Wisdom 2.0 Conference

If you're in the bay area you may be interested in the Wisdom 2.0 conference coming up at the end of April at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It promises to be

"a one-of-a-kind event that brings together
people from a variety of disciplines, including technology leaders, Zen
teachers, neuroscientists, and academics to explore how we can live
with deeper meaning and wisdom in our technology-rich age."

I've written a bit before about Buddhist approaches to technology and I think it can be an interesting area of thought (as it's been explored by philosopher David Loy, for example). On the other hand there's a lot of crap out there in the form of spiritual workshops, etc.

Some of the speakers for this do sound interesting…

It's $200 if you register early.

Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion

Galileo Interesting new book edited by historian Ronald L. Numbers: Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. From the publisher's page:

Chris Hedges on Atheism, Science, and Moral Progress

Chris Hedges's When Atheism Becomes Religion* might be of interest to readers of this blog for its critique of the scientistic thinking underlying recent books about atheism by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The book is not a defense of religion (and Hedges wrote a previous book criticizing Christian fundamentalism) but a defense of moderation. He sees these new figures as scientific utopians who have an irrational belief in moral progress and are just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists.

A quote from the last chapter:

The contemporary atheists, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in the impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good. They proclaim the violence employed in our name a virtue. They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe.

*This is the title of the new paperback edition of a book published in hardcover with the too-clever title I Don't Believe in Atheists. He should have retitled his War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while he was at it.

There's more info about Hedges at Truthdig, where he writes a column.

Googling God

Googlinggod I find this title amusing, though I know nothing else about the book: Googling God: Searching for a Faith You Can Believe in.

Further investigation, via Google of course, leads me to The Church of Google, a group of people who believe Google is God (or at least make this argument for the purpose of appearing clever on the internet).

It’s apparently not just the kooks who think this, though.  New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has made the same argument — see his 2003 column Is Google God?.  Okay, maybe Friedman is a kook.  Novelist Douglas Coupland has also compared Google with God (see this Time magazine article).  Coupland may be a kook but he’s a better writer than Friedman.

And one can’t forget Ray Kurzweil, who has said that Google’s database may evolve into a god (see this 2006 CNN Money feature that imagines four possible futures for Google, one of which is Google is God).

See also: Google image search on Google and God.

What are the True Threats to Reason?

Thethreattoreason
Dan Hind writes in New Scientist:

The Enlightenment is in mortal danger from irrational forces. We know
this because its self-styled defenders continually tell us so.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins declares, in tones which make
the flesh creep, that "primitive darkness is coming back".  Politician Dick Taverne warns that "the new Rome that science built is under siege by the barbarians". […]

No one would want to deny the challenges to the Enlightenment that are
posed by fundamentalist religion and the other forces of unreason. But
if we consider the facts dispassionately, it becomes clear they do not
deserve top billing among the enemies of free inquiry. In fact, the
institutions that noisily lay claim to the enlightened inheritance –
the corporation and the state – pose a much more serious, pervasive
threat to reason.

Link: What are the true threats to reason? (subscription required)

The article is based on a talk that Hind gave last November, and he has posted a transcript and audio of the talk at his blog: The Threat to Reason.  That’s also the name of his book, from which all of this is drawn: The Threat to Reason.  He describes it as "still the best book-length attempt to prise the Enlightenment
from the grasp of Richard Dawkins, Dick Taverne and Christopher
Hitchens."  Sounds like a fine endeavor.

History, Digitized (and Abridged)

The NYT has a feature today on the risks of (partially) digitizing libraries.  Excerpt:

These Steinbeck artifacts are not the only important pieces of history that are at risk of disappearing or being ignored in the digital age. As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

"There’s an illusion being created that all the world’s knowledge is on the Web, but we haven’t begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries," said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. "Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users."

Link: History, Digitized (and Abridged) – New York Times.

Listening to the Middle Majority on Stem Cells

Richard Hayes of the Center for Genetics and Society has an excellent article at Bioethics Forum about the current "policy stalemate" over biotech regulation.  In it he discusses a promising new report by Francis Fukuyama and Franco Furger.  From the introduction:

The stem cell wars of the past five years have been a divisive and
unpleasant affair. At the root of this sorry situation lies the fact
that the most politically influential constituencies addressing these
issues occupy opposite ends of an ideological spectrum and have
generally been unmotivated to seek workable compromises. On the one end
are religious conservatives opposed as a matter of faith and principle
to any procedures that destroy human embryos. On the other end are many
scientists and patient groups, and the biotechnology industry, opposed
to constraints on what they believe to be fundamental rights to
research, treatments, and profits.

This polarized politics has given us the worst of all possible
worlds: a policy stalemate at the federal level accompanied by a
plethora of state-level stem cell funding programs lacking the sort of
planning, ethical oversight, and regulation that biomedical research of
such consequence requires. California’s $3 billion stem cell program is
the poster child of this predicament. Since its inception in 2004 it
has been under fire for conflicts of interest, inadequate concern for
the health and safety of women who provide eggs for stem cell research,
unrepresentative policy-making bodies, and misplaced research
priorities. […]

The tragedy of this situation is that public opinion surveys
consistently show that a strong majority of Americans support a morally
serious middle ground regarding the new human genetic technologies.
Americans are not irrevocably opposed to research involving the
destruction of human embryos, but they want to make sure it is done
only after alternatives have been exhausted, and with effective
structures of public oversight in place. Americans want cures for
diseases, but few are willing to turn the genetic future of the human
species over to dismissively arrogant scientists and profit-hungry
biotech boosters. Unfortunately, no organized constituencies with
influence comparable to that of the religious conservatives or the
research/patient/bioindustrial community exist to represent this
majoritarian position in the political arena.

But this could change. Beyond Bioethics: A Proposal for Modernizing  the Regulation of Human Biotechnologies,
by Francis Fukuyama and Franco Furger, could serve as a rallying point
for those desiring an end to the current counterproductive policy
stalemate.

Link: Bioethics Forum – A Majoritarian Proposal for Governing Human Biotechnology.

“Neutral” Websites That Aren’t

Rory Litwin at Library Juice writes about Procon.org, a neutral-looking news site that claims to give you the straight dope on various controversial subjects, when in fact it’s really a deceptive effort to push certain agendas.  His post begins:

Procon.org is a new set of websites claiming to promote informed citizenship by providing “both sides of the issue” in a number of topics of debate or political interest. Its pages are designed so that students will easily notice all of the indications of reliability that information literacy instructors have taught them to look for in a web page: the group’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status and non-partisanship is prominently located in the upper left; contact information is easy to find; it’s at a dot org domain; and it is written in cool and measured prose. And the organizing principle of the site – providing the “pros and cons” – especially invites students to trust it.

I find Procon.org’s websites dangerous for undergraduates but useful in educating librarians to be better information literacy instructors.

Spending a good chunk of time with these sites provides an object lesson in how control over the way a question is framed and control over what information gets applied to it can go a long way in determining how people answer that question. The site presents questions to students, such as “Is the United States a Christian Nation?,” provides pro- and con- statements relating to them, and lets students feel that they are answering these questions for themselves. It is what you might call “guided thinking.”

Procon.org’s claim of non-partisanship and neutrality is a deceptive strategy designed to influence students’ thinking about topics like the war in Iraq, homosexuality, the ACLU, medical marijuana, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Its presentation appears at first glance to be so neutral and harmless that I fear many librarians will be fooled by it. Certainly many students will.

Link: Library Juice – Fake Neutrality: Procon.org.

The comments to the post are worth reading as well.  They demonstrate his points — many of the commenters can’t seem to tell that the site has a bias (either that or they’re just trolls trying to promote the site).

Pushing an agenda is fine, but not when you do it dishonestly to trick students and other people.  The Reader’s Comments are especially disheartening (if they’re real, and sadly I think most of them are).  For example,

  • "Thank you for your intellectual honesty and clarity. This site [Israeli-Palestinian ProCon.org] should be advertised on more traditional media so that curious members of the general public can learn. Traditional forms of news and information have let the public down by substituting salaciousness and ‘infotainment’ for facts and reasoned discourse."
    Ralph 8/6/06

  • "I love your simple, precise rendition of history. It’s better than going to school!"
    Rose 7/14/06

  • "If the world would start looking at things like this pro/con way maybe people would learn to respect each others differences a little bit more."
    Hazystrains 7/1/06

  • "I have said so often that a perfect teacher will give no clue to a student as to his personal beliefs. ProCon.org qualifies as one such teacher."
    Bart 11/12/05

  • The irony is really too much.

    I’ve visited this issue a bit before in reference to SourceWatch.org, who are truly unbiased and informative (or so say I — you can judge for yourself whether it’s just my lefty tendencies speaking), in comparison to ActivistCash.com, a site that looks like straight information, but is really run by a PR firm, in a previous post: Following the Money (Or Not) – Sniffing Out Corporate PR.

    Update: Kamy Akhavan from ProCon.org has posted a response here and also at Library Juice.  Please read them both for another viewpoint.  Perhaps I’m just too cynical for my own good.  I admit I  haven’t yet done much more than skim the ProCon sites, so if I was unfair I apologize.

    One of the main reasons I’m suspicious is the choice of topics.  There are only seven, and four are medical marijuana, gays, "under God", and the ACLU.  Who besides conservatives thinks those are the most important issues facing the US today?  They’re undeniably "hot button" or "wedge" issues, and maybe that’s the reason ProCon thinks it’s important to address them.  But simply giving prominence to a wedge issue gives some credence to it — this is part of the political strategy.  People get upset about wedge issues largely because they’re told that it’s an important controversy.

    For example (as I believe Rory pointed out at Library Juice), who asks "Is the ACLU good for America?" besides conservatives?  I can see now that the ACLU is a topic here because of the founder, Steven Markoff’s past involvement with them, and so it’s understandable that he’s written about it.  So one suggestion I’d make for ProCon is to explain (or explain more prominently) the selection of topics.

    The Internet Saves Tibet!

    Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing has been filing a four-part multimedia extravaganza of a series from Dharamsala for NPR’s Day To Day show.  It’s called "Hacking the Himalayas" and it

    explores how Western "hackers" are building low-cost communications
    networks to bring phone and Web service to displaced Tibetan refugees
    — and how native peoples are trying to hold onto their culture in an
    interconnected world.

    I’m trying to be open-minded about Xeni’s journalistic skills and about the genuine benefits that the Internet will offer to exiled Tibetans, but certain passages just make me gag.

    Inside the Gyuto Ramoche temple in the northern Indian city of
    Dharamsala, the scene is timeless, seemingly centuries old: Rows of
    scarlet-robed young monks from Tibet, hunched over prayer scrolls in
    mediation [sic].

    But outside, an antenna sits on a rooftop not
    far away. It’s one of 30 connection points in a wireless network that’s
    bringing the Internet to this remote region where communication
    technology has been expensive, unreliable and hard to come by — until
    now.

    Praise Buddha!  There’s hardly more depth to the rest of the feature, which is all written in this breathless techno-evangelist style.

    At the Tibetan Children’s Village, youngsters are learning "computer skills" like how to build web pages and do other things:

    TCV officials envision a future where Tibetan exiles man up profitable
    call centers, like the ones in India’s booming tech centers further
    south. Or e-commerce sites, selling traditional art or yak cheese
    online.

    This is progress?  And have you heard about CD-ROMs?

    Tibetan elders are also embracing technology as a way to share cultural
    knowledge. Sacred texts, once smuggled out of Tibet or hidden from the
    Chinese, are being preserved digitally. Hundreds of volumes can fit
    onto a handful of CD-ROMs.

    Link: NPR : Hacking the Himalayas.