Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Books with facts in them

Some nonfiction notes:

:: I've always had a soft spot for conspiracy theories. I've never actually believed in any of them, but I've always like them in a lot of ways. The best ones are wild and wooly and complex, demonstrating a lot of knowledge of history just to make them work. But I tended to like conspiracy theories more before 9-11-01 happened; since then, I find a great deal of conspiracy theory unconvincing and even depressing at times. Maybe it was because the prime conspiracist event of the late 20th century, the JFK assassination, happened before I was born; seeing conspiracy theories take root amidst the rubble of an event that I lived through (9-11, obviously) has a very different flavor. Plus, I always enjoyed the more wild-and-wooly conspiracy notions, the ones that had JFK being killed because he was somehow involved with the UFO crash in Roswell.

As much as I've always been generally entertained by conspiracy theories, I've never found them convincing. Not a one. Fun to think about, interesting as a 'what if' exercise, but ultimately unconvincing, because I find that there are almost never actual arguments made for a conspiracy theory. There is rarely any evidence cited in favor of a specific conspiracy theory; instead, 'arguments' are made, usually in the form of questions, that are designed to make the 'official' account seem questionable, or unbelievable, or ludicrous.

I had a friend on Facebook who, one day, posted a kind of cryptic message, something to the effect of "Like this post if you agree that 60 is less than 150", or something like that. The next day, he posted, "For those of you who agree that 60 is less than 150, you now admit that the Pentagon could not have been hit by a plane with a 150-foot wingspan, since the hole in the Pentagon was only 60 feet wide." That logic made perfect sense in his head, and no amount of argument otherwise – did he really think that a plane throttling full-speed into the side of a building would leave an airplane-shaped hole, Wile E. Coyote-like, in the wall? -- would budge him from his position. But never was there any sense of "This is who was really responsible for 9-11" in his arguments; it was all a mishmash of 'How could a plane leave THAT hole in the side of the building?' and 'How could there be that much dust from the collapse of the twin towers?' and a lot of other stuff that I suppose is convincing to some.

As time went on, this particular guy started embracing more and more conspiracy theories about recent historical events, right up to, and including, the JFK assassination. That's where I get off the bus. And that brings me to the book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground, by Jonathan Kay. This book is more of an exploration of the kinds of people who populate conspiracy-land, as opposed to blow-by-blow analyses of the conspiracy theories themselves. Most of the book seems to revolve around two distinct sets of conspiracy theories, the ones which happen to be the most prevalent today: 9-11-01 theories, and 'Obama birth' theories.

Kay seems to really want to go out of his way to point out just how reasonable all the various theorists are, and he strenuously avoids direct characterization of their views as, well, batshit crazy. But it's hard to escape the impression that he really does think they're batshit crazy, such as when he points out that one prominent figure in the 9-11 Truth community is treated as an authority on the 9-11 stuff, while his odd beliefs that the world is ruled by intergalactic lizards is mostly ignored by the Truthers. Kay also seems pretty convinced of the benevolent motivations of journalists, which in this day and age strikes me as fairly naïve.

Where the book is most effective is in the places where he traces the Truthers' beliefs backwards, showing how they very often cannot resist just stopping at 9-11 – the event that jolted them into conspiracy beliefs – but tend to use 9-11 as a jumping point into the very long history of conspiracy beliefs. This means that if you start following the 9-11 conspiracy trail – go down the rabbit hole, as it were – you soon find yourself discussing Bilderbergers, the Trilateral Commission, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and, of course, the assassination of President Kennedy. As Kay puts it:

I did drive away from the interview with one lesson solidly in hand: Scratch the surface of a middle-aged 9-11 Truther, and you are almost guaranteed to find a JFK conspiracist.

He might as well have omitted the 'middle-aged' proviso there; my afore-mentioned FB friend has gone on record as being a JFK conspiracist as well – and he's in his early 20s. More recent postings – and comments offered to him by fellow travelers – are full of the usual suspects. Bilderberg. Trilateral commission. Lather, rinse, repeat...until the next traumatic event that hits the American consciousness.

:: From 9-11 to a slightly less controversial topic: Evolution! I was motivated to read up on evolution after a fairly depressing, but really very predictable, recent discovery of mine that my church's pastor is a dyed-in-the-wool creationist. (I know, that's not really the shock of the century. But still....) So I read through Richard Dawkins's book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I had never read any Dawkins before, and now that I have, well...let's just say that I continue to pine for the loss of Carl Sagan.

I have no problem at all with Dawkins's arguments or beliefs (although I am not convinced by what little I have read of his arguments against religion). The Greatest Show on Earth is full of appreciation for, and evidence of, the evolutionary view of biology. I've always found something deeply beautiful, satisfying, and just true about evolution. It's a theory that is so powerful, so persuasive, and so majestic in its revelation of what is possible in this universe of ours that I almost always find it terribly disappointing to encounter people who would rather believe that God just put all the various species here, fully formed. "There is grandeur in this view of life," Charles Darwin wrote (quoted by Dawkins). I just don't find any grandeur in a literal reading of Genesis.

What gets me about Dawkins, though, is his writing tone. I don't much care for smugness, even if it's coming from someone I agree with passionately, and there's just a smug tone that runs all through the book. There are even places where Dawkins dials this up to eleven, such as this, which precedes a discussion of a fairly technical experiment some scientists performed:

Lenski and his colleagues exploited that opportunity, in a controlled way, in the lab. Their work is extremely thorough and careful in every detail. The details really contribute to the impact of the evidence for evolution that these experiments provide, and I am therefore not going to stint in explaining them. This means that the next few pages are inevitably somewhat intricate – not difficult, just intricately detailed. It would probably be best not to read this section of the book when tired, at the end of a long day.

Ye Gods. I recommend this book if you're looking for a good summary of the evidence in favor of evolution (and that evidence is staggeringly one-sided). But if you're looking for a poetic treatment of science, well...Richard Dawkins is, sadly, no Sagan or Feynman in that respect.

:: Finally, just because the title caught my eye at the library, I checked out a book called Record Collecting for Girls by Courtney E. Smith (who, according to her bio blurb, spent time working for MTV amongst other musical pursuits). It's a pretty amusing book, which is as much a book of advice for woman music collectors as it is a collection of possibly helpful insights into women that men might find helpful. She has chapters on music for specific stages in relationships, her thoughts on the music media's constant quest for "the next Madonna", rules for maintaining a Top Five Artists list ("You must own all the full-length albums released by any artist in your Top Five", "Artists cannot be in your Top Five Artists of All Time if they only released one album", et cetera), and a lot more.

I always enjoy reading books like this. Smith's writing style is blunt and opinionated and fun; like the best music writing, it works even if one isn't all that familiar with the music being written about (I'm a good test case for this). My favorite chapter, which made me laugh a lot, was a chapter that explores in some depth Smith's unbreakable rule: Never date a guy who likes The Smiths too much.

I have more of a love/hate relationship with The Smiths. Sometimes their songs are just perfect for a foul mood or a clever moment. Sometimes they exasperate me to the point where I consider poking out my own eardrums with a Q-tip.


If you ask a man who his favorite musicians are and he starts naming people you don't know well, the first thing to do is check out their songs, right? I urge you to listen to the lyrics closely; they can be telling. Most guys I know claim to listen more for the music than the words, but if they really love an artists, you can bet they know the lyrics sheets up, down, backwards, and inside out. So, if you listen to someone's favorite music and hear references to gruesome murders, painful breakups, and intense feelings of isolation, then you would presume this man is a bit of a sad bastard, would you not?

Now, I have zero idea if this is accurate in any way, as I have, to my knowledge, never even heard a song by The Smiths. But then, I probably wouldn't be too successful dating a girl who was really into Black Sabbath.

(Hmmm...come to that, I have no idea if The Wife is into Black Sabbath at all....)


SK Waller said...

One of those that both entertain and baffle me is that each of the Beatles was replaced by a faux by the Illuminati. It takes the Paul is Dead theory way out there. Their evidence? The members of the group look different than they did in the 1960s. Well, yeah. They would, wouldn't they...

M. D. Jackson said...

The world run by intergalactic lizards? Pah!

Everyone know it's run by mole men from the center of the earth! What planet are these guys on?

And about the Smiths... that's a fairly accurate assessment. A rock journalist once said of the Smiths lead singer, Morrisey, that he went from godhead to dickhead in the space of a year.