Atheist Scruples: do your (jury) duty

July 19, 2014

Today’s question:

You are interviewed for jury duty. It will be a long and tedious trial. Do you pretend to have opinions which will disqualify you?

I’d say I don’t have to pretend. I wouldn’t say this to avoid jury duty, though. It’s part of the system to assess a level of guilt but it’s a flawed system and doesn’t always work to actually put the right person behind bars.

I would be honest and I would say that I know eye witness testimony is too unreliable to use as proof of someone’s guilt. There have been so many studies done illustrating just how crappy we are at remembering things that happened.

Our eyes only see what’s directly in front of us. The rest of the details are peripheral and I think the brain pretty much makes the world up as our eyes flick around. Isn’t there thought that peripheral vision evolved to keep us on our toes so we’re aware of what’s around us even if we don’t have a clear view of exactly what it is? Is it dangerous, or merely a tree branch waving during a sudden gust of wind?

I know a car just drove by and I noticed the brake lights were on. It looked kind of black and maybe was an SUV but there’d be no way in hell I’d want to go up on a witness stand three years from now and declare that yes, indeed, that was the killer’s car. “I remember it so clearly, like it was yesterday…”

Like hell.

We don’t even recall our memories, matter of fact. All we really do is tell ourselves a story about the story we think we told ourselves the last time. Our brains are very good at inventing detail and over time will add more to the story than was actually there to begin with. That black SUV I mentioned earlier? It totally was full of teenagers and their music was super loud and I know that because I remember there was some thunder.. and I’m just bullshitting the audience and myself at the same time. Nothing but the truth, your Honour.

I’ll have to hunt for a link to this and update later because I can’t find anything at the moment. Memory is shit but I don’t think I made this up:

I recall reading about a teacher who, the day (day after?) the towers fell in New York, had his students write essays about where they were, who they were with and what they were doing the moment that happened. The teacher took the essays and filed them away for a while. A few years later, he asked the same kids to write down where they were, who they were with and what they were doing at the time, and then compared the new essays with the old ones. Many kids thought the old ones were made up. They’d already convinced themselves of a different inner memory of those moments.

Apparently it’s also possible to doctor an image and have people recall being in a hot air balloon even though they’ve never been off the ground. I can’t find the link to that one either, unfortunately.

There’s this though. Look into something called change blindness. If patrons don’t even notice the person who was serving them at a counter just switched shirts or gender or skin colour, I can’t honestly put much faith in someone else’s faith in their observational skills, or their memories.


Psychologist underfire for planting satanic cult memories

December 7, 2011

(Note: This was typed up prior to my hand injury. I like that WordPress lets people schedule posts to run later. Too bad I didn’t see the future and prepare more of these…)

That’s Lisa Nasseff’s story and she’s sticking to it. The Minnesota woman went for help at Castlewood Treatment Center in Ballwin once she decided to deal with her anorexia. She’s claiming the psychologist she saw over the 15 months, Mark Schwartz, duped her into believing she’d been abused by satanic practitioners.

Nasseff’s lawsuit said she was treated for anorexia with psychotropic drugs and hypnosis, which brainwashed her into believing she was repeatedly raped, had multiple personalities and suffered from and participated in satanic ritual abuse.

The lawsuit filed by Nasseff’s attorney, Kenneth Vuylsteke of Webster Groves, also claims that Schwartz implanted the false memories to keep Nasseff in the treatment center long-term because she had insurance that would pay her medical bills of $650,000.

Vuylsteke could not be reached for comment.

Castlewood’s director, Nancy Albus, and Schwartz deny the allegations. Albus reportedly pledged to fight the lawsuit, which seeks the repayment of medical expenses and punitive damages.

It’s he said/she said right now. Dr. Azfar Malik, CEO of CenterPointe psychiatric hospital in St. Charles was asked for his opinion on this case. He stated that no doctor would use hypnosis to treat an eating disorder.

“An eating disorder is a very complicated disease, and basically is treated with a medical model,” Malik said. “Hypnosis and going into the past are not indicated, there’s no data or research showing that would be the treatment of choice.”

But he also states that he’s unfamiliar with all the practices that would go on at Castlewod, saying only, “They don’t have a lot of physician oversight of the cases that I know about.”

“Oversight” being doctors keeping an eye out for questionable ethical practices? There’s mention in the article of psychologists pushing the notion of repressed memory on patients in the past but that entire style of treatment has been largely debunked. Some still like to claim it’s possible to get to the root of a problem this way anyway, though. Psychoheresy links the continued practice to some Christian counselors. Considering the accusations coming from Nasseff re: satanic rituals, would that include Scwartz, I wonder? No way to know from where I’m sitting. Psychologists operate from a position of authority and it’s important for the patient to be able to trust the treatment and advice. If he did somehow abuse his power over her, and the Center did nothing about it… It will be interesting to see what comes of it. If I remember to look for an update, of course.

Until then, here’s a site that gives instructions on how you, too, can create fake memories and amuse/freak out your friends and family. I don’t actually recommend doing that; the brain’s entirely capable of inventing memories without any outside help, actually. What might be real fun are these perception tests that help demonstrate just how fallible our minds really are. Maybe it will turn out that Nasseff invented these memories all on her own.


What’s behind the veil? Probably nothing.

March 11, 2011

This is the first I’m hearing of a book called Heaven is for Real: a little boy’s astonishing story of his trip to heaven and back, by the boy’s father, an evangelical pastor named Todd Burpo. So far my library has only ordered a large print version of this for two locations, but if it’s really a runaway bestseller like the New York Times reports, we will inevitably have to get more.

Its popularity overwhelmed the publishing house, Thomas Nelson, which only printed a small first run of 40,000 copies. It’s been back to press 22 times since November in attempts to cope with demand. Word of mouth combined with marketing on religious networks and a few other stations has helped it gain momentum.

The book has sold just as strongly in national chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble as it has in Christian specialty shops, said Matt Baugher, the vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson. Mass merchants like Wal-Mart have pushed the book heavily in their stores, and large orders from churches and ministry groups are growing steadily.

“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived. “This was a very down-to-earth, conservative, quote-unquote normal Midwestern family. We became fully convinced that this story was valid. And also that it was a great story that would just take off.”

Here’s the “great story” in a nutshell. Colton was not quite to the age of four when his appendix burst and he was rushed to emergency. Upon recovery, he told his parents he’d seen heaven, Jesus, God, and a whole pile of other people, including a great-grandfather and his miscarried sister. According to the blurb posted on Amazon about that part, he “then shared impossible-to-know details about each.”

Let’s just see about that. From the Times:

Colton told his parents that he had met his younger sister in heaven, describing her as a dark-haired girl who resembled his older sister, Cassie. When the Burpos questioned him, he asked his mother, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” While his wife had suffered a miscarriage years before, Mr. Burpo said, they had not told Colton about it. “There’s just no way he could have known,” Mr. Burpo said.

Did Cassie know about the miscarriage and share that with him? I’d consider that possibility before I’d believe he went to heaven.

And the Burpos said that Colton painstakingly described images that he said he saw in heaven — like the bloody wounds on Jesus’ palms — that he had not been shown before.

He’s probably injured his own hands before (or seen Cassie or his folks hurt themselves) and heard the stories of how Jesus was hung on the cross. I think kids are capable of making connections. They’re also capable of elaborating on insane stories when they think they’ve got an attentive audience, as Pastor Dad and Faithful Mom must have been. They may have been dubious of his storytelling initially, but they still encouraged him to continue talking about it. And sometime during that they set reason and rationality aside because, more than anything, they wanted to believe their son had seen God in heaven and verified everything they ever told him about the place.

Worse, the more he talks about it, the more he’ll convince himself it really happened. Even adults fall victim to memory tricks like this, and it’s known that stress hormones affect the memory as well. Plus, how much were his folks praying and saying on the way to the hospital? They had to be worried about his survival and they could have been saying all kinds of crap – things they shouldn’t have said, things they don’t remember saying (maybe this is how he learned of Mom’s miscarriage?) – that later got jumbled by his stress-addled young brain. We’ll never know.

You know what I’m hoping? That Colton’s current interest in Greek mythology leads him to realize that all religion belongs in the mythology department and in another 10 or so years see him admit he’s become an atheist. Ideally he’d also wind up annoyed with his folks for making a little messiah out of him and for making more than a little moolah off him in the process. I understand why they wanted to share his story but I don’t think it’s a book that needed writing.


Morality Movie Monday – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

September 20, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write about this one which I watched a while back. Done in 2004, it winds up being a strange little story about a couple of people who each have a strange little procedure done to themselves so they can forget about each other. But, the story is told in such a way as to make that a bit of a surprise to discover. So yeah, I guess I might have spoiled that now, if spoilers can still exist for movies that old…

I’ll explain what I remember was important, plot-wise. Jim Carrey plays Joel and Kate Winslet plays Clementine, the woman he falls head over heels for. Twice. There’s a bit of a hitch the second time, though – neither one of them remembers the fact that Clementine deliberately had every memory of Joel wiped because she didn’t want to know him anymore and Joel was so distraught and upset over that, he later tried to do the same.

Mary (Kirsten Dunst) works for this company (that seemed less legitimate and more fly-by-night, I might add) but later discovers her boss (the always delightful Tom Wilkinson) had pretty much convinced her to go through the same treatment to get over the fact that he was never going to leave his wife and to forget she ever was in love with him. She doesn’t want to believe that shit went down, but it turns out the procedure was recorded. This is the turning point for everyone, because she quits the job and raids all the files on her way out, and delivers the vital recordings to every single person who thought that company was doing something good and beneficial to help them deal with pain.

I know I’ve said this before, but there’s nothing wrong with a little repetition if it helps a body remember something important: great or painful, experiences make us who we are. We got where we are today based on how we dealt with those experiences. Ideally, we’d all learn from a very early age how to deal with rejection and fear and loss and hurt and longing in better, more constructive ways. But we don’t. We’re ignored. We’re set aside. We’re told to shut up and cut out the tantrums but many of us aren’t shown how to get over whatever that little disappointment might have been, be it no toy at at the store or having to go to bed, or not getting to go out with friends on a school night. Probably because our parents never learned either.

So when there’s a really big disappointment, we’re lacking vital mental tools that would help us deal with that in a way that would help us grow as people instead of cripple us for years.

I hope memory erasing doesn’t become a reality. I can see it getting abused. I can see people being in charge of these machines believing they are doing a good thing when they’re really making things worse. How can you learn from a bad experience if you take away all memories you have of it? You can’t erase the memories of everyone around you at the same time, so they’ll all remember that crazy relationship that sent you around the bend a little, even if they are sent letters from the company requesting that nothing ever be said. Like that’s a promise easy to keep, or even worth keeping.

The idea is to learn from our experiences and hopefully not make the same mistakes twice. How can we ever hope to better ourselves if all we do is aim to forget what we did? How can we ever hope to better society if we collectively choose to forget or ignore the outcome of something that happened? Do we wind up doomed to repeat past failures when the lessons aren’t learned the first time around?


Ever been skeptical of repressed memory? You weren’t wrong

September 8, 2010

It’s good to know people look into this stuff and want to challenge perceptions about how memory works and how memory can be manipulated.

In a briefing to the US Supreme Court, Professor Richard McNally from Harvard University described the theory of repressed memory as “the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry”.

He maintains false memories can easily be created by inept therapists.

“The stress hormones that are released during a trauma tend to consolidate the memory, make it rather strong and sometimes even intrusive, as you see in post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

But Professor McNally says some abuse victims do suffer when they reassess childhood experiences much later.

“Seeing the event through the eyes of adult, they realise what has happened to them and now they experience the emotional turmoil of trauma,” he said.

The good news is that now, Professor McNally says most victims can be helped.

“Things have changed, happily. We now have treatments that work,” he said.

They’re trying cognitive behaviour therapy, apparently. Something I might benefit from, perhaps – something about learning how to break repetitive negative thoughts about ourselves or situations that may have nothing at all to do with us, yet wind up feeling like the opposite is happening.

Oh, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve assumed that…this week…

Ahaahahaa.. Yeah…

The first article mentions the need to help people develop resilience, something not everyone is good at doing. Some of the suggestions for just how to do this fall into sham guru woo territory (like affirmations, increasing spirituality), but other points are good ones, like understanding why we feel an emotion like sadness or stress, making sure we’re attributing it to the right cause as opposed to making up something else and thus making the feeling worse. Or the idea that we decide how we will react in situations. We control that, not some outside force. We can choose a better, (read: less psycho nut bitch from hell) reaction to life’s downs.

Exercise also gets a mention as a good way to make endorphins spin the mood wheel into the happy zone. I know I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately – 6 hours one day, an hour or more another day.. I thought I was doing that because I was frikkin bored, but maybe my need for getting active stems from a desire to not get caught in those stupid brain loops I often find myself in. If exercise keeps my brain from reverting back to Mope Mode, I’d best do more of it.

The brain is such a complex thing, isn’t it? And all we have are paltry words to describe it, and eyes to read the instruments that measure it, even though our eyes and vision are completely controlled by the very things we try to measure. How do we know we’re seeing what we’re “supposed” to be seeing…


Advice Avenue via Atheist Street no. 5

December 13, 2009

Here I am, stealing Billy Graham’s mail again. It’s from December 12th:

Q: I know God has forgiven me for all the bad things I did when I was young, but will I ever forget them? They haunt me all the time because I know my life would have been much different if I just hadn’t chosen to go down the wrong road. — Mrs. A.J.

I’ll answer this in a very roundabout way. A favourite book of mine is one called Uhura’s Song by Janet Hagan. Dr. McCoy is down on a colony world dealing with a pandemic so Kirk and company wind up taking another doc with them in search of the origin world that might have a cure. Only a few locals suspect an origin world even exists, one of those being Uhura’s friend, a singer/songwriter from the colony and now a victim of this plague. Uhura’s only clues come from songs her friend secretly shared.

The locals on the origin world turn out to have very long and perfect memories and pass all knowledge by song or “how it happened” verbatim stories. Uhura and the rest of the team have a hell of a time getting answers out of them, though, because somewhere down the line, people stopped sharing some of that information, deliberately allowing history to be lost in the process.

Some stuff goes on, some dangerous travel goes on, and Evan, their substitute doctor, winds up with a case of the nerves after an animal attack that nearly kills her and a new friend. Later, Spock offers to tweak Evan’s brain and remove the memories that are troubling her (p.253). Evan can hardly believe Spock would suggest such a thing. She’s surprised that Vulcans wouldn’t have a taboo over that kind of mind manipulation, then quotes a Russian proverb: Not a word can be omitted from a song.

“Think, Mr. Spock. All I am is a collection of memories and experiences; that’s all I have to go on as I meet new situations. So anything I remember may be crucial to my survival. Can you sit there and blandly propose to … rob me of what is most valuable to me, to steal a portion of what defines me as a person?”
/snip
“That’s all I have, Mr. Spock. It’s all I am.”

Nobody can erase the past. Maybe we can pretend it didn’t happen, but the truth is, we are the product of our experiences and the experiences of those around us. That’s what shapes us. Regrets are going to be part and parcel of that because there will always be opportunities passed, risks not taken, fears allowed to flourish and arrogance allowed to bloom. The best we can do is forgive our past selves, make peace with our past selves and try to move forward.

Graham responds by quoting the bible instead of non-canon Trek, but makes the same points.

I often say in this column that you can’t change the past — and it’s true. But you can change the future, and that should be your focus. And one of the things you can change — with God’s help — is your habit of constantly dredging up your memories of the past. The Apostle Paul did terrible things as a young man, imprisoning Christians and doing his best to stamp out the church. But all this changed once he became a follower of Jesus: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on … to win the prize for which God has called me” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Ask God to fill you with His love, and with the truth of His forgiveness in Christ. Then ask Him to help you to be grateful for your life right now, and to guide you in the future. Don’t yearn after the life you might have had (but never will), but “be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5).

As an atheist I tut the God need in this, but agree with the advice. Try to stop wondering what might have been. Think about what’s good now and what makes you happy, and who you love.

Your past made you who you are, but it can’t define who you are unless you let it.


Commandment number 11: Thou shalt not plagiarize

January 7, 2009

That one must have chipped off when old Moses was lugging those stone tablets down the mountain. During his Conversations with God, author Neale Donald Walsch never talked about the punishment for plagiarizing, I guess.

Neale Donald Walsch, author of the best-selling series “Conversations With God,” recently posted a personal Christmas essay on the spiritual Web site Beliefnet.com about his son’s kindergarten winter pageant.

During a dress rehearsal, he wrote, a group of children spelled out the title of a song, “Christmas Love,” with each child holding up a letter. One girl held the “m” upside down, so that it appeared as a “w,” and it looked as if the group was spelling “Christ Was Love.” It was a heartwarming Christmas story from a writer known for his spiritual teachings.

Except it never happened — to him.

Mr. Walsch’s story was nearly identical to an essay by a writer named Candy Chand, which was originally published 10 years ago in Clarity, a spiritual magazine, and has been circulating on the Web ever since. Mr. Walsch now says he made a mistake in believing the story was something that had actually come from his personal experience.

Funny how the mind tricks a person, eh? Walsch has now apologized to Ms. Chand for the incident and is boggled by the realization that he’s been passing off someone else’s history as his own for a decade. He had completely convinced himself that it was his story he was telling.

Candy Chand doubts his sincerity.

“If he knew this was wrong, he should have known it was wrong before he got caught,” she said. “Quite frankly, I’m not buying it.”

Ms. Chand said that she had seen others take credit for writing the story twice in church newsletters, but that this was the first time she had seen a professional appropriate her words.

“I have strong issue with anyone who would appear to plagiarize my work and pretend it is his own,” she said. “That takes away from the truth of the material, it takes away from the miracle that occurred, because people begin to question what they can believe anymore.

“As a professional writer, when someone appears to plagiarize, they damage the industry, they damage other writers’ credibility and they hurt the reader because they never know what to believe anymore.

Now she’s worried people are going to think she stole it from him.

Memory is a funny thing. It’s so damned selective and subjective. I remember (har har) a time in high school where a friend started telling me about this funny thing that happened and I had to stop her and say, “Yes, I know. I was there.” She had no recollection of me being involved in what happened at all.

I think I believe him. I think the mind is a bizarre little haven for the weird and the wacky. I think it’s totally possible that, given enough time, a person can create memories of things they’ve never experienced. If he’d told the anecdote enough times over the years, I don’t find it at all surprising that he’d get to a point where he thought what happened had happened to him. The memory plays tricks all the time. Why should this be any different?

Oh, right, because he “remembered” the event and published it nearly verbatim of Ms. Chand’s copy-written experience. Big boo boo there.

Speaking of Mr. Walsch, she asked: “Has the man who writes best-selling books about his ‘Conversations With God’ also heard God’s commandments? ‘Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie, and thou shalt not covet another author’s property’?”

Yeah, I guess an eleventh commandment would have been overkill. Good thing that god was so succinct. Too bad Walsch wasn’t listening.


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