Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Saturday, January 9, 2021

Masks reveal our belief systems

Most people seem to be complying with the provincial order to wear masks indoors. I see people parking their cars, heading barefaced for their preferred store, and then going back to get a mask to wear. Unwillingly, perhaps, but they’re doing it. 

            A few people blunder in without a mask, and are given one by a clerk. They may grumble, but they wear it. 

            And a few refuse. Utterly and totally. 

            So far, I haven’t observed any retail store ejecting non-maskers. 

            I haven’t had the nerve to ask any of these non-maskers why they won’t wear one. After all, if they’re grumpy already….

            Probably a few would cite one of the internet conspiracy theories I wrote about last week. Or claim that their human rights were being infringed -- just as they did when seat belts were introduced. 

            The most rational response would be that the experts can’t make up their minds about masks. 

            First they said masks were unnecessary. Just wash your hands and wear gloves. 

            Then they said masks might actually promote the spread of disease, by causing you to adjust them, thereby touching your face. 

            Then they said that only N95 masks offered any protection. 

            Then they said that multi-layer cloth masks would work. 

            Then they said that masks wouldn’t protect you from other people’s aerosol droplets, but they might prevent you from infecting anyone else. 

            Then they said that masks offered at least limited protection for you too. 


Ancient division

            If the authorities can’t make up their minds, the skeptics might say, if their recommendations keep changing day to day, why should we believe them?

            I use the word “believe” deliberately. Because at its roots, this is an argument about belief systems, an argument that goes back several hundred years to what historians call “The Enlightenment.” 

            Wikipedia says, “The Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason)…was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries… 

            “The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Catholic Church and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.”

            Essentially, the Enlightenment replaced authority with reason. Darwin, Newton, and Kant blazed a trail asserting that we humans could figure things out. 

            And that conviction in turn led to the scientific revolution. Which has now led us both into outer space, and into the inner space of an atom. 

            Which may seem a long way from refusing to wear a mask. Bear with me. 


Subject to disproof

            The fundamental belief of the scientific mindset is that knowledge can be disproven. As soon as one scientist produces a theory, others will attempt to disprove it. To find flaws in the thesis, or the process. 

            Only when the results of that experiment can be replicated, over and over, does a theory become widely accepted. 

            So, initially, masks were considered useless. Immediately, experimenters began testing that hypothesis. They measured aerosol transmission indoors and outdoors. Medical recommendations changed to reflect those findings. 

            That’s the scientific mindset. 

            The negative side may also appear to be figuring things out for themselves -- whether they’re against masks, or vaccinations, or simply getting their backs up because they don’t like being told what to do -- but in fact they’re looking for an authority that doesn’t keep changing its mind. 

            An absolute, unimpeachable, forever and ever, authority. 

            Which is the opposite of the scientific approach. 


Only change is trustworthy

            In science, the child of The Enlightenment, nothing is absolute. Quantum mechanics punched holes in near-sacred understandings of atoms, of astronomy, of reality itself. The discovery of DNA forced a re-thinking of evolution, to say nothing of criminal investigation. Calculus threw conventional mathematics for a loop.

            All of which offends the authoritarian mind. Because if it can change, it can’t be authoritative. 

            And yes, there are authoritarians among scientists too. Even Einstein rejected some of the “spooky” implications of quantum physics. 

            In this pandemic context, the scientific mindset accepts that medical recommendations will change as we learn more about how the coronavirus affects us. Indeed, any advice that doesn’t change will be suspect. 

            The authoritarian mindset cannot accept constant change. 

            Unfortunately, authoritarians themselves rarely agree on their authority. Some select specific texts from the Bible; or the Quran, or the Catholic magisterium. Some rely on dictionary or encyclopedia definitions (as I did, above). 

            And some, paradoxically, hang their faith on a scientific paper they once read that rejects vaccinations, for example, or refutes climate change. 

            Belief systems play out in surprising ways and surprising places. 


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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In my last Sharp Edges column, I excoriated (lovely word!) the unfounded allegations that circulate on the internet. 

            Steve Roney thought I had ignored my own advice: “Although your latest column seemed reasonably balanced, and a salient warning, I was disappointed to see you yourself bring up the old internet lie about Colin Powell lying to the UN about Saddam Hussein having WMDs. Powell was mistaken. Bad intelligence is not a lie.

            “I am not up on the Flint water crisis, but as these things go, I’d bet that a cover-up is alleged, not proven. Just as you say in your column, you must take all such internet claims with a grain of good old NaCl.

            “I also think you are naïve to say consulting a site like Snopes.com is a solution. There is nothing magic about a fact-checking site. They are no more trustworthy, in principle, than any other source on the internet. One must go to original sources, original documents. Failing that, check three internet sources that seem to span the possible political spectrum.”


Tom Watson took the other side: “There are so many stories that look so good and are so interesting but when you check them out, on Snopes or otherwise, you learn they're not true. One almost has to make a career of checking stuff out. It's time consuming!”


Ruth Shaver had an example of the way truth may be hidden within propaganda: “I was a Soviet and East European Studies major in college as the USSR and its satellites were falling apart. One of my professors kept insisting that the Soviets were putting on a show, that there was no truth to the rapid dismantling of Communist governments, that glasnostand perestroika were feints to make the U.S. drop our guard. Two others in the department, both refugees from Eastern Europe, pointed out that even if most of it were a lie, there had to be some truth at its heart because otherwise no one would believe it. They knew from lived experience the power of truth in propaganda: just enough makes it much easier for the ‘fire hose of lies’ to take effect. Thankfully, they were right in their assessment that everything was real, though I've never forgotten the lessons about propaganda and esoteric communications I learned from the gentlemen who had escaped from the lands where down was up and people walked on the sky.”


Bob Rollwagen: “When you watch the three-ring circus in the country that was once a world leader, over issues that could be settled with the application of common sense, it becomes clear that the existence of a social media that has little sense of ethical behaviour is harmful to the human existence, as it creates confusion for the public that us trying to understand [the effects of] climate adjustments on our accepted economic and social systems.”


Frank Martens made an exception: “As an atheist, I’m not one to latch on to conspiracy theories, but I was hooked on the theory that 9/11 was an inside job almost right from the start. I have read nearly every book (including the 9/11 Commission Report) and watched nearly every film made on this epic episode. I joined Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth almost immediately because their case for the fall of Building 7 of the Twin Towers group exposed the hidden elements of corruption at the highest levels of American government.

            “Richard Gage (a foremost architect from San Francisco) described 7 WTC as "the most obvious example of controlled demolition.” Was not Larry Silverstein the man who had all the buildings insured shortly before 9/11, and who said ‘pull it’ and somehow all the explosives used to demolish the building just happened to be in place?

            “In the book, The New Pearl Harbour, Professor David-Ray Griffin (a thoughtful, well-informed theologian, who before September 11 probably would not have gone anywhere near a conspiracy theory) presents evidence and arguments which he believes support a conclusion that the George W. Bush administration was complicit in the September 11, 2001, attacks, and therefore constituted a false flag incident.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.

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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: belief systems, science, Masks



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