Monday, September 28, 2009


For this, my fiftieth post, I promised to turn to the eternal question, the one that has bedeviled human beings since the first of our protohuman ancestors vocalized a thought, namely: “What’s for dinner?” I wonder how you would feel if I told you that Dawkins, pictured on the left, was on the menu.

Did that thought fill you with revulsion? It did me, because I rather like the little girl, even though she bites our feet and tracks slightly moist kitty litter onto the bed in the morning. But, really. Why not eat her? Why not brain the little sucker, bleed her, skin her, cut her into parts, hang her up to let her age (the meat we eat is decomposing, you know - after all, rigor mortis makes for tough chewing), then joint her, and cook her up in some olive oil, sprinkled with rosemary, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper? Yum yum. Why make pets of some animals, but imprison, fatten up, slaughter, and then chomp down others? Intelligence cannot be the dividing line — she’s is not very bright, trust me — so why should cuteness be?

I have been troubled by this question for some years now. On what warrant do we claim the moral right to select certain animals for food and lethal medical experimentation, but not others? I have no satisfactory answer to the question. Clearly the mere fact that something benefits us does not make it moral. I long ago concluded that higher-order primates, our evolutionary cousins, must absolutely be left alone, regardless of any impediment it puts in place to scientific research. We share something on the order of 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, for example, and I can locate no rational defense for performing experiments on them, or for making them perform circus tricks for us, that, were we to be consistent, wouldn’t also apply to certain human beings with cognitive impairments.

Anyway, dinner. About a year ago, my wife and I made a quite conscious decision to become flexitarians - consumers of a mostly vegetarian diet who aren’t dogmatic about occasionally eating meat. We reduced our consumption of meat, poultry, pork, and fish from about six dinners per week to one, and did the same with lunches. (Breakfast was mostly vegetarian anyway.) Some flexitarians would say that we need to go further still, which is why I prefer Mark Bittman’s term “lessmeattarianism” to describe our diet. We did this for a variety of reasons.

First, we are utterly convinced that industrial meat production is cruel to the animal and environmentally damaging. On these grounds alone, there would be sufficient cause to stop or hugely reduce meat eating. Add to that the following fact: the average steak or piece of pork or poultry from the supermarket, shrink-wrapped onto styrofoam, doesn’t taste like anything - it's basically a dead delivery vehicle for spices and sauces. Might as well save the money.

When we do eat meat now, we try to select it carefully from those rare vendors whose practices, we believe, are more ethical and ecologically sustainable, and which result in a better-tasting critter. (We have abandoned our former favourite fast-food, sushi, altogether: either it’s fake, the seafood equivalent of McDonald’s — that bright red tuna is dyed, people — or real but involving endangered fish flown in from the Pacific, in which case it’s environmentally catastrophic.) I realize that some vegans in particular would rebut that we are therefore simply reducing the amount of murder that we’re complicit in, but, as I’m constantly reminding my moral relativist students, the number of corpses one generates does matter.

Our second reason for reducing meat consumption concerns matters of health. While we’re convinced that there’s no particular evidence that eating meat generally is bad for your health, the enormous quantity of meat that most Westerners eat almost certainly is, if only because it comes at the expense of other things that are good for us, which is to say, plants. The dismissal of vegetables as "food's food" used to be a joke around our house, but no more, and people who don't eat them would be amazed with how good they taste if you prepare them properly.

And what has been the consequences of all this? Well, for one, we’re better and more imaginative cooks. I’ve lost 14 pounds by this expedient alone. My resting heart rate is down. My blood pressure is down. My cholesterol is down. Our grocery bill is down, too - by about one-third per month.

But, for me, at least, there’s something lacking. An important point of any personal ethics is that you should never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing, in theory, at least, to do yourself. (Educators take note.) Therefore, I feel that it’s rapidly coming to the point where I’m going to have to get my hands dirty or else give up meat altogether. That means that I either have to try hunting or at the very least witness the slaughter of a cow, pig, or chicken first hand. I made this point earlier when I discussed the death penalty - that people who support the death penalty, it seems to me, have an obligation to support public executions or at the very least must witness an execution sometime. The people calling for blood, I said, don’t get to shield their eyes from it when it’s spilled. And the people eating the flesh of animal shouldn’t get to pretend that it’s something other than what it actually is.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Here’s a headline that you don’t see very often: “Psychic Wins Lottery.” And why not? If their powers of divination are real, then that sort of headline should be as trivial and commonplace as ones about Senators having sex with staffers. Moreover, clairvoyants should be cleaning up in casinos, racetracks, stock exchanges, and on their SATs. But they never seem to. Well, they say, we only use our gift for good, not evil. The powers of prognostication come screeching to a halt when personal gain is involved - and the Psychic Friends Network, I suppose, is a nonprofit organization. But let us take the point as granted. That being the case, why not win the lottery and donate the proceeds to charity?

A couple of years before she died, my mother, on a lark, went to a psychic for a reading, and returned slightly surprised by the accuracy with which the alleged medium could divine the details of her life. Reviewing a tape of the proceedings later – this was provided for an additional fee, of course – she was rather less impressed. Upon a second glance, it was clear that the alleged psychic was doing nothing more than the crudest kind of cold reading and was not even very good at it. Her supposed “hits” were actually generalities or elaborations upon information that my mother had herself volunteered. And would it be grotesque of me to mention that the alleged psychic failed to note a rather big event on my mother’s horizon - the imminent discovery of a nearly 100% lethal form of cancer?

Some psychics, quite clearly, are entirely conscious charlatans. Others, I think, really believe they have some sort of gift. By way of comparison, a British psychologist named Christopher French did an interesting study of dowsers, and demonstrated quite clearly that none of them could locate water at a level above what we’d expect by random chance. A curious thing, though: the dowers themselves concluded that it was it the test that was faulty, not their alleged powers, even though these had conclusively failed them. In any case, no psychic or alleged mindreader has yet met managed to demonstrate their abilities under reasonable scientific controls. Nor have they have been anecdotally impressive, in my opinion. Not one among America’s psychics gave us a clear warning of the events of September 11th, 2001? None among the mystics in that most superstitious of cities, New Orleans, saw Katrina coming? Is it too much to ask for just one accurate, specific prediction of a forthcoming global event? No, the powers don’t work that way, they say. The spirits of the departed are with us and sending us messages, but, for some reason, the messages arrive in the form of generalities and banalities or in messages left in tea leaves and Tarot Cards. They never arrive as clear as day: “Your grandmother is saying, ‘I left the meatball recipe tucked into page 580 of the Joy of Cooking. Also, go with the 5-year, 6% GIC instead of the Mutual Fund. Trust me on this. Weather is terrific - wish you were here. Love, Grandma. P.S., my new e-mail is’ ”

Polls show that about half of people believe in psychic phenomenon, past lives, reincarnation and the like, but, then, half of people also believe that the sun goes around the Earth, and a Harris poll from 2003 found that more than a third of people believe in astrology. In other words, a lot of people will believe in anything. Allow me to observe that since about 80 percent of people in the United States and Canada are Christians, the simultaneous belief by about half of them in such things as Horoscopes and reincarnation and spirit photography means, as I have said before, that many among the allegedly religious haven’t got a clue what their own churches teach.

Belief in paranormal phenomena tends to decline as education rises. People with graduate degrees are much less likely to believe in psychics and astrology and whatnot than, say, your average high-school dropout. I point this out because it reinforces my belief that education tends to cultivate the rational mind. Admittedly, I have met some smart people who have told me some spooky things about psychics that I can’t explain. But I do know that elaborate deception, trickery, or the failure of one’s own comprehension of an event are vastly more probable than the idea that a weirdo with a deck of cards or a crystal ball can violate the physical laws of the universe - but never win the lottery, too.

Nonetheless, some people will say that they do believe in this sort of thing, and that in times of trouble it gives them great comfort to drop some money on a reading by Madame Mysteriouso and her crystal ball. Who am I to rain on their paranormal parade? Fair enough - whatever gets you through the night. But who are they to rain on my rationalist parade, to make me smile and nod while they profess their belief systems without giving me a moment to express mine? The possession of any belief carries with it a vital corollary: you can believe whatever you want, provided you leave other people alone. And if you can’t keep it to yourself, if you absolutely must tell it on the mountain, then you have to be willing to listen to others in return, and sometimes you aren’t going to like what they have to say.

I want more than anecdote. I want real proof - the kind of proof that would pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal. If you tell me that there’s a ghost in your house, I want cameras from multiple angles to capture the moment that the candlestick moves on its own and Newton’s Second Law falls. If you tell me that there are spirits all around us, I want scientific instruments to measure their presence, not some crank with a crystal ball telling me that somebody whose whose name that starts with “M”, possibly Mary or Margaret or Melissa, and who might have had some sort of illness related possibly somehow to the chest area, and who possibly passed in the last few years, is here with us now, and wants to send me some messages that could have come from any greeting card. Please.

Want to really impress me? I’ll pick a word at random from the Oxford English Dictionary, write it down, and seal it in an envelope. Get your psychic to tell me what the word is.