Ideas That Have Harmed Humanity

The British philosopher and Nobel laureate (for literature) Bertrand Russell once wrote an essay titled “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.”

Of course, when he wrote the essay in 1931, nobody would have taken offense at the word “mankind.” But we live in a different era and such words, so we have been taught, qualify as sexist slurs. Hence, I’ll stick with “humanity” for the title of this blog post.

Over the course of his 98-year life, Russell was right more often than he was wrong. But even when he was wrong, he had good arguments for his conclusions. So he was almost always worth listening to.

And he didn’t just talk. His anti-war activism once got him fired from Cambridge University and sent to prison. Later, his book Marriage and Morals got him denied a teaching job at the City University of New York, an institution that should have thanked its lucky stars for the chance to hire an intellectual giant like Russell.

Although he was himself a man of ideas, he knew that people often used ideas merely as an excuse for cruelty and destruction:

“Ideas and principles that do harm are, as a rule though not always, cloaks for evil passions … When we pass in review the opinions of former times that are now recognized as absurd, it will be found that nine times out of ten they were such as to justify the infliction of suffering.”

Russell thought that traditional religion had been abused in just that way, but that its waning social influence had simply made people use different rationalizations:

“There is still much the same mentality: mankind are divided into saints and sinners; the saints are to achieve bliss in the Nazi or Communist heaven, while the sinners are to be liquidated, or to suffer such pains as human beings can inflict in concentration camps.”

We see the same attitude in many countries today, operating under different names and using different slogans.

Russell was also realistic about the limits of our knowledge. Predictions of the future were especially tricky:

“Whatever you think is going to happen ten years hence, unless it is something like the sun rising tomorrow that has nothing to do with human relations, you are almost sure to be wrong.”

He had plenty of ideas with which I disagree, but no matter: he changed his mind as new evidence came to light. If I don’t like what he believed at one point in his life, I can often find him saying the opposite thing 25 years later. His guiding principle was to follow the evidence wherever it led, whether or not it met with popular approval. As the American poet Walt Whitman wrote:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large.”

American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a similar viewpoint:

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Bertrand Russell had his shortcomings, but a “little mind” was never one of them.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Ramanujan and Me

Tomorrow, April 26, is notable for two reasons.

First, it’s my birthday. I’ll be 39. Again. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Second, it’s 100 years since the death of Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of all time.

Ramanujan was born in India in 1887. He got a basic high school education, but was expelled from college because he ignored everything except mathematics. Eventually, he ended up at Cambridge University in England.

His mentor at Cambridge was G.H. Hardy, a famous number theorist. Hardy wrote about visiting Ramanujan in the hospital in 1917:

“I had ridden in taxi-cab No. 1729, and said that the number seemed to me a rather dull one. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it is a very interesting number: It is the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two different ways.'”

Say what?!

Ramanujan didn’t need to think about it. He could just see it. Hardy, in amazement, went back to his office and worked it out on paper. Ramanujan was right.

That kind of insight was actually a point of contention between Hardy and Ramanujan. In mathematics, it’s not enough just to know something: you must be able to prove it. It was so easy for Ramanujan to see things that he wasn’t accustomed to proving them. He could prove them, and he did, but only after Hardy nagged him to do it.

Tragically, Ramanujan died at 32 of a liver infection for which we now have a cure.

Since he mostly worked on number theory, his discoveries are too esoteric for most people to appreciate. I studied them for my mathematics degree, but even I only understand one of them (his work on continued fractions) really well. Number theory is widely used today in computer science, especially in computer security.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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What I Think Happened with Covid-19

After over a month of lockdown in most American states, people are starting to ask questions about it.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Was it really necessary?

Here’s how the situation looks to me. This is not a medical analysis. It’s a personal viewpoint:

First, yes, Covid-19 is a real thing and it’s worse than the flu. We still don’t know exactly how much worse. But it’s definitely something to avoid. The lack of reliable information is starting to seem a little odd.

Second, what frightens people the most isn’t the disease itself, but the uncertainty. If you get Covid-19, you might never even feel sick — especially if you’re under age 50. Or you might get the sniffles. Or you might feel like you have the flu. Or you might suffer terribly and then die. You just don’t know. It’s a little like living next door to a nuclear power plant. You’ll probably be fine, but if there’s a meltdown, you could be in big trouble.

Third, I think that events unfolded like this:

  • The virus got started in China. How, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter at this point.
  • It started at the worst possible time. It was the Chinese New Year, when people traveled all over China to celebrate. Others traveled abroad. The virus traveled with them. And it spread.
  • As on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, most people who were exposed to the virus didn’t get infected (that’s my best guess based on what I’ve seen).
  • Of those who got infected, some didn’t get sick at all. Others got moderately sick. A small percentage got extremely sick and required hospitalization. Some died. It was ugly. It was frightening.
  • Italy had so many sick and dying people that its health care system was overwhelmed. That scared the hell out of everyone, including medical professionals.
  • Based on almost no data, a few epidemiologists cooked up worst-case scenarios that turned worldwide fear into worldwide panic. After decades of watching movies about a zombie apocalypse, people were ready to imagine the worst. And they did.
  • News media hyped the danger to get views and clicks. A headline like “School Board Approves Funding” gets much less attention than “Everyone’s Going to Die!” So we were treated 24/7 to variations on “Everyone’s Going to Die!” We still are.
  • A few countries handled the situation well, or at least effectively. China clamped down hard to quarantine affected areas, using all of the authoritarian muscle at its command. South Korea and Taiwan contained the spread via contact tracing. Sweden imposed few restrictions and had a few more deaths, but voluntary precautions seem to have worked without the need to wreck the country’s economy.
  • In the United States, sadly, politics infects everything. A booming economy and Americans’ rekindled optimism were President Trump’s most powerful arguments for re-election in November. The Covid-19 panic smashed both of those, and Trump-haters want them to remain smashed until after the election. Their strategy is to continue the lockdown for as long as possible, do as much damage as possible, while blaming Trump for all of it. Medical experts will tend to go along with the lockdowns because they think only of medical risks; economic and social risks aren’t part of their brief.
  • Meanwhile, millions of newly-unemployed Americans are becoming impatient. They aren’t going to wait much longer. Covid-19 is a risk. So are power-mad government officials, economic ruin, and starvation. A lot of people will roll the dice and take their chances. They have no desire to be the new Kulaks in AOC’s socialist paradise.

Political and social leaders should support carefully re-starting the economy, while protecting people who are most at risk (mainly the elderly) and encouraging everyone to continue sensible safety practices.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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The Wisdom of James Bond

“You only live twice:
Once when you are born,
And once when you look death in the face.”
     — James Bond

“James Bond” is now a movie franchise, just like “Star Wars” was. But it started out as a series of novels by British author Ian Fleming (1908-1964).

Fleming had been a Naval intelligence officer during World War II, after which he was assigned to Moscow. James Bond was Fleming’s alter ego: a bit of what he was, and a lot of what he wanted to be.

Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1952) was a huge best-seller. After that, he wrote one James Bond novel per year until his death in 1964.

But even as the novels gained worldwide popularity — boosted by praise from President John F. Kennedy — Fleming was getting bored with the character. He planned to write You Only Live Twice as Bond’s final adventure.

In the previous book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the hard-edged Bond had fallen in love and married Tracy Draco. On their honeymoon, Tracy was murdered by one of Bond’s enemies.

At the beginning of You Only Live Twice, Bond is an emotional wreck. He’s on the verge of getting fired. His boss decides to give him one last chance: a mission that is crucial but considered impossible. Eventually, the villain of the story turns out to be (you guessed it) Tracy’s murderer. Bond completes his mission, but at the cost of his own life:

“What was it all about? Bond didn’t know or care. The pain in his head was his whole universe. Punctured by a bullet, the balloon was fast losing height. Below, the softly swelling sea offered a bed. Bond let go with hands and feet and plummeted down towards peace, towards the rippling feathers of some childhood dream of softness and escape from pain.”

Both fans and Fleming’s publisher were aghast at Bond’s death. They persuaded Fleming to add a final chapter in which Bond survived. But the novel originally ended with Bond’s obituary in The Times newspaper:

“A senior officer of the Ministry of Defence, Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., is missing, believed killed, while on an official mission to Japan … May I suggest these simple words for his epitaph? Many of the junior staff here feel they represent his philosophy:

‘I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.'”

That’s a dilemma we all face every day: the tradeoff between living safely and just plain living. As James Bond knew, human life is more than just having a pulse, even if a pulse is a very nice thing to have.

It’s a dilemma that we’ll need to solve in the next few weeks, both as individuals and as societies. How we solve it will depend on — and will reveal — who we are.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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In Defense of Dr. Fauci

I feel sorry for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most visible MD on the federal government’s coronavirus task force.

Many conservatives want him fired because they think he’s undermining President Trump.

Many leftists want him fired because they think he’s covering for President Trump.

That makes me think he’s probably doing a good job.

It goes back to something I learned about people when I was a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC. Back then, millennials were still in diapers and newspapers were still a viable business. I was mild-mannered enough, but unfortunately I couldn’t fly.

As a reporter, I always tried to write unbiased “straight news.” My proudest claim was that no one could tell what I personally believed about the news stories I covered.

That’s what I claimed. But when it came to hotly-debated issues, nobody was buying it.

Partisans on both sides often thought that my news articles were slanted against them.

They thought that an “unbiased” news article would say only what they wanted it to say. The opposing side wouldn’t get to say anything at all.

It wasn’t a Democratic or Republican thing. It was just human nature.

I’ve paid fairly close attention to Fauci’s public statements. He hasn’t said anything out of line for a responsible physician. The fact that some people can twist his words to mean the opposite of what he actually said doesn’t make him a malefactor.

So if all the rabid partisans want Fauci’s head, I suspect it’s because he’s doing his job as honestly as he can.

And people just hate a goody two-shoes.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”


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Why Evil Exists

Today is Easter 2020, when Christians in Western countries celebrate (where permitted by law) the resurrection of Jesus. Eastern Orthodox Christians in Greece, Turkey, Russia and thereabouts celebrate it next week.

Today is also the middle of Passover, when we Jews celebrate our ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Passover started last Wednesday evening and ends next Thursday. We are making do, just like the Christians, using Facetime or Zoom for Passover Seders.

Both holidays include beliefs that help people lead happy, moral, productive lives. To the extent that they succeed, they can be justified on that basis alone. I’ll leave the theological arguments to the theologians.

But whether religious or not, most people wonder why evil exists.

If they believe in God, then they wonder why He lets bad things happen. Even if people don’t believe in God, evil still bothers them because they have a moral sense.

So why does evil exist?

I can only give you my answer:

Because without it, a universe like ours is impossible.

Goodness exists for the same reason, but that doesn’t bother anyone.

One or many?

A universe can either have just one thing, or it can have multiple things. Those are the only choices. There is no third option.

Just one thing was what our universe had before the big bang if you like science, or before the tzimtzum if you prefer mysticism.

Either way really amounts to mysticism. Neither time nor space existed before the big bang, at least in the way we experience them. Therefore, to talk about “before” the big bang is nonsense. But our language developed to handle life on earth, so it breaks down when we talk about how the universe began.

If a universe has multiple things, then it must be possible to distinguish between them. If two things A and B are the same in every way, then A = B. They’re the same thing.  Then you’re back to having just one thing in your universe. So the multiple things must all have specific properties that distinguish them from each other.

Suppose that your universe has four dimensions, as we perceive in ordinary life:

  • Left-right (X)
  • Up-down (Y)
  • Front-back (Z)
  • Earlier-later (T)

If things in your universe are distinct, then they can’t be infinite. They must be limited. Otherwise, each of them would occupy the entire universe. And then you’d be back to having just one thing in your universe. The same principle applies no matter how many dimensions your universe has.

Therefore, everything in our universe must be limited in space (along the X,Y, and Z axes) and in time (along the T axis). Things must also be smaller than the universe itself along each of those axes. As a result, things can move along those axes unless they collide with another thing.

A universe might also have some default values, such as (in our universe) the speed of light. Some things might have default limits along particular axes:

  • Height (Y)
  • Lifespan (T)

Boosters and blockers

As it moves through time and space, a thing C might collide with another thing D. Depending on their properties, D might help C keep moving or stop it.

For example, some bacteria help people digest their food, while other bacteria are deadly. Both types affect our ability to keep moving along the time (T) axis.

Adding conscious things

If some things in the universe are conscious, that adds another dimension because consciousness is a matter of degree. Even plants and micro-organisms exhibit a primitive form of consciousness, behaving differently based on what’s happening around them. Animals take it up a notch from plants, and humans take it up a notch beyond that.

When a conscious thing C collides with another thing D that stops it, then C is aware of the collision. If C doesn’t care about colliding with harmful things, then the harmful things are more likely to stop its progress. Therefore, reality tends to eliminate C-things that don’t care. What’s left are C-things that do care. They try to avoid collisions with harmful things.

If things are self-conscious, they are not only attracted by helpful things and repelled by harmful things, they are aware of themselves reacting in the way that they do. They might put the label “good” on helpful things and the reactions they produce, and put the label “evil” on harmful things and the reactions they produce.

Therefore, if a universe (1) has multiple things in it, (2) where the things interact, and (3) some of the things are self-conscious, then evil is unavoidable. It’s baked into the system. On the bright side, so is goodness.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Why I Don’t Hug My Chinese Tutor

As regular readers know, I’ve been studying the Chinese language since last spring.

I had previously taken a semester of Chinese in college, but it utterly defeated me. So I wanted payback. This time, I would beat it.

I was scheduled to take a language proficiency exam in Chicago next week. For obvious reasons, the testing center has postponed all the exams until September.

Right now, of course, everyone is upset with the Chinese. No matter how the Covid-19 pandemic plays out, it probably started in a Chinese city’s “wet market” that sold live bats for people to eat.

Euuw. I like and respect a lot of things about the Chinese, but that’s not one of them.

Whether we like China or not, it’s going to be a player on the world stage. There will be a need for Americans who can speak and read the language. So even though it’s postponed, my revenge for my college humiliation will be productive.

And that gets us to why I don’t hug my Chinese tutor. It has nothing to do with Covid-19.

The first reason is that he’s in Ecuador. He tutors me in online video lessons.

The second reason is that I’m not a hugger. Unless you’re a member of my family or a loved one, no hugs.

But it’s the third reason that shows how the United States (and other countries) should deal with China.

My tutor and I can cooperate because even though our interests are different, they coincide.

He’s proud of his country and he loves its language, so he wants to teach about them. I respect his country and I think its language is important, so I want to learn about them.

We do not discuss politics, about which we would disagree. Our interests there do not coincide.

And whether you love President Trump or hate him, he does seem to understand the principle involved:

The Chinese government and its people care about what’s good for China. They don’t care about what’s good for other countries unless it’s also good for China. Unlike some Americans, they do not see their country as a global charity.

If other countries’ interests coincide with China’s, then the Chinese government will cooperate with them. Both sides will benefit.

If other countries’ interests conflict with China’s, then the Chinese government will try to win the conflict at their expense. Both sides can still benefit, but it’s more difficult.

Other countries have to protect their own interests, because the Chinese won’t do it. And let’s be realistic: it’s not China’s job to prevent other countries from doing stupid things. That’s up to the other countries:

  • It’s stupid for a country to offshore its manufacturing and technological base to an adversary nation.
  • It’s stupid to run huge trade deficits that enable an adversary nation to acquire vast ownership stakes in your country.
  • It’s stupid to allow citizens of an adversary nation to graduate from your universities and then occupy key roles in vital industries and government agencies.
  • It’s stupid to allow politicians and their families to have lucrative business deals with adversary nations.

China is a great country, but it’s not going to hug us and we shouldn’t hug it. We can deal with the Chinese for mutual benefit, but it’s our job to make sure we get what we’re owed. The Chinese won’t do it for us.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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