The Persistence of Pseudoscience


For a long time, from the days of the ancient Greeks to the advent of modern medicine in the early 19th century, physicians believed in the four humors that governed the human body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Medical cures, so mocked by Moliere in his comedies, consisted mostly in purging and bloodletting. This was not based on any evidence and we know now that it did more harm than good. With advances in chemistry, alchemy disappeared completely. In other areas we have not moved ahead at the same rate. Astronomy has made great strides with the perfection of the telescope and remarkably sensitive electronic image sensors and yet astrology is flourishing also. People read their horoscopes which rely on the position of the sun and stars in the Zodiac and many believe in them. (Ronald Reagan was a devotee during his Presidency)

Psychology has emerged as a distinct experiment-based discipline divorced from philosophy. Yet parapsychology persists. It concerns itself with clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy and near-death experiences. To return to medicine, homeopathy is the belief that the substance that causes the symptoms can be used to cure the symptoms. But then it argues that diluting that substance reinforces its potency.

Often pseudoscience hides behind scientific sounding names. Deepak Chopra’s “quantum healing” relies on the body’s self-correcting and self-healing capacities. It sounds impressive but also a little arcane. The explanation is vague like that of the Delphic Oracles that can apply to many situations, depending on personal interpretation.

The most recent manifestation of the anti-scientific attitude is the mobilization against the vaccination of children. Some parents suddenly decided that vaccination was harmful and are putting their children at risk of illnesses that were thought to have been conquered. At the same time they are endangering the health of other children. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey affirms that parents’ rights allow them to do this. And now Rand Paul has jumped into the fray announcing that he “has heard of children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Are they vying for the know-nothings’ vote or could it be that they sincerely adhere to these notions?

Some people believe in numerology or creatures like the Yeti or Loch Ness monster. It all depends on your suggestibility. Rational reasons are mixed with superstition and they are often hard to disentangle. I know many persons who believe in Qi, the Chinese concept that says that vital energy circulates around the body. Jeopardy contestants often bring lucky charms to the contest. It probably boosts their confidence and allows them to perform better. Auto-suggestion and self-hypnosis may be at work here and may account for any benefits derived from belief.

Science however, relies on experiments that can be replicated and verified and on peer evaluation. It starts with a hypothesis and if that hypothesis cannot be independently confirmed, then no matter how alluring and beguiling it appears it needs to be modified or discarded.

To Me, This Is Total Evil

Female Palestinian suicide bombers attend a news conference in Gaza

On our television screens we have recently seen ordinary looking individuals matter-of- factly informing us that they will behead persons they do not even know. Their faces are covered in black. Their eyes are vacant. But these are not deformed monsters or extraterrestrials. Such persons live among us. Most recently, these messengers of Allah plunged us several centuries down into the Middle Ages when heretics were burned at the stake.

This is not killing out of fear or necessity or for profit. To me this is total evil. Fanatics are ruthlessly enforcing religious doctrines like blasphemy and apostasy. This is behavior that intelligent human beings abandoned and left behind long ago. This heinous ideology is spreading and metastasizing like an epidemic, infecting more and more people and we do not seem to know how to counter it.

I believe we were wrong in not more widely publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons for which journalists have died. We should have published these cartoons en masse to present a united front against this creeping ideology but we seem to have lost our moorings when it comes to what should be tolerated and what should not. In the name of tolerance we accept behavior that should be condemned.

We are retreating from asserting our beliefs and convictions just as Galileo was forced to retreat from his scientific observations because the Church ordered him to do so.

Some people like Sam Harris go even further in defending freedom of speech. He believes that Germany should not have enacted laws against holocaust denial because such statements should be answered by discourse not by legislation.

Some disenchanted Western recruits to Jihadism have started to preach a message of integration and are trying to dissuade young people who feel rejected and marginalized from falling prey to brainwashing and alluring promises of a noble martyrdom It is a good beginning. We should find more ways to persuade these young people that there are better goals to achieve. For an interesting example of this, take a look at

Your comments are encouraged and greatly appreciated.

Recycling for Artists, Musicians and Cooks


Recycling is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the ages, artists have borrowed ideas, tunes and pictures and have incorporated them into their own art, building something original in the process. Musicians thought nothing of using a famous melody like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (also known as “Ah vous dirai-je maman”) or hymns like “God Save the King” and creating endless variations on them. There is an aria called “La Folia” which appears to have no known origin but was used in many countries by baroque composers to improvise and embroider upon. In his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky used two national anthems and a cannon.

The most beautiful quilts incorporate remnants skillfully stitched together into original patterns and transform the materials beyond recognition.

Cooks cleverly use leftovers and repackage them in novel ways. Think of wontons, blintzes, crepes and various soups and casseroles.

We have all seen “installations” in museums which consist of “objets trouves” (found bits and pieces) rearranged and camouflaged into new structures and sculptures.
In costume making you can use leftover material from older creations and you have a new outfit on your hands. Maybe that is the meaning of the saying: There is nothing new under the sun.

The artist Matisse found himself in a wheelchair after undergoing surgery in 1941. As a result he invented a new art form with his cutouts. He would cut out strips of paper, paint them in various hues and shape them into vast arrangements suggesting swimming figures, birds flying or a spray of flowers. He called it: Painting with scissors. He said, “This work constitutes my real self.”

David Hockney mixed digital photographic collages, film and paintings and created a totally original art form. Some of his works include multiple viewpoints so a figure can be seen from various angles. He also used his iPad to edit and rearrange various shots.

I have seen people sitting on a bench in a museum facing his creations totally transfixed by the constantly evolving images which vanish and come back in a different shape. Hockney does not consider himself avant-garde. He says, “In a world without rules it is impossible to be on the cutting edge. Every picture is an account of me looking at something.”

I like the idea of the fluidity of objects reshaping themselves in a kaleidoscopic dance.

A Woman Ahead of Her Time


(Above, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, seated, with Susan B. Anthony)

The name of Susan B. Anthony is the one most associated with the 19th Amendment which gave Women in the United States the right to vote. She pursued this goal single-mindedly throughout her life. It seems to me, however, that her friend and associate Elizabeth Cady-Stanton is actually the more interesting personality in the fight for women’s equality.

It was Cady-Stanton who initiated the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention which was the first Women’s Rights Convention in the US. Her interests went far beyond women’s voting rights and included a whole range of privileges to which men felt entitled but which were denied to women: employment and property rights, divorce rights and jury service.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton had enjoyed an education usually reserved for boys. She studied Greek, Latin and mathematics and was an excellent speaker and writer.
In “Declaration of Sentiments”, she proclaimed that men and women were created equal and that as an individual a woman must rely on herself. Elizabeth was married with seven children and did not think that her husband should be dictating her actions. She also believed that a woman should have control over her sexual life and childbearing.
In “The Woman’s Bible” she wrote: “The custom of calling women Mrs. John This and Mrs. Tom That is founded on the principle that white men are the lords of all.”

Of the Bible, she said “I know of no other book that so fully teaches the subjugation and degradation of women.
What power is it that makes a Hindu woman burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds a Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Can we ever cultivate any sense of self-respect as long as women take such sentiments from their priesthood?” Yes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was also an agnostic.

Women in France only got the vote in 1944. In 1971, Switzerland became the last nation in Western Europe to let women vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was way ahead of her time.

Meandering Through Town Names


What do the towns of Naples (Italy) and Novgorod (Russia) have in common? Both their names mean “New City.” Starting with that thought, I was led to wonder why so many town names end with town (or ton), ville, city, burg or polis. Did their inhabitants want the world to know that they lived in an important, big metropolis and not in some God-forsaken village?

We have Daly City, Sioux City, Rapid City and many others. The French ending “ville” shows up in Emeryville, Louisville, Fayetteville and others probably because people wanted to honor the city founder or some other important historical figure. The Greek equivalent “polis” appears in Indianapolis and Minneapolis, and town (or ton) in Hampton, Middleton, Charleston and Georgetown. Finally the German “burg” is found in Gettysburg and Pittsburgh among others. Ham which derives from “home “attaches itself to Gotham, Effingham, Birmingham and many more.

The ancient city of Jerusalem (In Hebrew Yerushalaim) is thought to derive from Ir Shalom which means City of Peace. Alas, it has never lived up to that noble name. For most of its existence it has been fought over by too many tribes, nations and religions.

In the Middle East beyt or beit means “house of” in both Hebrew and Arabic, hence Beyt Lehem (House of Bread) which we know as Bethlehem and Beyt Shemesh (House of the Sun).

Israel has quite a few interesting place names: Tel Aviv means “Mound of Spring”, Beer Sheva “Well of Seven”, the oldest town is Rishon Le Zion which means “First to Zion.” Herzliyah honors Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and Caesaria, known for its Roman ruins, derives from Caesar.

Nowadays I live in the city of Oakland in California. Its older name was Encinal. In 1829 the land surrounding it was given to Luis Peralta by the Spanish governor to form a settlement. Later the land was divided among his four sons. Antonio Peralta received the portion which is now Oakland. It had a big grove of oak trees, hence the name.

As for our neighboring city, Berkeley, it was named for Bishop George Berkeley (pronounced Barklay) the eminent British philosopher who arrived in town in 1866. It was thought to be a fitting name for a University town.
Bishop Berkeley’s portrait hangs in California Hall on campus.