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Andre, support or withdraws or withholds support are the most accurate terms to use. You actually can prove something in math. You cannot actually prove something in science. You can demonstrate a degree of fidelity between what a theory predicts should happen and what we actually see by experiment or by observing the real world. But you can’t prove anything. You’re familiar with the black swan example so I won;t belabor the point.


I would say that fact has a pretty good operational definition which is ‘that which can actually be observed in the real world’. By real world, here, I mean a first-order approximation that is decent enough for us to treat it as if it were actually true. So, it is true that the couch I’m sitting on and the keyboard I’m typing are not *actually* coming in contact with my skin. The electromagnetic forces repel one another but it is close enough that it certainly *feels* as if my skin is touching the actual keyboard and so I can treat it ‘as if’ that were happening. So for almost any day-to-day purpose we can take the solidity of non-liquid objects as real. True, most of the chair and most of us are actually empty space but we can treat ourselves as solid objects. A neutrino would see as lots and lots of empty space with the odd bit of matter scattered around. Both descriptions are valid but neither one of them is more True in an absolute sense.


Yes, there can be contradictory positions and sometimes those are very genuine controversies. I would put string/m-theory into this category. It may be right. It may be not even wrong. That is one kind of noise in the system. Ultimately, that will get sorted out as experiments are performed or, because experiments can’t be performed people abandon it since there is know way to determine if you’re wrong. In the example you’re using, you’re conflating facts with theories about those facts. So, here are what I see as the salient (if surface) facts:

  1. People with a particular condition take a drug that was designed to alleviate or control symptoms of that condition.
  2. The manufacturer claims to have done testing and claims to have found the drug safe.
  3. The regulatory agency accepted the drug company’s claims.
  4. People taking the drug died.
  5. The drug was found to be causitive in the deaths.
  6. The drug company is found to have cooked the lab books, burying studies that were less favorable or fudging data to paint a prettier picture than was warranted.
  7. The drug company did this knowingly. (There’s scientific error and then there’s scientific fraud.)

The fact that the drug manufacturer made a claim does not mean that the claim was factual. That’s why I said that you’re conflating the two. For the moment, let us grant the drug company good intent in wanting to develop the drug in the first place. The thinking would look something like this:


“This disease, X, kills N number of people per year. Our drug can help 80% of them. With another ten percent possibly having a fatal reaction to the drug. Well, by pure random chance we would expect up to 20% to have a bad reaction and this is a disease that strikes a lot of people and therefore will be prescribed quite widely. The mere knowledge of the existence of this drug will make our stock rise by two or three points.”


Pause a minute and consider that so far every decision has been made from a corporate boardroom peerspective. I’m trying to be reasonably fair to the decision makers in organizations like Merck. I’m not imagining them as some kind of medical Mr Burns, cackling evilly as they decide to put out a drug that can kill people. I think they make what seem to be good, but terribly misguided and stupid, decisions at the time that are in the best interests of the company. The numbers of people are hypothetical at any rate. But let’s move on.


So in the actual labs, postdocs and ordinary worker bee researchers are toiling away at their benches. The senior researchers are doing their jobs. And there are directives coming down from on high that this drug needs to be ready to go to market. So numbers get cooked. If anyone decides to make a fuss then the small matter of that NDA you signed coming in the door will be very casually brought up and one will be given reason to ponder upon the consequences of having a gigantic multinational corporation deciding that you need to spend several years in court because your conscience told you to do the right thing. If you’re a postdoc just starting out, you can’t afford to get a reputation as a troublemaker. Troublemakers don’t get funding. Troublemakers might have to leave the steady paycheck of corporate science and try to make it in academia. If you’re a journeyman scientist, you’ve got your house and attendant mortgage, and a car and payment for that and the student loans and the kid’s college fund and equipment for soccer and a new saxophone for the child wonder. If you’re a senior scientist you’ve got 20 years in. You don’t want to start over at 50. That idea terrifies you. Everyone has a reason to keep their mouth shut, their head down and try to stay out of the way. If you can’t sleep, there’s always drink or pot or perhaps one of your company’s own wares.


None of that, however, was about facts. It’s about the things that got in the way of the actual facts coming out. The actual facts are that the company put out a drug that kills people at an unacceptable rate (nothing is foolproof) and that they covered up the actual facts which was that their drug caused a reaction that was fatal at a higher rate than would have passed regulatory muster. At no point was it ever a fact that the drug was safe. A lie isn’t a truth until it is exposed as a lie. A lie is always a lie, even when it isn’t known to be a lie by anyone but the one telling it. Even if it this were the result of an honest mistake it *still* would not change anything about there being a fact about the drug (that it is dangerous) and that fact was known (because it was) and covered up because it was inconvenient.


I would say that a fact is that which is true about the world whether you believe it or not, whether there is anyone around to do the believing. The Sun is the most massive object in our solar system. It was so long before there was a single living thing or even a single planet with the potential to have conditions suitable to life. The Earth is more massive than its moon and therefore the Earth has captured the Moon and it orbits the planet. This is a fact. Einstein gave us a what, at present, appears to be the correct answer for *why* the Earth orbits the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth and not the other way around. The less massive object will orbit the more massive object. If all of the mass of the Sun were condensed into the physical size of, say, the Mercury, the Earth would *still* orbit the Sun even though the Earth would have a larger physical size. It would be true if the Sun were condensed to the size of an asteroid about six miles in diameter and 2 miles long. Now, it may turn out that in 1000 years it is shown that Einstein was actually quite wrong in his explanation for *why* the less massive Earth orbits the more massive Sun but it will not change the fact that it does so.


Theories are models to explain facts about the world within a specific domain. Facts are those things about the world that just *are* whether there is something around to know about it or not. They remain even if there are things to know those facts and those beings believe exactly the opposite. The facts themselves maintain their hold on reality even if all our thoughts about those facts are entirely out to lunch.


There are actually a triplet of words that get used in New Age nonsense to make the flimflam sound more sciency. The words are:

Frequencies, energy and vibration. 

“‘Frequencies’ is definitely a new favorite of pseudoscientific technobabble. It sounds sciencey but is used in a meaningless way – another common feature of pseudoscience.”  (Steven Novella)

All three of these terms get trotted out to provide a patina of scientific gravitas and respectability to utter nonsense.  My touchstone for whether the terms are being used in their technical sense is to ask the person wielding the words what, precisely, they mean by them.  For the record, I’m talking about the physics/mathematical definition for all the words.  To wit:


 Mathematics & Physics The number of times a specified periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified interval, as:

a. The number of repetitions of a complete sequence of values of a periodic function per unit variation of an independent variable.
b. The number of complete cycles of a periodic process occurring per unit time.
c. The number of repetitions per unit time of a complete waveform, as of an electric current.
the property of matter and radiation that is manifest as a capacity to perform work (such as causing motion or the interaction of molecules).
an oscillation of the parts of a fluid or an elastic solid whose equilibrium has been disturbed, or of an electromagnetic wave.
Comparing and contrasting is useful here.  

Everything in our universe is a vibrational frequency. Through vibrational frequencies we can create and destroy, we can alter emotions, and thought patterns. The vibrational frequency that you are operating on is directly related to your health and well being, as well as others.

Whenever you feel a certain emotion, such as love. Your body is vibrating at a higher frequency. Fear is a very low frequency, it activates less DNA co-dons. So whenever you are in a negative state your vibrations are low and it affects everything around you. 2 things can happen when you encounter a different vibrational frequency. If it’s higher than yours, you can either bring yours up to match it, or if it’s lower, you will be brought down.


Now a couple of things here, at no point is vibrational or frequency defined.  The words are there to give an air of respectability even though what follows is nonsense.  What the author is counting on is that the people who read the paragraph above will be entirely unconcerned about an operational definition of either vibration or frequency. They are almost certainly right to do so.  It has been my experience that people who believe this kind of tripe don’t know and, more to the point, don’t want to know that these words have real, actual, definitions and that it is insufficient, woefully so, to just nod your head at the wisdom and sagacity of both reader and writer who are assumed to know what they are talking about.  This might seem like a harsh statement but it is justified, I believe, by the  third sentence of the second paragraph where the author states that fear is a ‘very low frequency’ that ‘activates less DNA codons’.  This, again, is supposed to be passed over without ever once stopping to ponder what a codon actually is and how a ‘low frequency’ vibration, caused by fear, would affect your DNA.  A codon is a sequence of three adjacent nucleotides on a DNA molecule that specifies the position of an amino acid in a protein molecule during protein synthesis.  How, precisely, could the ‘low frequency vibration’ of fear cause codons to be activated at a lower level? The author doesn’t say and, again, is counting on the reader neither knowing that the statement is nonsensical nor caring enough to actually try to parse the declaration.  Rather we are just supposed to believe that this is true.  After all, doesn’t it sound somewhat like what you remember from high school biology? Wasn’t there some mention of codons or something?  

The word energy comes in for the same treatment.  Energy, you will remember from physics, is the ability to do work (bring about a state change in matter or motion). But in the hands of New Age writers and their followers energy is this vague ‘stuff’ that floats around. Energy can, in one instance, be the feel you get from being in someone’s presence. In another instance it is what is transferred when a Reike ‘master’ or ‘quantum touch healer’ wave their hands above your aching back.  

Flimflam and flapdoodle thrive on imprecision.  New Age religion (and it is a religion) feeds on that imprecision. The minute someone knows what a codon is or what energy, vibrations or frequencies are then the whole game falls apart.  If you know what a frequency is and you know what a codon is, then you know that any sentence such as “Fear is a very low frequency, it activates less DNA co-dons”  [sic] is complete nonsense.  If you don’t know and you aren’t inclined to find out, and tragically many believers in modern mysticism will claim to ‘love science’ while wanting to have as little engagement with actual scientific texts as is possible, then you are going to be quickly find yourself tossed about by every random charlatan that comes along and can throw around the best sounding pseudo-scientific, technobabble.  


Libya and Lost Liberals

Let’s go over the ‘military intervention a liberal could support’ checklist:

1) Dictatorial government killing its own people? Check.
2) Bottom-up, people’s movement for democratic reform Check.
3) UN security council resolution and request for US military assistance? Check

Yet, in the American Left this is ‘just like’ the Gulf of Tonkin or <insert US military intervention you don’t support here>. Except it isn’t. Last night on MSNBC, I heard Dennis Kucinich say–and I kid you not–“the Libyans should do what the Egyptians and Tunisians did”. Representative Kucinich, I have a news flash for you: The Libyan people tried that and for their troubles were gunned down, you bloody great dolt! This intervention is a near textbook case where liberals should be supporting the military intervention.

Any government that sends in tanks to kill their own citizens who are protesting peacefully has lost legitimacy. At that point, there is nothing for it but for that government to go. This is not the same as arguing that we should invade Libya, it is merely saying that the Gaddafi government lost any claim it might have had to legitimacy the minute the first bullet flew and shattered the body of some peaceful protester. But American Liberals–or at least the kind of American Liberal for whom Noam Chomsky is the first and last word on foreign policy–don’t see it that way. Their calculus goes like this:

War = America. War = Bad. America=War. America=Bad. At that point, Gaddafi is transformed into a being of Light and Love. So what if he slaughtered his own people? He stands against America, that makes him a good guy right? No. That’s not right. It’s not even wrong. The argument has been proffered on the Left that we didn’t take military action in Egypt or Tunisia and we’re letting Bahrain do what it likes. Here’s the problem with this argument; it gets the facts on the ground almost precisely wrong. In Egypt and Tunisia we had leverage, particularly with the former. After Israel, the Egyptians are the largest recipient of US military largesse and munificence. We had ties to their military, deep ties in fact. The US government could call any of a number of flag-officers in the Pentagon and ask them to call up their opposite number in the Egyptian military and that general would take the call. There was also the carrot and stick of being able to dangle the possibility that the next shipment of arms might get delayed in port. What leverage did we have with the Libyan military? None. Did Kucinich take that into account? No. Will Chomsky? Absolutely not. Will those who could just be said to have learned everything they think they know about geopolitics from Chomsky take it into account? No and the idea that it might be a relevant question is one that most Manichean Leftists will not even think to ask the question. So there’s sanctions (which the Left would oppose) and there’s military action (which the Left would oppose) or there’s turning our backs on people struggling to be rid of a tyrant (which the Left supports in principle as long as those trapped inside the Kafka-esque nightmare don’t need outside help). We have leverage with Bahrain, we have no leverage with Libya.

Now, one could make an argument that this violates the War Powers Act. One could make the argument that only Congress can declare war (although I’m not sure that any conflict between nations should be termed a ‘war’) and these would be reasonable, Constitutional and adult objections. That is not my concern and to the degree that Rep. Kucinich keeps himself confined to that issue I can wrestle with that question with him. My problem is that he seems to be arguing from a point of geopolitical naivete.

What’s more, many of my fellow Leftists seem perfectly happy to either allow people to die under the jackboot of tyrants or to be led to the slaughter by theocrats. In fact, this post was, originally, going to be about how the American Left needs to make up its damn mind about what to say about theocracies.

If it is problematic for, say, a Baptist minister to get up and claim that the women should dress modestly and if they don’t and they are sexually assaulted they have to take some accountability for what happened (a position I do NOT ascribe to) or it is not. If it is, then it is equally problematic for a Muslim imam to get up and make the same claim. We get exercised about Southern Baptists making statements of that sort in Alabama but excuse it in Iran. This is because we’re not invoking a higher principle, a categorical imperative if you will. It seems that our ethics–that which makes us Liberals–stop at the waters’ edge. At least for some of us.

Chauncey DeVega, who blogs at We Are Respectable Negroes makes the following observation about Herman Cain and other black conservatives:

In their roles as race pimps who deal from the bottom of the “race card” deck on behalf of the Republican party, Cain and many other popular black conservatives run from the history of communal struggle and obligation that is a mark of pride in the African-American community. Moreover, they recycle conservative fantasies of self-made men and women, the dime-novel Horatio Alger tale, and embrace the myth of meritocracy. The latter is doubly ironic for black conservatives given America’s long history of economic, legal, social and political privileges that were — and often still are — the exclusive province of white people.

Just as Herman Cain did in his speech in New Hampshire, popular black conservatives perform their designated roles as mascots and apologists for white racism. They are “the good ones”: black folks who do not complain or protest, who trust in white benevolence, and never rock the boat. Thus black conservatives fulfill a fantasy role for white conservatives who seek to minimize the role that centuries of discrimination, violent oppression and racism continue to play in contemporary American life.

Mr. DeVega points out the main reason I’m not a black conservative–although I was one 25 years ago. Unlike most people, I started adulthood a fire-breathing conservative and have wound up a liberal. No small part of that was being, in the 80’s, every racist white person’s ‘black friend to the rescue’ (or as a friend of mine says “BFTTR”). I was that black person they could have in their circle to reassure themselves that, in reality, they weren’t actually racist. Rather, they were just ‘telling it like it is’ and if folks got offended by that, well, they shouldn’t be so ‘sensitive’. To my shame, I realized I played the minstrel and provided air cover for some folks who had, in fact, very dim views of black people’s intelligence and work ethic. By being ‘the exception’ I made it okay for them to express their opinions about “lazy blacks just looking for a handout” because if challenged they could always fall back on “no! I’m not racist. I have this black friend and she’s not like that at all!”

By pointing at the ‘exception’ they sought inoculation against the accusation of racism which would surely and rightly follow some screed about how blacks were lazy or the ever popular ‘blacks should stop whining’. But what did I, as a black conservative, get out of it? I got to be special. I got to be the exception. It was a Golden Ticket to the land of “see, no one can say I’m like the blacks standing on the corner in the middle of the day”. It allowed me to pretend that I was ‘self-made’ or that somehow I had sprung into existence, ex nihilo and that no one had paved the road I now walked.

Later DeVega pins Cain to the the wall with this.

Cain’s narrative, in which, like other conservatives, he is an island unto himself — separate from social structures and institutions — is exposed as a naked lie when his story is placed in context. Herman Cain’s success rests on the shoulders of the many nameless people who struggled and marched so he could fully realize his freedom and citizenship. For example, Cain attended Purdue University at a time when student activists forced colleges and universities across the country to integrate. As the Tea Party GOP loves to point out, Cain enjoyed great success in corporate America because of his hard work and talent. But, he was also successful because of how black and brown folks (and their white allies), kicked down the doors of Wall Street and Main Street, as well as cracked the glass ceiling, so that people of color (and women) could enter and rise.

Before I go any further, I want to digress and say that I’m not defending identity politics. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was because I think that identity politics was a colossal strategic and philosophical error that I hope the queer community wakes up from sooner rather than later. The kinds of theory that gets done and promoted under the rubric of IDPOL does violence to the concept of rights adhering to people and not to groups of people. It erases the individuality of blacks, queers, Latinos, pretty much anyone not in a sociological majority. I have seen anti-racists meet racism coming the other way as they bend over backward to prove themselves ‘allies’ to black people. So this is not a defense of identity politics.

However, black conservatives are wrong in trying to pretend that life in 21st century America is somehow a place where being black has no meaning or consequence other than that imposed by Democrats and liberals. They are also, as Mr. DeVega points out, wrong that they are self-made. I owe a debt I can never repay to all of the generations of black people who came before me and who are now gone from this mortal coil–including my parents. Because they marched, I went to integrated schooling and have voted in every election I’ve been eligible to since 1985. Because they pushed my sister and I, we have both pushed ourselves long after they were gone. But we are not merely the products of our own efforts and I am constantly amazed by how conservatives seem to want to indulge the illusion that we are somehow monads, utterly unconnected to other human beings.

This is not to suggest that education and hard work don’t pay off if you aren’t white. They do. They pay off handsomely with a little luck sprinkled in. But this idea that the color of your skin simply does not matter in 2011 America is, in the words of the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli, ‘not right, it’s not even wrong’. One wonders when the last time Mr. Cain, Justice Thomas or Juan Williams was stopped for driving while black.