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Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: am I a feminist? Damn straight I am. By what definition? This one:

There are just two pieces of dogma in my understanding of feminism:

1. Society deals with gender in a way that harms women

2. This is a problem that must be corrected

You’ll notice that they have nothing to do with: men, race, class, liberty, religion, teleology, biology, consumerism, violence, sex, or shoes. This is deliberate.

Next, this picture.


The thing is: maybe they shouldn’t. This is a manifestation of what some researchers call benevolent sexism. It’s characterized by the belief that “women are pure, moral, pedestal-worthy objects of men’s adoration, protection, and provision. People who endorse benevolent sexism feel positively toward women, but only when women conform to highly traditional ideals about “how women should be.” [See this post]

Moreover, “Benevolent sexism motivates chivalrous acts that many women may welcome, such as a man’s offer to lift heavy boxes or install the new computer. While the path to benevolent sexism may be paved with good intentions, it reinforces the assumption that men possess greater competence than women, whom benevolent sexists view as wonderful, but weak and fragile.”

In other words, this could actually be the complete picture.

I’m not saying this is established fact, but it’s very much worth thinking about. Read more here and here.

In any case, please don’t interpret the above as my being against affirmative action for women. In fact, I think placing women in leadership roles (even if they don’t “win” those roles in competition with men) can create very beneficial results for entire societies. This experiment strongly supports that idea.

A British man came to a Sheikh and asked, “Why is it not permissible in Islam for women to shake hands with men?”

The Sheikh said, “Can you shake hands with Queen Elizabeth?”

The British man said, “Of course not, there are only certain people who can shake hands with Queen Elizabeth.”

The Sheikh replied, “Our women are queens and queens do not shake hands with strange men.”

Then the British man asked the Sheikh, “Why do your girls cover up their body and hair?”

The Sheikh smiled and got two sweets; he opened the first one and kept the other one closed. He threw them both on the dusty floor and asked the British man, “If I ask you to take one of the sweets which one will you choose?”

The British man replied, “The covered one.”

The Sheikh said, “That’s how we treat and see our women.”


I really hate this story. I’ll choose to ignore the fact that the analogy uses a consumption good to represent a woman, but does it not strike anyone as offensive that the justification for the dress code for women is provided solely in terms of what men might or might not find desirable? Sweets don’t have opinions, feelings, freedoms or rights; are we to treat women as though they don’t either?

Oh and by the way, apparently Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with all sorts of people, Sheikhs included.


Today I want to talk about rape. More specifically, I want to talk about certain reactions to rape that seem to be prevalent in our society. I’ll start by addressing the issue of blame/responsibility. You’ve all heard the comments: “It’s her fault for being out that late, and dressed like that, too” – that sort of thing. How are we to interpret such statements? What exactly does it mean when you place the blame for a crime on the victim of the crime?


Deconstructing the Blame for Rape
Let’s look at it this way – the act of rape is something we as a society disapprove of. We are so averse to rapes that we ascribe to them the status of criminal acts. This means that we have decided that after an act of rape occurs, someone involved in the rape must be punished. Thankfully, though, the vast majority of people who “blame” women for rapes do not mean that after the rape has occurred, it is against the woman that criminal proceedings should be initiated. The few exceptions to this would probably consist entirely of Taliban-style religious fundamentalists. Since I am no miracle-monger, I shall make no efforts to try to change the beliefs of this set of people.

There is another way to “blame” a woman for being raped, though – by placing what I’ll call primary causal responsibility upon her, rather than on the rapist. Causal responsibility is different from criminal responsibility in that the person with causal responsibility does not automatically qualify for punishment. However, that person is the one whose actions caused the rape to occur.

Once we’ve made the distinction between causal and criminal responsibility, those borderline-misogynistic comments start to make a little more sense: what (most) people mean when they blame women for being raped is that they believe that the rape occurred primarily because of the women’s actions. If those women had acted differently – if only they had been a bit more prudent in their sartorial choices for instance, the distasteful act of rape would have been avoided.

This is ridiculous, but unfortunately, it seems that it is not obviously ridiculous, since so many people feel this way. Hence, I feel the need to go into some detail in trying to explain why it is ridiculous.


Debates over Causal Responsibility Encourage Rapists
But before doing that, let’s acknowledge that, while not nearly as bad as placing criminal responsibility on women, placing causal responsibility for rape on them also results in extremely undesirable consequences. It does so in at least three ways.

1. You’re Letting Rapists Go Free
Firstly, it results in half-hearted pursuit of punishment for the rapist. The police officers refuse to acknowledge that a rape has occurred (“She obviously wanted something like that to happen”), the judge feels that “under the circumstances, the man’s actions were somewhat understandable”, and so on. Amidst all the obsessing about what the victim did or did not do, people lose sight of the perpetrator, the rapist, who deserves to be punished.

Now, anyone with a modicum of common sense will realize that severe punishments for rapists would go a long way towards drastically reducing the occurrence of rape; and conversely, that lackadaisical prosecution of rapists is no way to deal with the problem. To reiterate, my point is this: regardless of who or what causes the crime, swift and severe punishment of the perpetrators is one of the best ways to reduce further occurrences; and that tends not to happen when people are more concerned about the victim’s behaviour than the criminal’s.

2. You’re Providing Justification for Rape
The second reason why we should not be assigning causal responsibility for rape to women is that by doing so, we provide moral justification for rape to the sort of mind that contemplates rape. Please read that last sentence again, because I think it’s really, really important.

Assertions such as “Women in skirts get raped”, or “Women who go out alone get raped”, are likely to become self-fulfilling through their influence on the minds of would-be rapists. They are a way of encouraging rapists, and justifying their actions.

Presumably, there comes a moment in which a potential rapist must decide whether he should actually go through with rape or not. At such a moment, a refrain such as “Women in skirts get raped” would act as a confidence booster, a way for the potential rapist to tell himself that this woman deserves to be raped; that it is natural, inevitable, and not his fault.

We cannot let people think that way. We must not make it ever seem that there are circumstances in which it is natural for a woman to be raped.

3. You’re Hindering Efforts to Prevent Rape
The third pernicious effect of placing causal responsibility for rapes upon women is that that it misdirects efforts to prevent rape. Although there is some overlap, prevention and punishment are, of course, separate issues. When a society comes to believe that things like the length of a woman’s skirt are the primary causes of rape, its knee-jerk reaction will usually be to curtail the freedoms of women in one way or another, as a means to prevent rape. Such moves are undesirable in and of themselves, but in this case, I believe that they are made worse by the fact that they are not the best way to prevent rape.

This is because, as I mentioned earlier, it is ridiculous to believe that a woman’s actions/ behaviour/ speech/ appearance could be the real cause of rape. Let me return to that point now.


The Primary Cause of Rape
Rape is not new, and it was never restricted to any one population or region. Rape occurred before the words “Westernization” or “modernization” made any sense, it occurred before the Internet and TV and co-educational schooling. I suppose it even occurred before the invention of chow mein.

To put it in the terms of an experimentalist: If effect Y (rape) occurs both in the presence of and in the absence of treatment X (e.g. short skirts), then treatment X cannot possibly be the primary cause of effect Y.

The one thing that is common to every rape, everywhere, that has ever occurred is a man who has decided to gain sexual gratification through coercion of another human being (be it another man, woman or child). Rape cannot occur without this one ingredient. This is the cause of rape.

Let’s repeat that, in bold:

Rape is caused by men who decide to gain sexual gratification through coercion of another human being.

In order to prevent rape, it is this primary cause that we must aim at, rather than at various (and varying) contingent circumstances. We must reduce men’s willingness/ability to use coercion to gain sexual gratification.


Rape and Women’s Rights
That brings me to my next point: I’m tired of the whole “let’s imprison the victims – that’ll keep them safe!” mentality that rears up every time the occurrence of rape comes into the limelight. It is men’s behaviour that must be changed if we want to prevent rape, so if we have to enact restrictive laws, they should be targeted at men (the perpetrators), rather than women (the victims). Isn’t that common sense?

Are men unable to restrain their sexual desires when they catch sight of a woman on the street? If so, it is much more sensible (and fairer) to force men to wear blinkers than it is to force women to wear burkas. Forcing women to change the way they dress while not simultaneously imposing any restrictions on men is like saying to the men: “We trust you to act responsibly… even though you’re the culprits here, as you’ve proved time and time again.” Like I said, it’s crazy.

Your daughters are not the problem – keep your sons locked up if they’re a danger to society. Hell, if that’s what it takes, put them in chastity belts.

Anyway, this has turned into a bit of a rant. I’ll stop here.

Before the Taliban, Afghanistan was a pretty “normal” country, not the lawless wasteland many people describe it as today.

Today I’d like to share this fascinating and evocative photograph, taken in 1972 in Kabul. That’s right, Kabul, Afghanistan. There was a time when the sight of three young women  dressed in skirts and shirts, unaccompanied by any male relatives, would not have been unusual on the streets of the major cities of Afghanistan. Before the Taliban, there was a small, but significant minority of women in professions as varied medicine, research, and teaching. In fact, when the Taliban effectively put all the women in the country under house arrest, there was a crisis in education throughout the country because before then, the majority of teachers were women.

The Taliban era itself was, of course, unmitigated madness, but unfortunately, even after their deposition, their ideology and their influence has not receded. In March 2012, the country’s president, Hamid Karzai endorsed a “code of conduct” that he says is based on Islamic Sharia law [source]. Among the rules:

…women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices. Beating one’s wife is prohibited only if there is no “sharia-compliant reason,” …

Furthermore, it is apparently the official position of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that “women are secondary to men” [source].

What’s heartbreaking about all this is that the naive moral-relativistic cliche that Afghanistan “is and always has been a lawless land; it’s customs and traditions are its own and can never be changed” is patently false. Afghanistan has not always been a “broken 13th century county“. In the 60s and 70s,

“… there was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead.”

Returning to the photograph above, it saddens me to note that I know it will elicit negative reactions from many Muslims. It saddens me further to note that I am not talking about extremists or fundamentalists, but moderate Muslims of the sort that you are likely to meet if you live anywhere with a significant Muslim population. Their response can be summarized as follows: “What’s so great about women dressing in Western clothing? I wouldn’t want my daughter dressing like that. At least in this respect, the Taliban did something  good for that country.”

I’d like to explain my position to them. Firstly, I do not believe any style of clothing is really any better than any other style; and yes, I am aware that hundreds of thousands of women around the world choose to wear burqas in public. The point is not that women in skirts are inherently, automatically, better off than women in burqas. The point is that the women in that picture almost certainly chose to dress the way they did – they weren’t forced to dress that way. Even if we make the unrealistic assumption that “societal pressures” drove them to adhere to Western tastes, we can ask what the penalty would have been for any single woman to opt out – to choose to wear a burqa in those social circumstances. Almost certainly, it would not have involved being beaten, flogged, raped, stoned, shot, or having acid flung in her face. So not only did women in Afghanistan have more freedom in the 70s, they were also less surrounded by threats of grievous bodily harm.

Of course, one could ask, “Why should we give people the freedom to flout their religious obligations?” Well, those are deep and murky waters, and I choose to wade no further into them for now than to say – thank God for the separation of religion and governance.


It’s true if you can’t prove it to be false


That would’ve made an arresting headline, wouldn’t it? Well, guess what, Star Wars fans – it really happened. The imperial units involved weren’t stormtroopers, though; they were things like inches, feet, and pounds. It’s hard to believe, but the good folks at NASA lost the Mars Climate Observer (MCO) – a $300 million mission – in 1999 due to a failure to convert to metric units. Here’s what the Mishap Investigation Board (what a delightful understatement, by the way – to call such a screw-up a “mishap”) had to say:

The MCO MIB has determined that the root cause for the loss of the MCO
spacecraft was the failure to use metric units in the coding of a ground
software file, Small Forces, used in trajectory models. Specifically, thruster
performance data in English units instead of metric units was used in the
software application code titled SM_FORCES (small forces). A file called Angular
Momentum Desaturation (AMD) contained the output data from the
SM_FORCES software. The data in the AMD file was required to be in metric
units per existing software interface documentation, and the trajectory modelers
assumed the data was provided in metric units per the requirements.

Besides being a redeeming story that you can triumphantly relate to the old math teacher who castigated you for every careless mistake, this incident does also evoke some worrying thoughts. Yes, we all make mistakes, but most of us aren’t in a position to cause a spacecraft to careen out of orbit to crash into a planetary surface. A lot of scientists, though, have access to a lot of things that – well, are capable of creating quite a big bang. What if someone had screwed up the insertion of a satellite into geostationary orbit around the Earth, for instance?

I’m not the sort who likes to foment panic about the dangers of rapidly advancing technology, and I suppose we’ve been pretty lucky so far. The LHC did not create a black whole that swallowed up the Earth, the National Ignition Facility in California did not set the atmosphere ablaze, and no nuclear power plant has turned out to be nuclear bomb (although I suppose the government of Iran may want to change that). But it is interesting to note that as our knowledge expands, our inimitable sense of curiosity becomes ever more potentially dangerous. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, a race of extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians cause the extinction of the universe while experimenting with new energy sources. I wonder if a similar fate awaits us.


When I last used Hotmail (and I’ll admit it’s been a while), the service had recently added a feature that allowed you to categorize your email into separate folders. I wasn’t terribly impressed by this, because by that time I had already started using Gmail, and it was pretty obvious that Gmail’s system of “Labels” was way better than Hotmail’s folders. You can attach several labels to the same email in Gmail, but you could only put an email into a single folder in Hotmail. Well, it should be easy enough to see that some things don’t fit well into separate, non-overlapping categories.

I was recently reminded of this fact by a friend’s reaction – or perhaps more accurately, her reaction to my reaction to – the picture above, which I liked so much that I set it as my Facebook cover photo, along with a short description:

“Micrograph of stained hippocampal tissue. The hippocampus is the component of the brain that’s primarily responsible for the formation of new memories (Leonard Shelby, the guy in “Memento” developed severe anterograde amnesia after sustaining damage to his hippocampus – and yes, that can really happen). The pink parts are the neuron cell bodies, the blue fibers are axons, and the green fibers are supporting glial cells (which outnumber neurons 9 to 1).”

My friend pretty much told me that it was a pretty picture, and that was cool, but that it was pretentious and unnecessary to see it as anything more. Well, I disagree, but not entirely – because I do think it’s a pretty picture, but it’s also fascinating because of what it represents.

When you look at that picture, you are looking at the hardware that lay behind what was once a human mind. It’s easy to forget this, but everything that matters to you only really exists within the confines of a tiny region of the universe that you perceive as your skull. We forget this because we forget that there is hardware behind human minds. The universe is made up of various types of waves and particles – there are no sights, sounds, or smells, let alone emotions or experiences. Those things are “virtual” constructs; created by the hardware of the brain and handed on a silver platter to your consciousness – which is also, of course, created by the brain.

Every beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard, every exhilarating game of football you’ve played, every romantic experience you’ve had, is an outcome of the (currently) mysterious interactions between billions of neurons like those in the picture above. Somehow, somewhere in that mess of molecules are things like a picture of a human being that you recognize as yourself; records, or “memories”, of the activities of entirely different groups of molecules that belonged to you a few years ago; and a whole lot more. It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring thought. And the picture up there is so much the prettier for the fact that it evokes these thoughts.

As a little bit of a contrast, take a look at the picture below, a diagram showing the structure of an animal cell.


Beyond all doubt, the ways in which cells go about their jobs is absolutely fascinating, but this picture just isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the one above, is it? So, by thinking about the two pictures, we can conclude that things that are intellectually stimulating are a separate category from things that are are aesthetically pleasing, but that the two sets are not mutually exclusive.

In short, we should’t be forced to put awesome things into non-overlapping folders like “Aesthetically Pleasing Pictures” and “Sciency Stuff”; instead, we should be able to attach both those labels to an experience, and see it as even more awesome!

Based on the overwhelming success of this blog’s last competition (a grand total of 1.5 entries, one of which was mine), I’ve decided to launch a new one. Without further ado, here’s the brief:


Contestants must come up with a marketing slogan/tagline for some kind of physical phenomenon, as though it were a product that could be sold to customers.

Marks will be awarded for:

– the degree to which phenomena are related to actual products/taglines/marketing stereotypes;

– the ability to highlight obscure phenomena or to present a novel view on more commonplace phenomena;

– and finally, for humour, too. 


The prize? Get ready for this: the winner gets… to laugh at the losers. No, seriously!

Anyway, since my entries are likely to be the only ones, I’ve decided to come up with three. Here they are:

Oh, I would SO buy that.


Hmm, there's gotta be a catch. Usually it's the unreliable products that have long warranty periods...

And finally, my favourite:

For a short explanation of how optical interference makes bubbles pretty, click here.

For details on the proton-proton chain reaction and on Cherenkov radiation, click here, and here respectively.


We all know that the Ancient Greeks thought everything in the universe was made up of four indivisible elements: Earth, Air, Water and Fire. And we all snigger superciliously at their ignorance, because we all also know that Earth and Air are mixtures, pure Water is a compound, and Fire is – wait, what is Fire?

If you were ever curious enough to ask that question, there is a significant chance that you received one of the following incorrect answers:

1. Fire is pure energy. I always found it pretty hard to wrap my head around this idea. I mean, what exactly is “pure energy”? Mass times the speed of light squared?

Well, okay, I suppose light and heat could plausibly be suggested as being forms of “pure energy”, but they both can be understood in terms that go a bit further that just “pure energy”. Light is often well described as an electromagnetic wave, and heat can be described as the stored kinetic and potential energy of atoms and molecules. In contrast, if we called fire “pure energy” and just left it at that, we would really just be saying that we had no idea what it was.

2. Fire is a plasma. This answer isn’t actually necessarily wrong – fire can create a plasma. However, the fires most of us think of when we ask the question (candle flames, forest fires, burning buildings, Molotov cocktails, etc) almost never do create a plasma. You can be pretty sure of this because these ordinary fires are not affected by electricity or magnetism. A plasma – an ionized gas – would be affected by both.

Now that we’ve got those out of the way, let’s look at the correct answer to the question What is Fire?

Fire is a mixture of incandescent matter. 

Nice, simple, one-line answer, isn’t it? I wanted to give you that right up front, so you don’t get a little distracted by some of the complicating details we’ll go into next.


Here’s the first of them. A fire can exist only in the presence of these four ingredients: heat, fuel, oxygen and a chain reaction. The fires you see around you are nearly all created during a combustion reaction between an organic compound (the fuel – an example would be the butane in your lighter) and oxygen. However, these reactions don’t usually start spontaneously – you need to provide heat to the fuel-oxygen mixture to get them started. Once the reaction gets started though, it often releases enough heat to keep itself going until all the fuel/oxygen is used up. Thus, a chain reaction keeps the fire going.

The four key ingredients in any fire are eloquently summed up by the following diagram, called the fire tetrahedron:

We now know much more than we did when we first asked the question. Here’s a quick interim summary: Under special conditions, a fuel/oxygen mixture reacts in a self-sustaining way to release incandescent matter (both gases and un-combusted solids like soot) that we perceive as fire. There’s just one last thing we need to clear up: what exactly does incandescent mean?


Once again, let’s keep things simple. We’ll start with the fact that anything that has a temperature above absolute zero (0 Kelvin, or -273 degrees Celsius) is emitting electromagnetic radiation in a process called thermal radiation. Why? Because all matter consists of charged particles (e.g. electrons and protons), and when you accelerate a charged particle, it gives off electromagnetic radiation (see Larmour Formula).  So who’s accelerating the atoms? The temperature is – when a body gains heat, its atoms/molecules begin to move about randomly (in fact, this is part of the definition of temperature), bumping into one another, and thus causing acceleration of charges.

Right, so everything around you is emitting thermal radiation in some area of the electromagnetic spectrum. The point I’m trying to get to is that some of that thermal radiation is in fact sending out visible light – and that is called incandescence. Tungsten filament bulbs work by heating tungsten to the point where its thermal radiation is in the form of visible light – i.e., by incandescence. (By the way, fluorescent lights work in a very different, and fascinating way, but let’s save that story for later). The flames in ordinary fires also give off light through incandescence.

Well, there you have it. Fire is a mixture of incandescent matter. You may now go back to mocking Aristotle.

Oh, one last thing, though: a little treat for having stuck around this long. Below is an image of a candle in space. As you’ll notice, it’s flame is pretty different from the ones we’re used to. It’s perfectly spherical, because in microgravity, there’s no “up” for the hot gases to go to, and they spread equally in all directions.

In a microgravity environment, a flame is spherical in shape

Gender inequality in triplewart seadevils : Females are more typical in appearance to other fish, whereas the males are tiny rudimentary creatures with stunted digestive systems. A male must find a female and fuse with her: he then lives parasitically, becoming little more than a sperm-producing body

A series of recent studies has shown that, on average, a woman is likely to score significantly higher than a man on several different tests of general intelligence. These studies all controlled for factors such as age, level of education, and socioeconomic background. Although men proved to be consistently better than women in very specific areas, such as tests of spatial reasoning, women’s average scores across a variety of tests were higher. This result is probably related to…


No, seriously, I made all that up. As far as I know, there is no evidence that women are generally smarter than men; or that men are generally smarter than women. However, the premise I outlined above did strike me as a very interesting “What-if?” scenario. To spell it out, What would happen if it became clear that women were generally more intelligent than men? In particular, I am interested in whether such a finding would in any way counter prevailing gender inequalities. (I should, of course, state at the outset that I believe that gender equality is something worth pursuing regardless of differences between men and women in characteristics such as general intelligence)


In much of the world, there are significant differences in basic well-being between women and men. These differences can be broadly divided into the following categories: survival inequality, unequal facilities, ownership inequality, and unequal sharing of household benefits and chores.

I think gender inequalities in all of the above categories might start to decrease rapidly if societies came to recognize women as being more intelligent than men. To begin with, take the fact that women are often denied access to facilities such as basic or higher education, or to the opportunity to work in certain occupations. They are also often not seriously considered for promotion to the highest levels of management in private and government organizations. All of that might change if people, including women themselves, came to really believe that women should be able to do as well as – if not much better than – men in all of those contexts.

The reduction in inequality in access to facilities should, in turn, result in a decrease in the survival inequality that results from the fact that women and girls’ health and nutrition are often considered to be of less importance, because of the belief that they are not as productive as the male members of the family. Similarly, there would also probably be a reduction of the inequality in sharing of household work, and in ownership of assets.


Apart from thinking about general well-being, I think it might be a good idea to focus on the difference between “well-being” and “agency”. [1] “Agency” refers to an individual’s ability to pursue goals that he/she has reason to value, regardless of whether or not they contribute to his/her personal well-being (which relates to access to basic necessities, such as adequate nutrition, healthcare, education and employment). In many parts of the world, women’s rights movements began by concentrating on the general well-being of women, but have now moved towards focusing on women’s ability to exercise their agency.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the “what-if” scenario in which the world comes to see women as significantly more intelligent than men concern the effects that this would have upon women’s agency in “conservative” societies such as that of Saudi Arabia. [2] Surely laws such as the one that prohibits women from driving cars would be repealed almost immediately? But what else? Would they begin to refuse to assent to the arranged marriages that their families set up for them? Would women claim a right not to wear a burka in public, just as men don’t? Going in a different direction, but sticking with the theme of religion, would a woman one day become the Pope?


I think it’s very interesting that many men react with a certain amount of discomfort to the idea that women might, in general, be smarter than men. I wonder why this should be so. Most men would be quite willing to accept that there must be at least a few women who are much more intelligent than they are – but I suppose they see them as exceptions, rather than the norm. But then again, many individuals are even willing to accept that whole classes of people (e.g. “the Chinese”, or “the Indians”) are, in general, smarter than they are. So what’s wrong with accepting that women, in general, might be smarter than men?

The most obvious candidate for an answer to that would, I suppose, be that the average (heterosexual, non-Indian and non-Chinese) man doesn’t expect – or particularly wish for – a great deal of interaction with Chinese or Indian people (or any other similar group), but would probably one day want to win the heart of some woman. And the assumption is probably that this would be harder if the woman proved to be smarter than him.

Somehow, I can’t get very excited about that perspective. I’m quite happy with how intelligent I am, and I don’t think that would change if I found out that the average woman is smarter than me. In general, I don’t like adversarial conceptions of human identity (male vs female, believer vs non-believer, Western vs non-Western, etc), and I don’t think  my sense of self depends on seeing men as superior to women in any particular way.


[1] For more on this perspective, see Amartya Sen’s essay Women and Men (published as part of a collection in The Argumentative Indian)

[2] Somehow, I think “conservative” may not be the right word to describe these societies, because all societies are conservative about some of their traditions. It is the particular traditions that a society chooses to “conserve” that should be used to define it, rather than the simple fact that it wishes to conserve certain values/traditions.

Therefore, rather than using the word “conservative” to describe the societies that are understood as being “not liberal”, I suggest the word “premodern”. The reason for this is that the values associated with the societies currently labelled as “liberal” – values such as gender equality, egalitarianism, religious tolerance, pluralism, etc were mostly seriously argued for only after the onset of the Modern Age.

Sometimes good ideas need to be attached to the words of great individuals before they can be taken seriously. Head over to the page “Memorable Words” for a collection of quotes that I’ve accumulated over the years. You just might like some of the ideas/points of view that they represent.

It is probably wise to exercise a great deal of caution in using treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (see Messing With Memory) that are essentially mysterious to even the people administering them. But, of course, not many people undergo ECT anyway. Homeopathy is a much more prominent example of a family of treatments of this nature. Please read the following very carefully:

If homeopathy does work, it works through some unknown mechanism that is completely foreign to our present understanding of physics and chemistry. In other words, if the laws of physics, as they stand today, are correct, then homeopathic medicine SHOULD NOT work.

Please follow this link to read a brief summary of the basic tenets of homeopathic medicine; and ask yourself seriously whether it is advisable to build ostensibly scientific theories of disease that are based on vague, undefined (and possible un-definable) terms like “the vital force of an individual”.

Consider this definition (from here) of “dynamization” – the process through which homeopathic remedies are prepared:

Dynamization: The process of increasing the vital energy, and thus the potency, of a substance through specific forms of serial dilutions, termed “succussion” or “trituration”.  Dynamization is the goal of remedy production.  It is the most characteristic aspect of homeopathy. 

Ask yourself, again: what is the “vital force” of a substance? And how could it increase when there is less of a substance in the solution? Chemistry does not normally work this way.

Having said all that, I must also note that it would be wrong for anyone to be biased against homeopathy. What this means is that if there is convincing evidence that homeopathy works, then even the most committed skeptics  must honour that evidence and adjust their beliefs about homeopathy. The fact is, though, that the evidence is missing. The following is from a 2002 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology:

Eleven independent systematic reviews were located. Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo. It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.

You will find many more studies like that if you look for them.

In sum, then, there are two crucial differences between ECT and homeopathy: first, although we do not know how ECT works, we have no reason to believe that it goes against what we already know about the brain; the same is not true of homeopathy, because the effects it claims to produce are in direct contravention of what we know about physics and chemistry. And second, there is no convincing scientific evidence that homeopathy does anything more than a placebo would; whereas there is real evidence for the therapeutic value of ECT.