Sunday, May 4, 2008

The belated Day of Reason post

This was intended to be submitted to a local paper for May 1st, but finals got in the way. So here it is:

The National Day of Prayer that some Americans will celebrate today (May 1st) not only violates the establishment clause of the Constitution but represents an act of negligence on all our parts. Among large populations within the United States, magical thinking persists despite all evidence against its efficacy. The common acceptance of traditional intercessory prayer and the success of non-traditional supernatural movements like Scientology or The Secret demonstrate that rationality has failed at eliminating our tendencies toward confirmation and selection biases even among those who reject fundamentalist and literalist wings of mainstream religions. While occasional lapses into magical thinking often have no negative effect, it can lead to tragedy when left unchecked.

Recently in Wisconsin, two parents were charged with second-degree reckless homicide because they failed to take their daughter to a doctor for her undiagnosed diabetes. Despite their daughter’s severe physical symptoms, the parents thought she was suffering from a “spiritual attack.” Throughout the weekend leading up to her death, they lovingly stood by her as any parent would, but they did not believe modern medicine would be more effective than prayer. If they had believed otherwise, their daughter would still be alive today.

By continuing to accept magical thinking as innocent or reasonable, we are all partially responsible for this girl’s death. Our culture needs to become actively critical of to whom or what we ascribe success and failure and how we think about probable and improbable events. Supernatural diagnoses and treatments should be evaluated with the same standards we use to judge modern medicine. With Scientologists, The Secret, and faith healers preying on our friends and relatives, we must develop rational defenses against the sorts of magical thinking that we know to be false or else more children will die from our negligence. Worst of all, though we know medicine could have treated this girl’s diabetes, many of us would have ascribed even that outcome to the grace of a supernatural agent. With our capacity to reason, we owe our children more than this. We owe them a culture that is well-informed on known cognitive biases and openly critical of suspicious claims, no matter the sensibilities that might be offended.

Please, join the many around this country asking for a National Day of Reason to replace this Day of Prayer. We believe we can do better than wishful thinking, and the evidence is on our side.

Sunday Music: Pentangle

"Light Flight." Pentangle. Live on the BBC, c.1970.

When I was 15 or 16, I had been playing jazz in school for a while, and in my search for new music I discovered my local NPR station, which played jazz in the evenings. Not long after, I happened to tune in on a Saturday evening when Julia Meek's Folktales and The Thistle and Shamrock still shared a double-bill locally. In that age before MP3, I was in the habit of taping better radio programs for later listening. I remember three songs distinctly from that particular tape.
  • A field holler about a slave who learned to read which I've never tracked down since.
  • "Four Stone Walls" by Cappercaillie
  • A song by Pentangle that featured harpsichord, which I still haven't tracked down.
Despite being of mostly English, French, and Dutch ancestry, I immediately bit the Celtic bug that was swarming through the folk community at the time. Somehow it took me a few years to finally acquire and listen to full Pentangle albums, but I spent the 90s in awe of Fairport Convention, stolen from my mother's old records, and contemporary groups like Altan, The Pogues, and Solas.

Pentangle more-or-less embodies what I like most about "world" music, when the term is meant to refer to the actual genre rather than a lumping together of all music traditions that don't fit in other record store racks. In "Light Flight", the vocal melody is unmistakably tied to English folk music, but the harmonic and rhythmic structures of the band is unmistakably jazz-influenced. Wikipedia draws a link to Dave Brubeck's work. Unlike a lot of contemporary folk rock groups, Pentangle and many other 60s and 70s British folk rock groups didn't hide their folkiness under a flat and heavy rock beat. They used the blended elements from jazz, rock, and other folk traditions to highlight the natural qualities of the music.