Texas Book Festival 2010
Just a few choice tidbits
20101026.1000CT Saturday, Back to Life: Humanizing Medical Mysteries
Two books: sleeping sickness epidemic and the Henrietta Lacks story.
- Narrative in science writing makes it much easier for people to follow, but accuracy is more important. Distinguish the definitive from the possible.
- The most stealth disease: the sleeping sickness epidemic in the 1920s. Her [the author's] grandmother had it, slept for 180 days, doctors didn't know if she would ever awaken. She never did recover fully from it, did not finish school.
- When she started to do research for the book, there were zero books on the topic. Not one.
- You can't judge human experimentation back then by today's standards.
- Sleeping sickness probably shadows some other contagion, like the 1918 flu epidemic or strep. Still unknown.
20101017.1600CT Sunday, Sam Harris, "The Moral Landscape"
- Reasons not to criticize religion? Not the existence of God. Usually the argument is that religion is "the only way to think about morality."
- Is there such a thing as a universal "moral truth?" There are cultures that do not try to maximize well-being for all. For example, consider the treatment of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan. He talked to a seemingly otherwise reasonable person who didn't think that there is any moral problem with that. He asked, Suppose there were a culture that removed the eyes from every third child. Would that be okay? Answer: well, sure, if their scripture said it, like "Every third one shall walk in darkness" or something like that. This is not a hypothetical. This was a real person, a woman. A bioethicist, no less.
- Separate facts and values. There is no framework we can use to judge values as there is for facts.
- What is the moral spectrum like? The worst possible misery for everyone all the time is at one end of it, so there is a clear direction toward better moral situations. [I don't buy this argument. It is not a one-dimensional spectrum with clear uphill-downhill direction. It's a multi-dimensional space, not well-ordered.]
- Can't define well-being? Can't define health, either. Is it just life expectancy? It's a pretty flexible concept, but this is not thought to be a problem. No one challenges the underpinnings of medicine.
- There's no right answer to the question, "What is food?" But the difference between food and poison is clear. Well, mostly. There are always exceptions, e.g., peanut allergies.
- Requirements of any plausible method of argument: respect for evidence, logical consistency, intellectual honesty, understanding of the way the world actually works, and parsimony.
- The moral landscape has peaks and valleys. And there are anomalies like the happy Nazis at Auschwitz.
- Religious extremism is not necessarily a problem by itself. However, the *ideas* in some religions are problems by themselves. Examples:
- Infidels are fit only for the fires of hell: either convert them or put them to the sword.
- The best possible life is to die defending true Islam.
- The Catholic church is more concerned about stopping contraception than about stopping the sexual abuse of children.
- Look at people's behavior to understand their beliefs.