Religion, Stories, and How We Carry Truths

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Over at Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander has posted a theory in regards to the origins of religion, and why they are both so ubiquitous and powerful in different cultures. It is not a particular revolutionary theory — and to be sure, Scott doesn’t claim that it is — but it is one that mirrors my own world view.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, but his ending paragraph is a good summation of his thesis:

The important thing about a religion is that it has a rallying flag that encourages it to preserve a certain culture, plus walls against the outside world. Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.

As I said, this pretty much matches my own thoughts coming into the post and thus I have no real quibbles. I do, however, have an addition to what Scott posits, which is this: Much of the reason that religion is as deeply woven into human hearts and history is that religion tells us truths in the form of stories.  Continue Reading

In Which I Take the Free Scientology Personality Test and Become Even More Insuferable


Though it is 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, the Church of Scientology visitors center I am exploring is bustling with activity. It’s so full of people that I have to serpentine my way around bodies to get to my test-taking station. Still, it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

The test-taking stations are spartan, just a row of desks agains the wall, each with a small electronic timer and a jar of #2 pencils. Surrounding these desks are a myriad of sales displays, offering hundreds if not thousands of books and videos by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — any of which, I have been assured by the nice woman at the front desk, would make a great gift. As I said, it’s mid-afternoon on a workday, but all of the test stations are filled will people who, like me, are busy filling out scantron sheets.

The test we are all taking is the Oxford Capacity Analysis™, the proprietary “free personality test” Scientologists use to both rate and entice new members. (If you have ever passed a Scientology Church, you’ve likely seen a sandwich board inviting you to take this test.) When I signed up to take the test an hour prior I asked about the name, and the nice woman at the front desk explained to me that the test was developed by a team of scientists at “the university.”

“The university?” I ask, my eyebrows shooting up despite myself.

“”Oh yes,” she nods enthusiastically, mistaking my incredulous expression with one of confusion. “Oxford is a very famous college in England, you see. It’s filled with the world’s greatest minds. It’s why they chose to make the test for us, because they recognized the brilliance of what L. Ron Hubbard was doing.”

She’s wrong about this, of course. The Oxford Capacity Analysis™ is in no way affiliated with Oxford the university — or, for that matter, Oxford the dictionary, shirt, press, or comma. Nor was it developed by a team of scientists. Indeed, it wasn’t developed by a team at all. It was actually created in 1959 by Ray Kemp, whose credentials outside the Church are vague, and whose sole qualification as best I can tell was that he was a friend of Hubbard. Continue Reading

Dispatches from around the web

Behold, dear readers, the first installment of an occasional, irregularly-spaced Blinded Trials feature!

For those of you who might have a passing interest in reading what BT contributors might have written for other outlets, from time to time I’ll post a round-up of pieces that have appeared elsewhere. (This was the suggestion I liked best when I asked if people would want to know about such things a little while ago.) I have no particular schedule in mind, and I’m sure they will not all be 100% Russell like this one happens to be. Continue Reading

On being Russell

I decided to be Russell Saunders on the cusp of two jobs.

Around the time I was leaving my previous practice for the one I’m part of now, the main blog that hosts this one (still known then as The League of Ordinary Gentlemen) was launching its own new venture, a series of sub-blogs. I had a wee little blog of my own, written under my real name, and had written a relatively well-received guest post for LoOG before. (That early blog of mine now looks so amateurish to me that I cannot bring myself to read it; let us never speak of it again.) I was also a fan of Ordinary Times’ now-Editor-in-Chief Burt Likko‘s blog Not a Potted Plant, and when it migrated to become one of the new sub-blogs, it got me thinking.

Burt’s had a legal theme. Might there be one with a medical bent? Continue Reading

Should a Free Press Ever Be Self-Limiting? Open Thread

The_New_York_Times_newsroom_1942 In post on Donald Trump’s not-so-veiled threats to spill the beans about Heidi Cruz, Callum Borchers of the Washington Post noted:

“That’s the dilemma for the press. In any previous election, if the Republican presidential front-runner had threatened a rival’s spouse, journalists wouldn’t have had to think twice about covering the incident. They would have known that highlighting such crass behavior would force the candidate to pay an appropriate price. They would have felt — quite rightly — that they were fulfilling an obligation to inform the electorate, which, being composed of sensible and decent people, would react with disgust.

But the electorate’s reactions are completely backward in this campaign. Trump insults Mexicans and his poll numbers (in the GOP primary, at least) go up. He calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and his poll numbers go up. He says the military should torture terrorism suspects and murder their wives and children, and his poll numbers go up.

We know the pattern by now. Does that mean journalists’ obligation should change? Should we try to ignore Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric instead of reporting on it?

I don’t think so — not in most cases, anyway. As I’ve argued before, the duty of a free press is not to withhold information because journalists think voters will make wrong decisions with it. And Trump, by virtue of his position as the likely GOP nominee, is inherently newsworthy.”

Borchers’s conclusion seems likely right to me, but it seems worth considering more, and I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts. Is there ever a point at which a story should not be covered? What if a journalist believed a story might result in a riot? What if she believed it might redound to the credit of a demagogue? What if it might help keep/get someone as bad as an actual Hitler in power? What if it might humiliate or otherwise damage very good people without much compensatory good to be expected from it?

Of course a journalist should never lie. But can a journalist ever omit when he can reasonably predict the truth will cause far more harm than good? I’m guessing most of you will say “no.” So I want to know why not. And if you say yes, I want to know what the exceptions are.

Protip for People magazine

Dear friends at People,

It must be terribly disappointing to work hard on something, only to be forced to remove it. I know how frustrating it is when I’ve worked on an article, only to discover that it’s not going to see the light of day after all. All that effort for naught!

So bummer for all of you that you had to take down that recipe for home-made goat’s milk infant formula your website posted the other day. We’re actually kind of in the same boat, in that I had this whole long angry post I’d written in response that I had to scrap. Kindred spirits, really, you and I.

The recipe was one made up by Kristin Cavallari, a reality TV star whose existence was otherwise pretty much unknown to me up until this point. (Truth be told, People, the primary purpose you serve in my life now is to reinforce how old I am when I stare at your covers in the grocery check-out aisle and have no idea who any of the people are.) Apparently Cavallari whipped up the formula in consultation with her pediatrician (a person with whom I would love to exchange a few words), due to her children’s milk sensitivities and her own skepticism about commercial formula. You did her a solid by promoting it under your “Great Ideas” banner, an irony I noted in my now-deleted first draft. *dabs solitary tear* Continue Reading

Online People & the Cashless Society

Trigger Warning: This is going to be a long post, so those of you with short attention spans should turn back now. For everyone else, buckle in.


Over at Hit Coffee, friend and Ordinary colleague Gabriel Conroy quotes Megan McArdle’s worries about the power of government in a cashless society. Here’s Megan:

Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish.


Now consider what might happen if the government made a mistake. When I was just starting out as a journalist, the State of New York swooped down and seized all the money out of one of my bank accounts. It turned out — much later, after a series of telephone calls — that they had lost my tax return for the year that I had resided in both Illinois and New York, discovered income on my federal tax return that had not appeared on my New York State tax return, sent some letters to that effect to an old address I hadn’t lived at for some time, and neatly lifted all the money out of my bank. It took months to get it back.


I didn’t starve, merely fretted. In our world of cash, friends and family can help out someone in a situation like that. In a cashless society, the government might intercept any transaction in which someone tried to lend money to the accused.

To me, this pondering highlights a basic difference between myself and what I like to call the Online People. Continue Reading

Investing in People with Disablities

Curitiba_10_2006_05_RIT These past few weeks I have had the pleasure of having a philosophical back and forth with someone with whom I went to grad school in philosophy. He is a political philosopher who has no background in disability studies, but (I gather) a burgeoning interest in disability.

For those who don’t know, I have a rather strong personal and professional interest in disability. Much of my freelance work is about disability, and my son, Edmund, has Cri du Chat syndrome.

Former Fellow Grad Student hasn’t quite said outright that we should not accommodate people with disabilities until they are as typically functioning as possible, but has said, more or less: capital isn’t free, some people with disabilities will suck up enormous resources and we can expect very little in the way of economic return for our investment.

I have heard this So Many Times. So I dashed off a quick reply to him, and I thought I’d post it, lightly edited, here. For your consideration:

An economic input/output calculus of “is this person’s utility really worth that much investment” is difficult, if not impossible, to make for the following reasons:

a) Disability accommodations don’t only help disabled people, and we tend only to discover this after we make accommodations. They make society as a whole more productive. Ramps, lifts, and elevators turn out to be very useful for people with strollers and wheeled luggage. Large signage with symbols also helps non-native speakers and distracted drivers. Automatic doors help people carrying lots of stuff. Redundant mutli-modal cueing (e.g. signs and announcements) help fewer get lost in large public spaces. A lamp that turns on with a gentle swipe or voice activation can be useful if I’m cooking and I have raw meat all over my hands. Many of us get disabled temporarily, and any one of us could be permanently disabled in a split second.

b) Likewise, things that initially are for other purposes have turned out to be powerful tools for disabled people. Edmund can’t talk with his mouth, but he can communicates using an iPad app that shows picture symbols. The iPad says the word he means. A few hundred bucks, and he has a working mouth. His speech isn’t chronologically typical but it’s functioning speech.

c) There is no reliable way to predict what disabled people will do. At Edmund’s birth we were told, based on MRIs, he would be blind, he would never notice objects in his environment, he would be mostly deaf. He would never walk or talk. So, he’s six. He walks with a walker, he just started standing by himself, doesn’t have vision or hearing problems that we know of, has the receptive language of a three-year-old, is able to (with iPad or sign language) put together 1-3 word sentences. At this point, I think there’s no reason to assume he won’t be doing some sort of productive economic work at some point in his life, especially given advances in technology and education. Yet it was suggested to me by more than one doctor that we sign a DNR. Think of it this way. We have only been educating all disabled people for about 40 years. We have very little long term data on how to educate disabled people, but some is starting to come in. The more that comes in, the better we will get at it, and the cheaper it will become. Also, the more disabled people we educate, the cheaper it will become. Given unanticipated changes in technology, there’s really no telling what he’ll be able to do. Maybe he’ll bag groceries for a few hours a week with assistance. I think it’s perfectly possible — actually more plausible — he’ll do something significantly more independent than that. But he would have been written off. Would have been a shame.

d) If we design for universal access, then “accommodations” are a hell of a lot cheaper and costs come down.

e) Even in my son’s lifetime, the costs of disability equipment have come way down (the voice output device that people used before iPads, for example, was thousands of dollars). You can’t predict accurately into the future what someone will cost, so it is cruel to withhold investment.

I just see no reason not to invest in any disabled person to some sort of basic opportunity level. There might also be something to be said for a society that doesn’t only invest in those who might expect to return an investment economically, but invest in those who return the investment non-economically. Say, in making or society a more moral, beautiful, friendly, kind one.

Hello, I Must Be Going…

Hello, World! My name is Tod, and I am the new Blinded Trials intern.

Over the course of the coming weeks, months, and years, I will be fetching coffee, collating various reports, and picking up dry-cleaning for Russell and Elizabeth. I will also, upon occasion, be writing some cockamamie thing or another and posting it on these very pages.

Exactly which cockamamie things I will be writing about is not so clear, yet. Likely, it will be everything that doesn’t fit under the topic umbrellas of either Politics or Things People Will Pay Me Money For. That — to give fair warning — will likely mean some pretty weird s**t. Previously published examples of things I have written that don’t fall into the two umbrellas mentioned above include a fake press release from Michael Bay on his decision to cast Vin Diesel as Jesus, a lost House at Pooh Corner story where Roo gets shot by poachers, and an update of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory so dark that it somehow makes Roald Dahl seem like a sunnier version of Beatrix Potter by comparison.  I also do a lot of live story-telling for the Moth, RISK!, and other joints, and I suspect I will be posting some of those recordings from time to time as well.

Those of you who found your way here from Ordinary Times likely already know who I am. For those of you who came here following Russell or Elizabeth, I am looking forward to getting to meet your acquaintance. To that end, allow me a brief introduction:

I live in the Pacific Northwest with my wife and two startlingly grownup boys. I also have two cats, who are quite naughty and should be ashamed of themselves. ((They know what they did.)) Once upon a time I was a risk manager, but now I mostly write for magazines such as Marie Claire who clearly never read what I submit to them. ((It’s likely that when I do have a piece published, I’ll mention here — but only if I have an anecdote or two from writing the piece that I feel I want to talk about, or think that you, dear reader, might find entertaining.)) I am also working with the lovely and phenomenally talented Maud Kelly ((No relation)) on a podcast we hope we might be able to eventually syndicate. ((I will likely be chronicling it’s inevitable, epic failure here on these pages for your amusement!)) I’m fun for the whole family, come in a variety of sizes and colors, and I make a great gift. If you allow me into your home, I promise to sit in the far corner and not make very much noise. You’ll never even know I am there.

Finally, let me just say that I am tremendously excited to be here, shamelessly riding the coattails of two of the best writers I know. I look forward to getting to know y’all. ((Oh, also: I use the word “y’all” a lot. Apologies in advance.))

Zootopia, che cozz?

Mr_big When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: institutional racism and crude Italian-American stereotypes.

I had gone to see Zootopia with my kids. B/B+. Pretty cute, but not Disney’s best. It’s mildly funny, in usual kid picture way – some jokes for the kids (a sloth caught speeding), some meant to be lobbed over their heads at the parents (Breaking Bad references). My kids loved it, but for God’s sake, despite hearing all relevant aesthetic arguments they still love Garfield the Movie, so no one should ever take their opinion as any reflection of a movie’s merit.

HOWEVER. I am here neither to sing its praises nor bemoan its shortcomings qua entertainment. I am here to write of its morality. It means to be taken very seriously as a message to the audience of the evils institutional racism. Not as self-serious as Crash, but maybe only a few frames shy.

Briefly, in the city of Zootopia, all animals have shed their species’ genetic destiny to become the animal they wish to be. We follow bunny protagonist, Judy Hopps, as she defies expectations that she farm. She becomes the first bunny cop. Both explicitly and implicitly, though, the characters clearly have not shed their beliefs that anatomy is destiny – exhibiting their damaging prejudices against other species and groups of species (e.g., foxes are seen as sly, prey distrust predators).

It’s a much more clever and subtle message movie than Crash, actually. (Not that that’s difficult. And not that any movie, even children’s movies, need be a message movie.) It has a very nuanced understanding of the ways bias keeps an animal down in the world. The species do not, with one glaring exception which will be discussed below, strictly correspond to any one human ethnic group or race. There are, though, moments, experienced by the animals that recall human biases – one animal is complimented for being “articulate.”

Enter the arctic shrews. In this insightful movie about racism and bias, the filmmakers suddenly saw fit to pull out EVERY SINGLE ITALIAN-AMERICAN STEREOTYPE POSSIBLE. And unlike any other species in the movie that I can recall, these are the only species that are correlated to a specific ethnic group. Not played for any understanding whatsoever of course. Just for laffs!

Big hair with tons of product? Check. Murderous mafia criminality? Check. Over-sentimentality about family? Check. Charming moral ambiguity? Check. Criminal but doting father and willfully oblivious daughter? Check. Rat pack (ha) music? Check. Penchant for cannoli? Check. Not heavily burdened with intellect? Check. A boss with subordinates bound by loyalty ahead of any other virtue? Check.

Mr. Big, you see, is supposed to be Don Corleone. Which is funny, or something. You know, for kids!

I felt bad and somewhat guilty, leaving the movie theater. My kids are half-Jewish, half-Italian. (I contribute the Jewish.) My oldest is aware of the Holocaust in general terms, and has been teased with a few anti-Semitic comments. He overheard my husband and I talking to each other about how off-putting we found those scenes. Until that moment, as far as I know, he had never known that his half-Italian-ness was something anyone would mock.

His slump down and glance away from us is something that all the careful parental talks afterward can never erase from my heart. Thank you for raising awareness, Zootopia.