, and ask if family dynasty truly helped him.

There are those who would say it cannot be afforded, it is too costly. They forget it is already happening, or that they claim it is. The undeserving poor are getting health care, education, room, board, one way or another, but without the dignity commensurate to those who ‘earn it.’

To a very real extent, physical strength and intellectual quotient are, largely, pure dumb luck. No one of us provides our own nature or nurture which causes either inborn trait to excel. Both can be improved within narrow limits. Both can be destroyed within no-so-narrow limits. If you want FAIR incentives to reward invention, determination, hard work, and unswerving focus, you have to start out equal…or as close to equal as possible. If you want FAIR  incentives.

Capitalism from a level playing field. Socialism with nice big morsels of fresh WonderBread. Just don’t call it socialism.

  1. Kruse, Kevin M., One Nation Under God, How Corporate America Invented Christian America, ISBN-13: 978-0465049493. Basic Books, New York, 2015

Post-script: “People confuse intelligence with value.” Jordan B. Peterson. Yes, this is part of the problem. We should view intelligence more like we do strength; even there the value is becoming questionable over time.

 

 

Morality and God. Part II

 

 

Prevailing_world_religions_map

Distribution of World Religions

 

 

While writing Part I of this essay the other day, I had an epiphany (a moment of sudden revelation, not a manifestation of something divine). I thought I’d better write it down before I forget…I am of that age. So if there is some repetition here, from Part I, forgive me, but this is important (maybe all of you already know). It suddenly struck me that…

God is an Atheist Hoax!

One of the most irksome and unsupported bits of Jabberwocky is the idea that non-theists (atheists, agnostics, etc.) have no morality on which to base their lives. No one has ever successfully demonstrated a causal link between lack of religious belief and immoral behaviour, although a logical association is certainly possible to conjure up, and the correlation is certainly obvious, and for good reason. When you go looking for law-abiding people, you tend to find them among groups dedicated to abiding laws.

But we all know that correlation does not equal causation, and to extrapolate to the idea that non-theists are immoral is illogical. To conclude that non-theists cannot be moral is ridiculous, and there are lots (billions) of counter-examples. Examining the issue conclusively is probably a waste of time. There are simply too many confounding issues.

Human History and Law/Morality

The earliest evidence for something human is millions of years ago. Various forms of our pre-historic ancestors date back 1 to 3 million years. Our modern form of human, bipedal, increased brain size, with longer childhoods and decreased differences in gender appearance (sorry ladies, apparently ancient hominids were more feminine, or at least, more easily differentiated from males), leading to social learning, language and other cultural pursuits, developed no less than 50,000 years ago. It took a while to get out of the hunter-gatherer stage, but about 10,000 years ago civilizations, in terms of agriculture and communal living, began to develop.

The timing is mildly important, because the laws as codified in the Bible and set down on paper (or papyrus, or stone, I suppose), were written about three thousand years ago. And yet, historical evidence of formal laws date back to four or five thousand years. While the Old Testament dates back to about 1200 BC, parallel civilizations in Greece, Egypt, Rome, India, China and Mesopotamia all had codes of behaviour.

The point is, there is good reason to believe humans are capable of producing, and indeed did produce laws to live by long before the god of the bible gave his rules to Moses.

Alternative Explanation

Suppose there is no god to hand down rules. Almost by definition, the final arbiter of rules to live by, if you are inclined to believe in an absolute morality, is God. This, at least, is the argument given by William Lane Craig. Existence of absolute morality implies a god. In fact, this argument is circular because existence of absolute morality is God.

I cannot really think of any other method of getting to absolute morality. Could there be a supreme sets of laws somewhere that has no living embodiment, no intellectual existence? If there were, one could never prove it, not without some live (even if historical) being to defend it.

Could there be two supreme intelligences, both giving different accounts of an absolute morality. This is even more complicated than one god, and puts the definition of supreme in question. So lets agree for the moment that absolute morality and God are essentially the same thing.

Non-Theists and Relative Morality

We all ‘feel’ that there is a right and a wrong to most, if not all questions. Sometimes, in fact, we are sorely puzzled by the position taken by others, and we look to colleagues to agree with us, essentially expecting such agreement out of hand. It may be that this feeling of knowing, this empathy or understanding of some human plight, is basic to our biochemistry and DNA. Or it simply may be tacit, almost subliminal, learning, often by modelling behaviour from those we know, respect and love.

This overwhelming feeling of ‘knowing’, what I have referred to (metaphorically) in the past as ‘listening to the voice of God,’ may indeed be a stimulus to concluding the existence of absolute morality, and thus that God exists.

I have argued, also in the past, as have others in publications, that morality is a result of natural selection and communal living. Rules of behaviour leading to control of anarchy and chaos tend to improve the survival of communities and thus promote the dissemination of DNA. Such sensations as empathy, guilt and fairness would then lead to a general understanding of what is considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ without really thinking about it much, reinforcing that feeling of some ‘voice of God’.

Morality thus arises in us as a selection advantage.

Short-Cuts to Morality

We were all, once upon a time, non-theists. We may have thought periodically that maybe some god existed because we didn’t understand things like thunder and lightning, but at some point, formal theology didn’t exist.

Gradually all these non-theists evolved morally, and taught their children and their community members. But, as always, a group or groups misbehaved, and would not respond to general rules. “So you say…but I believe otherwise.” With all the work to be done, who has time to explain the need for communal behaviour to these recalcitrant and miscreants? So the non-theists used threats of violence, and punishment, but implementation was always a problem that could only be settled by more threats of violence and chaos.

“You need to do this.”

“Who says?” Bingo.

“God says.” Brilliant. In one fell swoop, a whole bunch of problems can be addressed.

Atheists created God in order to keep theists in line. And it worked. The theists took the bait, hook, line and sinker. They ran with it.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The non-theists returned to their fields, content they had taken care of law and order, and the theists ran with it. The concepts of God and redemption, forgiveness and sin, Hell and everlasting torment, Heaven and everlasting paradise, all became carrots and sticks for new theists who needed moral tutelage. Before we knew it, the whole thing had run amok.

Hundreds of religions, sects, cults, hundreds of rules monitored and implemented by clever people who saw a sinecure. A whole new industry of largesse. A whole new industry of control . Methods to keep people in line, to obtain power, to control entry into the elite, to justify inequities like slavery and economic gaps, anti-democratic power distribution.

Subtle refinements, such as supporting the poor and the sick gave justification to protection from taxation or military service, influence peddling and power-mongering.

And the ever-present promise of forgiveness, if only you would choose the right church, the right religion.

Survival of the fittest lead to survival of the church, using the same basic rules. If you take the fears and exploit them, create a political base of believers, you can win by force of ‘conscience’ others to your side by supporting their favourite cause: white nationalism, jingoism, racism, anti-Semitism, even slavery and elitism. Even anti-science disdain for experts. Even excuses for property hoarding, misogyny and other inequities and iniquities. Even protection of paedophiles because the image of the church is more important than anything secular.

Even war: “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Religion is the great recruiter. Only family competes successfully with religion when it comes to recruiting for a fight.

So the original good idea of using an all-powerful all-knowing god to enforce rules of civil behaviour in people who do not feel the empathy required for fairness and ethical or moral behaviour has been used by those self-same guiltless heartless people to achieve their own goals. Of course, not every theist is a psychopath. Very few, in fact. Most are good-hearted kindly people who have been gathered up by all these arguments, who believe earnestly in the idea of loving their neighbour and helping where they can. They believe non-theists about them will suffer badly if they do not comply and convert. They are full of good intentions, with their eyes firmly fixed on the values and morals of the past, of the original contractual obligation with the non-existent god. A few will recognize it for what it is, a hoax, though very few will see that the hoax was originally the atheist’s hoax. And maybe the original huckster thought, “Maybe there is a god, and if there is, he would do this, providing a tool to control the community. Maybe the idea of the god is faulty, but you have to admit, the tool it is a great idea.”

And little by little, people would add to the tool, to promote ideas they favoured (celibacy of priests, once they’d had their fun), to remove adversaries from positions of power (excommunication of non-believers), to promote friends in high places (royalty by divine right), to advance their personal views of moral behaviour (protection from legal consequences for people discriminating against homosexuals), to control competing religions (entry into heaven only through Jesus Christ).

Religion As A Tool

Viewing religion as a tool to solve community control issues addresses a number of problems. It clarifies a powerful incentive to the development and continuation of an idea which has no visible evidence. People support this idea of organized religion because it works, because it has worked in the passed, and because many others agree.

It explains why there are religions in most cultures on earth, whether they be theistic or not, because of its civil order need. If one geographical section of the world was largely out of reach, it developed a parallel but similar structure to control its people, a different religion.

It explains why something with virtually no evidence can persist in the minds of intelligent people. But it also explains why the strength of its arguments falters as the populace becomes more educated.

It explains the need to proselytise. It explains the desire to encompass all. It explains the incredible popularity of religion. It explains the public display of what many might expect to be a very personal relationship, the believer and God. Non-believers need to believe, or need to be seen to believe. Even non-believers know they need to be seen to believe.

It explains why religion cannot change, because God had to be always right to provide absolute morality to all people. After all, absolute morality cannot change…it’s absolute. It explains why holy books can never be revised. It explains why certain contentious parts of the Bible get ignored.

The tool is weakened by disbelief, by non-acceptance. So impossible parts of the story are skipped, contentious parts are reinterpreted, certain policies are characterized as parables, myths, fantsies or literary devices.

“We don’t stone people for apostacy.”

“But the Bible says…,”

“No. No. That’s just literary license.”

“Well, how am I going to figure out what is correct, God damn it…”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in …” and punishment is applied.

Yes, viewing religion as a tool explains its popularity, its past almost total acceptance, its intransigence, as well as its inconsistencies.

God is an atheist hoax. And it got away from us. Boy, did it get away from us.

Morality and God. Part 1

William_Lane_Craig
William Lane Craig

This blogpost was published last year, lost, and now rebound. To err is human, but if you really want to screw up, you need a computer.

 

 

 

Dangerous Man?

William Lane Craig argues that he has proved there is a god, that god teaches that homosexual activity is abhorrent and that therefore it is right and proper to condemn the behavior, if not the gender preference. He is somewhat more modern than many, or at least he reduces his cross-sectional area as a target, by pointing out that nowhere in the Bible does it say that being a homosexual is bad;  rather that homosexual activity is bad. Homosexuals, then, must abstain to be good people. Craig does seem to admit that homosexuality is not the gay person’s choice, but nevertheless, this is their cross to bear, unfairly perhaps (but who ever said God was fair: certainly not Job, nor Abraham, nor even Jesus, really).

 

The two criteria are that according to the absolute morality given to us by God, we must eschew homosexual behavior, and that there really is a God who defines this absolute morality.

 

It is an interesting position to take, to claim to be moral by doing God’s bidding. Craig is clever enough to consider a…to him hypothetical…thought experiment.

 

What if God Does Not Exist?

One of Craig’s arguments appears to be that absolute morality exists and therefor God exists. To show that absolute morality exists he appeals to emotion; torturing babies is bad…everyone agrees (well, everyone except baby torturers, I suppose).

 

But I would like him to imagine that there is no God, and then answer the following question? Is torturing babies no longer bad?

 

Let’s pretend he says torturing babies is still bad, then his line of reasoning that morality comes from God loses some support, the quantum of which is dependent on just how good he is at imagining stuff. Here, he would have to admit that the morality he relies upon is coming from humans, not God. He will deny this and say he cannot put the specter of God out of his mind sufficiently to rid himself of God’s absolute morality.

 

OK.

 

Try anyway. Consider the state of affairs where there never was any God, and two people on the desert island are told that a baby is about to be tortured. One is told he must oppose such an evil act, or he will be immediately shot in the head and killed. He complies, and his behavior in this test is consistent with a moral person. The other is told nothing of the sort, simply asked what he thinks, and let’s suppose his answer too, is consistent with the behavior of a moral person.

 

Assuming you can quantify morality, and I guess you can, who is the more moral?

 

I do think Craig, and most sentient people, would argue in favor of the guy who makes the right decision without the gun to his head. Well, Dr. Craig, that is the atheist. The first guy, the one who needs a gun to keep him moral, is the theist (I admit that not all theists require this coaxing. In fact, I think most theists would be quite moral without God, they just don’t realize it). God was created by atheists (among others) to keep the rest of the populace in check, as a quick method of teaching morality. Atheists knew that people needed something, something to keep them on the straight and narrow, so they created God. And it worked. Sort of. It was not our greatest invention, but it served its purpose.

 

The above is hyperbole, clearly, but the point is that the person who requires hell and damnation to be moral, is not moral, they are simply rule-abiding and risk aversive. In fact, the guy who only occasionally tortures babies is more moral than the guy who never does this because of the gun, but who would always do this if God did not exist.

 

Rules of civil behavior have developed over time, and pre-dated the Bible by at least a thousand years. It’s hard to argue that such civil behavior was demanded by God before the Ten Commandments, or rules in Leviticus, because prior to that is seems God had not voiced His concerns. Thus there is every reason to think some people, including all those who never heard of God, live on another planet, can’t read, or whatever…there is every reason to think some people figured out some semblance of morality before being taught by a deity. History tells us that rules of law pre-dated the Bible, anyway.

 

Animals Have Rules

Look at animals. Those who spend any time with animals can see evidence of love and nurturing, as a mother and newborn, certainly among the mammals at least. Such bonds clearly develop between dogs and their owners, and while I realize the anthropomorphic attributes we project onto them are problematic, many of us, myself included, have been helped by our pets. As a young boy, my dog tried to pull me out of a fast running river.

 

Of course, among the carnivorous animals (which includes us), there is a competition of behavior. Eating your enemy is a pretty efficient way of a gaining a useful quantity of energy. But rampant cannibalism is held in check by…what? By rules of civil behavior. By instinct. By species memory or whatever instinct turns out to be. By social learning.

 

There is a component of volition in instinct, as opposed to reflex, and sometimes the drive can get muddied, as in breathing, for example. Or sex. Or eating. No one seems to question these issues of instinct or inherited memory, but somehow civil behavior is interpreted by theists as taught by God. We atheists often suffer the “Oh, how can you have a moral code if you don’t believe in God?” Bigotry much?  Since God ‘taught it’, there must be absolute morality. This leads to the circular argument that God creates absolute morality, and thus there is an absolute morality, and because there is an absolute morality, God must exist (do I need to provide the reference for that one?).

 

But no one seems to question that animals, in the varied hierarchy of life, show evidence of instinctual behavior, of volition, of empathy and nurturing, of friendship and even of codes of civil behavior. Do animals listen to the voice of God? Well, I suppose the theist can argue about that, and I have no idea what the Franciscans might say, but if you think, as I do, that ‘the voice of God’ is a metaphor for our code of behavior, I would say, “Yeah,” animals have a code which they consider, and which is subject to their own volition, and which varies from species to species as well as from individual to individual.

 

If humans get theirs from God, where do animals get it?

 

Let’s back up a bit. A lot of Craig’s argument seems to centre on the existence of absolute morality. But is there such a thing, really?

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Unless God tells you to, in some sort of indemnification by divine command. Unless you are defending yourself, which to the best of my knowledge does not show up in the bible. And when this commandment was handed down (written in stone, no less, just to emphasize the point), there was no equivocation about the perp stealing, or murdering, or messing around with someone else’s husband (remember, there are gender distinctions in the Bible…this degree of punishment is pretty straight forward for the female…if you can define what female is, which is a whole other story). Thou shalt not kill is pretty absolute. And yet, very few God-fearing individuals quibble with it in all circumstances.

 

War, punishment, self-defense, treason. All of these are stimuli for looking the other way when it comes to this commandment, this absolute morality. In fact, it seems to me that the only time the theist really complains about justifiable killing is when it is done in order to help the person being killed, as with the relief of pain and suffering. Very strange, don’t you think?

 

Slavery

Is keeping slaves contrary to some absolute morality? Certainly the bible, the word of God, mentions slaves several times, though never that I am aware of in some way that suggests slavery is wrong.

 

And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. Leviticus 19:20 (KJV)

 

We certainly accept this to be wrong now, and have done so for the last 200 years (well, 150 or less for the Americans) though most people are hard-pressed to see the obvious slavery inherent in the socioeconomic ‘gap’.

 

One can safely infer that absolute morality has changed. To me, this means it is not absolute. [Please, biblical scholars, don’t quibble that slaves are different from bondmaids. Other translations of the bible call them slaves in the spirit of literary honesty, and the author of the bible could have given his writing more clarity, if he had been concerned about misinterpretation.]

 

Relative Morality

Moral relativism asserts that different groups have different codes of conduct, and that there is no absolute morality. The problem with denying absolute morality is that religious apologists lose their best circular argument for the existence of God. And unfortunately, I believe that is what guides their arguments. Instead of reviewing the facts to develop the conclusion, they appear intent on finding the ‘facts’ that support their conclusion.

 

But we all know that torturing babies is wrong (though we treat neonatal cancers and leukemia). And that killing is wrong (though we defend ourselves to the point of lethal force). And that keeping slaves is wrong (though on this the bible does not seem to concur). And that homosexuality is wrong (though we don’t know how to define same-sex intercourse, because we really don’t know how to exhaustively define gender. See second half of LGBT).

 

Where Does Morality Come From?

When we think of morality, it seems to me most of us are thinking about some internal guide, some innate knowledge that certain things are wrong. Not simply that God declares it wrong. To be truly moral, we have to feel that it is wrong. Like those two guys on the desert island. What I like to call, “Listen to the voice of God,” in part because it confuses my theist friends. Morality, to me anyway, is not simply a list of rules, but is an instinctual or learned deep seated knowledge that some behavior should not be carried out.

 

How did we get it, those of us who have it, those non-sociopathic members of our society.  To answer that we learned from our parents, and others in our community, is ducking the question. To say ‘God gave it to us’ is the result of our arrogance that we think we should be able to explain everything (and when we cannot, it must be God). I think it is evolution. I think there is random variation in possible behavior with respect to morality, and that the selection advantage of Darwinian evolutionary theory promotes communal living as an survival improvement over isolationism. The survival of the community of fittest beats out the survival of the fittest every time.

 

We evolved to be moral, though it is by far a work in progress, and is easily subverted. We evolved toward moral behavior. And then we started teaching our children. How much is in the gene, and how much is in the meme, I don’t know. But given that memes may be hard things for other animals to develop, I would have to guess there must be a lot in the biochemistry and physiology. All for the general purpose (anthropomorphizing again) of promoting our DNA.

 

Jared Diamond points out (Guns, Germs and Steel) that getting people of the same religious faith to spill blood for you is the next most successful recruiting device to getting family to fight for you. Which, by the way, may well be the selection advantage of theism over atheism.

 

Why Do I Think WLC Is Dangerous?

I have spent a lifetime interviewing people and quickly getting a measure of them by appearance, behavior, ideas, body language, education, demeanor and so much more. I have probably treated close to 25,000 patients in the course of my career, and have interacted with many times that in terms of family. It is rare indeed that my initial impressions prove wrong.

 

I have listened now to several talks, debates and speeches given by WLC, and while I have heard of disagreement from others, I really find him to be amiable, pleasant, and kind. I know, as with any prominent individual, that opinions will vary, and I am aware that some find fault with him, his education in spite of two PhDs, his logic (which I also question, well, mostly his premises), and his tactics in debates. I do know that I am at one extreme of people who truly have to find something egregious and undeniable about someone before I relegate them to the categories of nasty and indecent.

 

So, I think I would quite like WLC if I met him, recognizing that such an opinion necessarily is shallow. So what. I don’t like everybody, but largely because I don’t know everybody.

 

But I think William Lane Craig is dangerous, as many moderate theists are, because the moderates provide guidance and shielding for the radicals.

 

I can’t get away from the feeling that if WLC were convinced there was no god, no higher authority, he might well make up his own mind that homosexuality and homosexual behavior is not immoral. Although I have read or heard him make some highly questionable and derogatory statements about disease in homosexuals related to sexual behavior, setting those rather breath-taking misunderstandings of the medical and physiological aspects aside (as examples, I suppose, of trying to find facts to support your conclusions), with time he might come to accept that there is no inherent immorality in homosexual behavior. But as it stands now, his view of the existence of a God which has condemned homosexuality as an abomination, essentially by Divine Command, can lead to hate crimes in people who believe WLC.

 

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus 20:13 (KJV)

 

Combine that with WLC’s reported acceptance of genocide as justified by Divine Command Theory, it is not so much of a stretch to think some misguided disciple of WLC could use an AK-47 on a gay night-club.

 

William Lane Craig would consider such an horrific action to be, itself, an abomination, but I think he would still have blood on his hands. Words matter; words are powerful; unintended consequences can be predicted sometimes. I just don’t think it is worth all the sophistry.

 

The Art of the Deal

Religion Promotes Slavery.

 

One Nation

This book is reviewed elsewhere on this blogsite, by the author, and underscores the ‘marriage’ of Business and Religious Right Book Review

 

We have this argument on some sites of Face Book. Some theists insist that the Bible does not support slavery. Puzzling to those of us who actually read the thing from time to time.

 

Exodus 21: 7  “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free.”

Ephesians 6: 5 “As for slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling and with sincere devotion to Christ.”

“Leviticus 25:45 You can also buy them from the foreign guests who live with you and from their extended families that are with you, who were born in your land. These can belong to you as property. 46 You can pass them on to your children as inheritance that they can own as permanent property.”

 

Arguments that usually follow are that ‘it was the time’ or ‘scribes never had the power to rid the bronze age world of slaves and the best they could do was offer suggested regulations.’ It appears that one argument is good for one situation, the opposite for another. That’s what ends up making the Bible the inerrant word of God at the same time it is also a metaphor for life, or a description of the times.

 The truth is that the ‘marriage’ of religion and right-wing capitalism is self-serving. Without support for the poor in society beyond the hand-outs from the church, Business and Clerics can support the gap with their own brand of morality:

 1.     If you work hard, God will reward you. Poor? They didn’t work hard.

2.     Big government, big enough to support the poor, is not Republican, and is against the Ten Commandments which tells us not to steal from one to give to another. So Socialism is bad because it is against God’s will.

3.     The church is valuable because they take care of the poor, with soup kitchens, religious hospitals that can continue to promote the necessary ‘good news’ Gospel (brain-washing). Government assuming this role undermines religious efforts.

4.     Accumulation of wealth can thus remain in the small handful of elite, and the church, and if inheritance within families of the clergy takes too much away from the church, well, make them celibate.

5.     God provides the absolute morality, and there is no morality without God. Thus non-theists cannot tell you how to live, and the Ten Commandments promotes the gap: you cannot steal, or covet, the way you might if there were no morality…but at the same time, there is no solution for those who starve to death outside of help from the church and hand-outs from the elite. ‘Thou shalt share your wealth with those less fortunate,’ is not one of the Ten Commandments. It’s in the lesser teachings of the Bible, and is not a commandment, so not enforceable.

Let’s look at number five a bit. Non-theists argue that there is no absolute morality, that laws represent what we should do, and even more than that, our fairness and polite behaviour, not dictated by state determined laws, but inherent in us all, arises out of  historical teaching by parents and elders, out of innate tendencies developed through evolution such as grief and empathy. Only a small percentage of people are born without internal mechanisms of guilt, and are usually referred to as psychopaths, or sociopaths. Many of us suspect that this ‘guilt’ is inherited, that the trait has become prominent through teaching, literature, history and evolution (of memes and genes). Non-theists argue that our morality comes to us through logic and consensus. All of this development enhances communal living which carries a selection advantage in adaptation and evolution. 

But let’s go back to the original state. Humans, like animals, presumably had no qualms about stealing and raping to produce support their progeny. This was neither right nor wrong, before any form of morality ensued.

Need bread for your child? Steal it. Kill the owner if you have to, but life is paramount, and nothing says this behaviour is wrong. Need to procreate, to satisfy that intense instinct which promotes your DNA, select a mate: by seduction, by sharing, by protection, by force, whichever way works. Life is paramount.

As the theists keep telling us, with relative morality, there is nothing wrong with this. I agree…ten thousand or more years ago, when it really was ‘dog eat dog’.

But we gave up that behaviour on a deal. We developed a system where everybody would abide by the rules, and in return, everyone would survive.

‘Don’t go killing and raping, and everyone will live comfortably.’ This is the basis of codified moral development.

But the marriage of religious and the elite, of an example as in “One Nation Under God,” the economic gap which started in slavery and continues in ‘White Privilege,’ and class privilege, has diminished the second part of the deal with caveats, with contingencies and conditionals.

If you don’t get an education, stay poor. If you don’t work hard, stay homeless. If you don’t get born into the right family, stay out of the board rooms. If you don’t belong to the religion that supports laissez-faire capitalism, stay apolitical.

Maintain irrational religion to provide the opiate for the 99%, and maintain the gap to support the American Dream. The USA was not built on freedom, it was built on slavery: imported as thousands of Blacks from Africa, with lip service and temporary concessions to the millions of Black American slaves in 1865, and continued spread of enslavement to the non-elite, non-class, non-rich so that some lucky fellow born to the right family, with the right religion, and an inheritance load of money and class and privilege, can scrabble to the top of the dung heap because they ‘worked so hard.’ 

This is the true source of absolute morality: ‘If you won’t share your comfort, we will take it,’ is countered by, ‘That would be a sin.’ And so the second half of the great deal to promote communal living, that part where the less fortunate are afforded comfort because they promise not to rape and steal, is abrogated by the souls who have reached the peak and wish to stay there, by those who desperately do NOT want a level playing field to start with.

The elite: ‘There is a GOD, and there is an absolute morality, so you cannot save your lives by stealing and raping and killing.’

 The downtrodden: ‘But life is paramount,’ they cry.

The Elite: ‘Not yours.’

The downtrodden: ‘But we made deal.’

The Elite: ‘With God and absolute morality, who needs a deal.’

 

 

God’s Will

I recently posted this on a FaceBook page with a limited audience. The topic was God’s Will, and it reminded me of my task to publish Harold’s book, which is almost ready:

 

GODSWILL.jpeg

 

GOD’S WILL

This novel contains two novellas, the first about the Plague, other wise known as the Black Death; the second is a similar story about the beginnings of HIV/AIDS. These two novellas were written by the author in 1996

 

Copyright 2016 Orlando Harold Warwick

 

Coming soon!

 

 

 

Soon enough, I’ll get back to this, once I am sure Trump is not going to start a nuclear war.

But I did want to keep this comment I recently made elsewhere, about:

 

God’s Will

Just a comment about atrocities and God’s will. I worked in cancer treatment for 43 years, and I saw all manner of trauma and misery. I worked before the advent of oral meds for pain control, and even when those medications finally came, while they quell the suffering, they do not come close to ending the suffering. The people who expressed some interest in God’s interaction with this dreadful disease were church leaders, priest, chaplains, pastors, and religious evangelists, visitors to the patients who suffered. It was rarely the patient themselves.

Only twice do I remember an experience where a patient expressed trust in religion as a source of comfort. One was a Jehovah’s witness, over twenty years ago, who died refusing blood transfusions which could have saved him until the oral medications I put him on for chronic leukemia had a chance to take effect; he would have survived many years, but he died in hypotensive shock when his hemoglobin reached twenty percent of normal. He would be alive today. I tried everything, even that old story of the man on the roof during a flood who declines every attempt to save him by those around him, only to be told after his death, by God, “What do you want? I sent a truck, I sent a raft, I sent a boat, I even sent a helicopter.” Yes, I lied. I told him perhaps God had sent me. You have to work with what you have.

The second was a Carmelite nun who stopped me in the hall, in joyous rapture because her breast cancer had come back, and she would soon, “Be taken by God.”

While my heart goes out to these people in their personal hell, I remember reflecting on the fact that not one of them had any idea what their decisions to resist treatment were doing to their doctor. Now, my trauma was minuscule compared to theirs, even after 25,000+ patients in my career (the vast majority who suffered while taking the correct treatments). But apart from these rare ones whose deaths were contributed to by their beliefs, I took great solace, as did some of my patients, to understand that there was no god doing this to people. God did not hate them, because He did not exist.

Were God to exist, I would have to conclude that He hates me.

Evaluating Evidence: Oncologists Do It Best

NormalThere is one crucial area of thought, one discipline where the vast majority of people could really use some education, and they are not getting it. You can see it everywhere. Some of the world’s most prominent and respected people are just really bad at it, have never been taught how to do it, and for the most part, do not need it.

Or they don’t think they need it, but a lack of understanding in this crucial area is leading to all manner of problems.

Evaluating evidence.

It sounds easy enough. We do it every day. We take in data, and try to predict what is going to happen, we get it wrong and reassess, and then stumble along doing it all over again.

Gradually, some enterprising individuals learn to put some order into it, learning that cloudy days may require an umbrella, or a flirtatious look and smile may be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. We come by that sort of thing naturally, without thought, but the lack of thought is what gives us away.

There are days when the cloudy skies mean snow, and days when that ‘look’ was for the guy behind you.

Politicians and Intellectual Ability

Political animals usually are smarter than average. The defined mean of Intelligence Quotient is 100, and most people who get into high school (though not necessarily out) have at least this much. There is a broad distribution, estimated by the typical ‘Bell Curve’ or normal or Gaussian distribution depicted above. Such probability distributions describe the variations of intelligence (and many other randomly organized characteristics), although the skewing of the underlying shape can look quite different. Generally, there is a lot of the population around the mean (average), tapering out to much smaller numbers at either end.

People reading about this often become defensive, thinking somehow that they are responsible for whatever level of failure or success they have in this area. While I know the brain is like a muscle in many respects, the more you think the smarter you get, most people are completely innocent of their particular level of intelligence. Knowledge is another thing, but even with knowledge, the level of acquisition of knowledge is related in many ways to what you were born with, and there is not a lot you can do about what you were born with.

People with IQs of 80 or less should not feel guilty about their abilities, any more than short people should blame themselves for not being able to dunk a basketball. But since only ten to fifteen percent of individuals have IQs in this range, for most it is not really an excuse to misunderstand the evaluation of evidence if they work at it a bit.

Politicians have the ability to understand evidence, as does the vast majority of the population.

But it is what you do with what you’ve got that is important, not what you were born with.

Evaluating Evidence Can be Tricky

There are, of course, wide variations in success of evaluating evidence, which do trend toward a correlation with intelligence, but if you never focus on the issue, lots of times you don’t know what you don’t know. Necessity, though, is the mother of invention.

Years ago, physicians caring for people with malignancy had a hard time figuring out what therapies helped, and what didn’t. In some disciplines, success of treatment can be recognized by simple observation. Common practice demonstrated pretty quickly that immobilizing a fracture was at least helpful for the pain, and putting bones back into alignment, and then keeping them there, was key to a functional recovery.

Obvious. Double blind clinical trials were really not terribly necessary for such a gross end result. To some extent, this type of observational study is anecdotal, but since it happens many times the world over, and the anecdotes add up, the evidence starts to approach a quality that is reliable. There are fundamental mathematical explanations of this, but it is also intuitively obvious that larger numbers of observations almost always lead to greater confidence in the conclusion. Almost.

And that’s one place where is gets tricky. But I’ll come back to that.

The Trouble With Oncology

Cancer is one of that last areas of medicine to bow to therapeutics. There is always a level of ‘noise’ when examining the results of any observation. Things happen to people in many random, or seemingly random, ways. It is not really random, but because the causes of variation are so numerous, it sure appears random.

People with cancer have life spans which vary considerably, even amongst those with the same disease, even amongst those diseases with the same stage. I routinely cared for patients with stage IV lung cancer, and when asked for timelines (which patients often request) average survival without treatment was four months, and with treatment they might get out to eight or ten months (it is finally getter better than that, by the way). We could tell them that on average, 90% would die within the year, 65% if they took treatments of some kind.

Notice that in medicine, physicians, especially specialists who can focus in smaller areas of interest and concern, give such answers in terms of probabilities. It has to be given with care and sensitivity, but, in my opinion at least, it ALWAYS has to be accurate. It is a rule of mine. You want your patients to believe you far more than you want them to like you. Never lie to the patient. Express doubt, even ignorance, but never lie.

I have had some patients (not generally lung cancer) live for ten years with metastatic disease, and others live only a matter of days or weeks. If you plot these kinds of events, such as survival over time, within this wide scatter is a trend. The more events you have, the clearer is that trend. At five years, virtually all lung cancer patients with stage IV disease on presentation have passed away. But around that trending curve of deterioration over that five years is incredible variation.

So how do you know, when a patient lives for two years on a specific treatment, that the treatment had any effect? If you compare two patients, one with the treatment and one without, it could end up either way. The problem was, with some treatments, the variation was so large (the noise), that even a hundred patients, or a thousand patients, was not enough to separate random fluctuation from actual treatment effect.

And that is about the same time that very clever people started to use sophisticated mathematics, probability analysis, and experimental designs, to establish a difference we could rely upon. Treatments in cancer were so poor, we could not see the differences within the noise, without very detailed and complicated analysis. To this day, at the extreme of complexity, understanding the science behind all of this is out of reach for any but the few who study such techniques all their lives.

The wide variations and poor efficacy of cancer therapies meant that oncologists had to learn a lot of these sophisticated techniques, and from my experience over the last forty years, we did so before lots of other specialties, because we had to. Otherwise we could not see the improvement over the background noise. Establishing clear proof was also necessitated by the fact that oncology treatments were so toxic. The physician’s maxim, “Primum non nocere,” or “First, do no harm,” was pretty difficult to follow in oncology.

As good as physicians doing this type of research get, it’s not good enough. Every major study using statistical techniques in medicine has a statistician or two in the background working with the authors to plan the experiment and evaluate the data. I entered medicine after an undergraduate degree in mathematics, with a lot of statistics in my repertoire, but I would never dare publish an article without formal professional statistical analysis by a statistician.

Pitfalls of Experimental Design

There are lots of ways, we discovered, of messing up an experiment or an observation. Just understanding the definition of randomness was a start. I remember well sitting in a seminar at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, forty years ago, where members of the team treating cancer patients were agonizing over the fact that survival curves of treated and untreated patients eventually fell back together…no matter how dramatic the initial improvement…until one observer pointed out that everybody dies eventually, so all survival curves come together. The survival curves were getting out to the normal lifespan, and nobody noticed that the results were competing with human age limits.

Studies,over twenty yeas ago, at my current centre showed that patients who underwent chemotherapy after surgery for esophageal cancer lived longer than those who didn’t. One might think this means chemotherapy helps. It actually does, but this study failed to show that because the two groups were selected retrospectively (not randomly or prospectively with a plan), and the groups were not identical apart from the treatments received. They were different in age by an average of ten years, for one thing, and the group that started ten years older did not live as long, of course. Additionally, it was recognized that patients who failed to adequately recover from the surgery they went through did not then always receive chemotherapy (they were too sick), thus biasing the results towards chemotherapy (basically proving only that sick people don’t do as well as healthy ones).

This last point is subtle. It basically noted that patients who got chemotherapy did better, but also noted that patients who got chemotherapy started off better. Such problems in experimental design have lead to concepts demanding similar populations and analysis based on the original ‘intent to treat’ (patients who are planned to get a treatment get counted in the treatment group even if life’s problems prevent them from starting or completing it).

The analysis of this study was clearly flawed by the selection bias and the age difference…something that the vast majority of people might easily overlook, but that Medical Oncologists are geared to, and trained to, understand. It was also NOT a randomized prospective study, it was an observational study looking back at a bunch of patients. When you look closely at the data, it basically proved that patients who do well with a complex treatment tend to do well. Not really very helpful.

Most experimental designs of clinical trials demand that the two populations being compared are ‘identical’ in every aspect EXCEPT the treatment they receive. If the control group is ten years older than the experimental group (as occurred in that study of patients with esophageal cancer above) one could expect they would die ten years sooner, thus confounding the treatment effect. This is a clear example of bias that can creep in when you are not looking, and extremely intelligent people fall victim to this obscuring effect if they are not extremely vigilant. It becomes pretty clear that people who do not do this stuff all the time may fall prey to confounders and experimental bias. It is subtle. It is powerful.

After all, we are all human, and we really want to see good results.

Because lives depend on understanding this stuff, Medical Oncologists are constantly immersed in this type of evaluation of evidence. But you can understand that not everybody else is. Most treatment effects are less subtle, and most other professions and disciplines have far less profound effects when they make a mistake.

Second Nature

So it all becomes second nature to us, those who practice medical oncology. When someone argues that a comparison of two groups, or a correlation of two populations with subsequent events, suggests a cause and a direct resulting effect, we stand back and look for all the confounding biases. And to us, because we live with this stuff every day, its all pretty easy to see coming. Correlation does NOT equal causation.

A few weeks ago, during a debate between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz on health care funding, Senator Cruz argued that patients who obtained private health insurance lived longer than patients who relied on Medicaid. Bernie had no answer to this, it seemed, though in this context he may never have got a chance to respond, or he may have felt the explanation would be lost on the audience. To those of us who understand the relationship between health outcomes and socioeconomic status (physicians, nurses, social workers, health care administrators) the answer was pretty obvious, and not at all clearly related to the quality of insurance or the delivery of health care. People in higher socioeconomic class ALWAYS live longer: more money means better education and better health life style including food, drugs, alcohol and smoking issues. There is simply no need to introduce the insurance aspects to explain the difference, but that is exactly what the politicians did, because they don’t understand evaluation of evidence and experimental analysis.

If a physician, particularly a research physician, made this claim on this evidence, we might suspect fraud, so egregious is this mistake. We recognize he might be right in his conclusion, though totally wrong in how he got to it, and we might still call it fraud, or at the very least, lazy ignorance.

Trump Does Not Understand Evidence

One thing we teach our medical students is to protect their brains. If they read something somewhere, a year later they cannot possibly remember where that informational tidbit came from. So don’t read that stuff, we tell them. Sources of information vary hugely in their quality (so do sources of news).

We teach our students to evaluate everything carefully, but we understand that they must delegate this work to others from time to time. So it is that we teach them to rely only upon peer-reviewed journals of high impact and integrity. Journals in medical information gain a level of respect which allows us to accept their findings based on historical activity. Something published in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, is well known to be highly credible because editors scrutinize the studies, and peers review the results and report in letters, meetings and other journals. The Journal (NEJM) struggles to maintain that reputation, and if they ever fail, they are outed VERY quickly. In fact, reputable journals like NEJM and The Lancet usually out themselves. The Lancet retracted the Wakefield article connecting vaccines to autism when it realized the level of fraud involved in its production. It already knew the work was inaccurate, but it was the deception that prompted the first retraction for that journal in its history. [see Vaccines… this blog] Inaccurate reports are worthy of discussion. Fraudulent reports are worthy of ridicule (and discussion…this one, among some others, lead to major changes in rules governing authors’ activity in publishing medical journal articles, and medical journal editors in accepting them).

So the reputable journals try very hard not to fail. They do that by having extensive peer review by experts in the field, by having internal evaluations, and perhaps most importantly by inviting and receiving ‘letters to the editor’ arguing for or against certain studies. And they publish opinion articles by experts which lay out arguments for and against articles that appear in their (and other) journals.

There are, unfortunately, many journals where that degree of professional integrity is not maintained. There are some, in fact, that have an preconceived agenda, either because they are actually produced by a pharmaceutical industry, or have a major connection to an organization with a vested interest in an ‘end result’. Some, for example, want to promote religious belief, and the power of prayer, or the power of Christian values. We know that, we know which journals carry this type of bias, and we take that into consideration whenever we evaluate evidence, starting with avoiding those sources completely. And we teach our students not to read those journals.

Because a year later they cannot possibly remember where that informational tidbit came from.

Many people do NOT understand this structure of evidence evaluation. Those of us who deal in evidence every day know that we have to start with an evaluation of the source of evidence, then of the logic of the evidence, then of the design of the experiment or observation. One thing upon which we all agree is that wonderful statement by Christopher Hitchens: “Anything which may be asserted without evidence, may be dismissed without evidence.” Dismissed as proof anyway. But idle chat and random thoughts, as well as disciplined thoughts, can and do lead to hypotheses to be investigated and tested.

It is somewhat similar to the another principle, this time in physics: “If the event cannot be observed in any way, it does not exist.” Physicists argue that if you cannot observe something, it is sort of pointless to talk about it.

Trump does not understand evidence. He is not alone, although many people seem to come by some form of evidence evaluation naturally, without formal education.

The source of information is clearly extremely important. Certain news agencies do not cut it because they have a history of not cutting it. “Future behavior is best predicted by past behavior.” If one of my very intelligent friends who never says anything without good supporting evidence, actually says something, I am more inclined to believe them than I am someone who never gets it right.

So when Trump uses politically motivated sources of information, it is suspect. When he uses sources that often get it wrong, it is even more suspect. When he uses Fox News, when they offer no evidence, and restates a meme without other independent evidence, his argument can easily be dismissed. Because in that context, if it is true it is completely coincidental.

The problem is that Trump never cites any evidence. He does not have the evidence to cite. Indeed, it seems he does not care about it. The people he speaks to are not waiting for evidence, they are waiting for him to make the same claim three times, usually in rapid succession.

“Fake news. Phony. Fake.” This was his claim at the CPAC speech. No evidence, just the claim. But he never points to an example. Indeed, often it is in response to corrections the media has made of his comments, pointing out his fake news, such as the claim of a landslide victory, which his election result clearly was not.

“Believe me.” He says this repeatedly, as an alternative to evidence. “Believe me.” Why? Nobody ever answers ‘why’.

“That Which May Be Asserted Without Evidence May Be Dismissed Without Evidence.”

So when Trump states that Hillary Clinton lied, if he cannot provide evidence, that statement should be dismissed. When he says some terrorist action occurred in Sweden last week, and provides no evidence (outside of saying “Someone said it,” or “I heard it from some people,” both very common Trump supporting statements), the thought he expresses should be dismissed. The big problem is that Trump NEVER accurately identifies his evidence, and you really have to assume he has none, if none is supplied. I have listened to him assiduously, to my extreme detriment, for the last year, and could count on my fingers the number of times he refers to some article, never to a source which is as reliable as a scientific or medical journal.

Trump makes such blanket statements all the time. “I inherited a mess,” he has said. No evidence. If you dig, the evidence is actually contrary. Trump says something is a disaster (well, he actually says this about everything) but never gives any evidence. Consider unemployment. Trump says unemployment is a disaster, though all apparent evidence suggests unemployment is at one of its lowest rates.

There are times he gets more sophisticated about his dishonest comments. The rate of change in murders jumped in 2015, in part because the rate was so low in 2014 (probably a reporting and clerical error, but murder rates are based on a huge number of variables). He jumped on that point to promote his fear riddled approach to his underlying desire to promote authoritarian rule through police and military. He overlooked the reality that murder rates (not rate of change) are massively lower now than they were thirty to forty years ago. In addition, the background ‘noise’, as in any ongoing observation of large numbers, does not allow us to figure out if this rate change is anything other than random variation.

But ‘cherry picking’ (taking results which are favorable to your agenda) is really the same as lying, if you know you’re doing it, or simply lazy, if you don’t.

Lies

If I tell you two plus two equals five, and I do not understand addition, that is not a lie. It is a mistake.

If I say two plus two equals five, and I know it equals four, that is a lie.

If I say two plus two equals four, and I really think, because I am not too bright, that it equals five, that too is a lie, even though the statement is correct.

If I say two plus two is five, and I know it is four but I say it is hyperbole or humor when someone catches me on it (but I say nothing if no one objects), that is a lie.

That’s what Trump does when he says Obamacare is a disaster. Or when he says Mexicans are rapists. Or all the other countless exaggerations for which he is forgiven in the right wing media that supports him. “Oh, that’s just Trump,” they say, dismissing complaints of lying because getting truth from your president isn’t as important as promoting the right wing agenda.

We humans project. We actually try not to lie, for the most part. We tell ourselves we never lie, though we know we do a little bit (“No dear, that hat looks lovely”). And we treat other people as if the potential for lying, real lying, is very rare. We are always surprised when it happens. The blatant lie right to your face, the ‘gaslighting,’…we simply do not expect or anticipate that, and much of our communication is colored by what we expect.

Evidence suggests that I have a pretty stable, confident brain that takes time to carefully decide things. And yet, thirty years ago I observed an event which I could not believe was possible, which I could not emotionally deal with. I pushed it out of my mind. I denied it. No one else was really hurt by this decision of my subconscious brain, and I hope that had there been any detrimental effects on others that my facing this event could avoid, I would not have denied what I saw. About a year later when the consequences of that event doubled down with other similar events, I remembered it, but it was the clearest, most powerful example of cognitive dissonance that I have ever seen, and it was all mine. To this day I find it hard to believe my brain is capable of that kind of self deception. It makes me shiver to think about it. The lesson is that we can deny what we do not wish to believe.

As a medical friend of mine suggests, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see, none so deaf as those who refuse to hear.”

Accepting that someone can lie at every opportunity is too threatening to our world view to accept.

Professional Lying

Lying in medicine occurs very rarely. Even when is does, it may not be in the awareness of the authors. Generally, medical authors believe what they are concluding, even if they fudge the data a bit to support what they believe to be true. But when it does happen, as it did years ago in a specific breast cancer treatment, or in the retracted article about vaccines and a relationship to autism, it takes everybody by surprise, and it takes a long time to sort out. We project our honesty on to the person telling us stuff, and we simply do not expect anyone to lie all the time.

Lying in politics is probably far more common than in medicine (I’m not really denigrating politicians here; in medicine your thoughts are carefully written down and analyzed. In politics they can be ‘off the cuff, in the moment’ and getting it all as right as I describe here can be close to impossible), but mostly it amounts to making claims without supporting evidence, or ignoring data that doesn’t agree with your preconceived conclusions. Lying to shore up your own reputation, to support your exaggerated opinion of your own value, lying to make the claim you are better than everybody, at everything, is actually very rare. “I understand better than the generals do,” or “I understand…better than anybody.” When he says that, what are you thinking?

We humans are not used to dealing with someone who lies all the time. Even as I say this about Trump, who I know by now lies almost every day, I find it difficult to accept, to believe. We hear people right now simply saying that ‘that is Trump’ and setting the dishonesty aside. Rick Santorum, last night after Trump’s first speech to Congress, when cont=fronted with some of these lies replied that is was pretty minor stuff for a president.

When Trump stated there were crowds lining up to hear him at the CPAC (a ticketed event with no line-ups), he didn’t care that he didn’t know that. When he said he had the highest electoral college result in history, and was confronted with the truth, his response was simply to say he had heard this somewhere, the implication being that this was sufficient justification for this lie. “Some people say,” and “many people think,” are phrases he has used, phrases which are the closest thing to evidence he appears to cite.

I remember wondering what Trump would do when people started to see the patterns, started to recognize that nothing he says is reliable. I remember how long it took me to unblock that terrible event I observed.

But I should have known. Trump told us what he would do. He would counter-punch.

And so now Trump is attacking the news sources that are finally calling him out on all his lies. They are ‘fake news’ and he has banned the most reliable ones from a recent media event.

“Fake news. Phony. Fake.” He says it three times, often punctuated by, “Believe me.”

And that’s all the evidence he gives.

In truth, I do not know if Trump can evaluate evidence. The example of murder rates says he cannot. But the constant lying says evidence is not important to him. Maybe he can understand evidence. “I have a very good brain.” “Only I can fix it.”

Even a Medical Oncologist can see the problem with evidence here.

It’s not just that Trump doesn’t understand evidence. He just doesn’t use it.