Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

HONOR ROLL OF SCIENTIFIC TRUTHSEEKERS

Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.
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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

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How deeply the liberal arts crowd is Snowed by science

Worth noting today (Sun Jul 30) is the introduction to Holland Cotter’s piece on plague art in the New York Times. Desperately Painting the Plague perfectly encapsulates the current vision of AIDS in the minds of the arts crowd who have been—if they were gay—among its most frequent victims.

Some of us thought the end of a world had come when AIDS started picking off friends and lovers in the 1980’s, and in a sense it had. A certain world really did end. Yet even that experience left us unequipped to imagine the kind of despair today blanketing parts of Africa, where the disease has spread monstrously, reducing whole communities to less than a memory, to nothing.

In other words, the AIDS fable is swallowed hook, line and sinker by such reporters and critics. If you are in any field of art, you naturally assume that the science conveyed to you by fellow mainstream science reporters is beyond challenge, having a kind of biblical authority. That you might be misinformed in this respect is not worth thinking about because science is simply not your business.

Such people repeat the conventional wisdom and embroider it in lurid terms because they are not aware that conventional AIDS science is being challenged in the best scientific literature itself, and has not been able to reply to the criticism. The idea that it has been demonstrated not to be an infectious disease in heterosexuals, or that it cannot easily be found in Africa, would be entirely alien to Hollan Cotter’s vision of African AIDS, “where the disease has spread monstrously, reducing whole communities to less than a memory, to nothing.”

In this way, the false claims of AIDS scientists that AIDS is an infectious disease and has spread across Africa, Asia and the rest of the world are propagandized best by those who know absolutely nothing about it other than what they are told, or what they experience of “AIDS” as interpreted through the spectacles they are handed by others.

That their trust in authority is being abused, and that they are acting as propagandists for what the most intensely reviewed top scientific literature says is a Big Lie, would surprise them as much as those war supporters who believed that the governments of the US and the UK had established that Saddam was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Is it possible that this particular lesson of the Iraq war might make it just a little bit easier to gain public and political support for outside review of AIDS and its fables? The next months will tell us, as the upcoming story in one of the nation’s most respected liberal periodicals on Duesberg and his trials and tribulations hits the newstands.

But somehow one doubts that Holland Cotter will be in the vanguard of such calls for reasessment. His taste is simply not for “tangibles”. As C. P. Snow once complained, there are two cultures, science and the arts, and they do not often meet in the same individual. Here is how he ends his piece.

This approach also prompts an encouraging thought. Maybe someday in the future, when we are not here, a few bright scholars will re-examine art produced in response to AIDS in the United States in the late 20th century, and in Africa at the beginning of the 21st century. And maybe those scholars will choose to focus not on the comparative quality of objects or styles, but on intangible elements that science tends to be shy of: how art provokes emotion and conveys belief, and how a certain kind of art, at a certain time, gave certain people who felt the earth had been swept away beneath them a place to stand.

Maybe the “bright scholars” of the future reassessing the art produced in response to “AIDS” will in fact marvel at the ability of artists to put themselves in the service of whatever ideas are handed to them by scientists and provoke the requisite emotions and convey the requisite beliefs on behalf of any cock-and-bull story they are told however lethal in its effects on their own lives.

And if the scholars are able to remain sympathetic in the face of this abdication of thought, maybe they will cry for the tragic vulnerability of artists to the scientists that suckered them, as well as the cultural loss of a generation of artists decimated by this confidence game.

In one way AIDS is, in Kafka’s phrase, a cage in search of a song bird, and it has found plenty.

Here is the full Desperately Painting the Plague piece.

(show)

The New York Times

July 29, 2005

Desperately Painting the Plague

By HOLLAND COTTER

WORCESTER, Mass. — Some of us thought the end of a world had come when AIDS started picking off friends and lovers in the 1980’s, and in a sense it had. A certain world really did end. Yet even that experience left us unequipped to imagine the kind of despair today blanketing parts of Africa, where the disease has spread monstrously, reducing whole communities to less than a memory, to nothing.

Pandemics of one kind or another have always terrorized human history. And where science has been helpless and politics mute, religion and art have responded. That response is the subject of “Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800,” at the Worcester Art Museum, a small, penumbral, single-minded exhibition that does at least one thing museum shows almost never do.

It presents mainstream Christian “high art,” church art, in terms of function rather than form. The 35 paintings included are considered as devotional icons rather than as old master monuments. They are viewed from an existential rather than a doctrinal or sociopolitical perspective; through the eyes of a believer for whom a picture of the Virgin is a moral lesson and an emotional encounter before it is a Tiepolo or a Tintoretto.

Although Americans have relatively little trouble seeing African or Indian sculpture – art that isn’t really “us” – in this light, Judeo-Christian religious art is another story. It’s as if we are afraid of what it once was, or embarrassed by it, or simply unaware of its very specific power to answer, in the case of the paintings gathered here, a culture’s cry of pain.

Pain in the form of pestilence is taken as a divine rebuke to human sin in the Old Testament, a directive telling us to shape up, now: admit our guilt, change our ways, humble ourselves. And sometimes contrition worked.

When a shattering plague struck Rome in 590, Pope Gregory the Great led the citizens in a penitential procession through the city streets, petitioning heaven for relief. Legend has it that as he approached the papal fortress that was once the tomb of the emperor Hadrian, he saw the archangel Michael perched on its summit, sheathing his sword. Soon afterward, the crisis lifted.

The image of the archangel was quickly adopted as a talisman against disease, to be appealed to when needed. And the need was frequent.

For centuries, one part of Europe or another was either recovering from a plague, embroiled in one or anticipating a recurrence. Cholera and typhus probably accounted for some of these calamities, but the most famous killer was the bubonic plague, the Black Death.

Transmitted by flea-infested rats, it probably arrived in Italy in the 14th century on trading ships from Asia. It spread fast in congested cities, and its primary symptoms were unmistakable and grotesque. They included agonizing swellings at the neck, under the arms and in the groin, and subcutaneous bleeding that turned parts of the body a bruiselike black.

The only sure cure was avoidance. The rich hightailed it to the countryside. Inside the towns, quarantine went into effect, with the sick isolated in prisonlike infirmaries called lazarettos. Named for the man Jesus raised from the dead in the Gospels, they were often hopeless places, crowded and filthy. Confinement could be a death sentence.

Or so say reports from the 16th century onward, by people who witnessed epidemics in Rome, Naples, Venice and elsewhere. In each city, holy images were marshaled as a first line of defense. Some were old and time-tested, others whipped up on the spot. Still others were produced as tokens of thanks once danger had passed, as was the case with Guido Reni’s towering painting of St. Michael trouncing Satan, a copy of which, by Giovanni Andrea Sirani, is in the show.

Many saints in addition to Michael were enlisted in the cause. St. Sebastian was a standby. A young soldier sentenced to death in ancient Rome for his religious beliefs, he had been tied to a tree, shot with arrows, then nursed back to health by fellow Christians. Both the method of his punishment – the arrow was an ancient plague symbol – and the fact of his recovery made him a natural as a protector.

He appears several times in the exhibition. And in a deftly sketched oil painting by Jacopo Bassano, probably intended as a ceremonial banner, he is accompanied by a fellow disease-fighter, St. Roch.

Roch was actually a product of plague-panic. He first turns up in popular culture in the 14th century, with a reputation for having cared for and cured victims in Italy before catching the disease himself. Thanks to the miraculous ministrations of a pet dog, he regained his health. But he never forgot his ordeal: he is traditionally depicted pointing to a plague swelling or sore on his thigh.

Some hero-saints were historical near-contemporaries of artists who painted them. St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), the aristocratic archbishop of Milan, was one. He tended to the sick during the pestilence of 1576-77 and walked the streets barefoot, carrying a large cross. He is the subject of numerous pictures, including some, like one done by Antiveduto Grammatica around 1619, that have the immediacy of portraiture.

And then there are the icons, like Anthony Van Dyck’s paintings of the Sicilian St. Rosalie, clearly spun from the air. Rosalie was an obscure figure even by provincial standards. But when her remains were fortuitously “discovered” near Palermo in 1624, the year the city was hit by plague, she was elevated to official intercessor on behalf of the city.

Van Dyck, who was in Palermo at the time, was asked to create an image of her, and he cooked up a shrewd all-purpose pastiche. He gave her a Franciscan-brown robe and the long, tangled hair of a Magdalene, but also a healthy peaches-and-cream complexion and a look of self-assured bliss as she soared heavenward.

The concept was a big hit. The enterprising artist spun out several variations on it, and two are in the show, which has been organized by an impressive quartet of scholars: Gauvin Alexander Bailey of Clark University; Pamela M. Jones of the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Franco Mormando of Boston College; and Thomas W. Worcester of the College of the Holy Cross.

Devotion alone, however, wasn’t always enough. You said your prayers, and the plague raged on. So some people pursued the more proactive, practical option of pious deeds. And no deeds were more usefully humane than the so-called corporal acts of mercy.

The church defined seven such acts. They included feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and burying the dead, and art served as an instruction manual in how they should be handled. Burial was especially crucial during epidemics, when corpses might increase the spread of infection. And the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts contributes a sanitized, promotional image of charitable interment to the exhibition.

A few artists, though, went for something stronger, an in-the-trenches realism usually avoided by religious pictures, which were meant to inspire hope and soothe fear. Carlo Coppola’s “Pestilence of 1656 in Naples” is a rare example of painting as reportage, documenting a grim scene of bodies being hauled off in hasty, unceremonious trips to what might well have been a common grave.

Giovanni Martinelli’s “Memento Mori (Death Comes to the Dinner Table)” seems to be on an entirely different conceptual tack: it’s an old-fashion allegory, as didactic as a medieval sermon. But it, too, carries a shock of real life. Three young dandies sitting down to a bounteous meal register alarmed distaste at the sight of a skeletal visitor. But a young woman in the center of the picture reacts right from the gut, gasping in horror. She knows this is the end.

In some other show, this painting might slip into ready art-historical categories: it’s vaguely Caravaggiesque, it embodies period attitudes, and so on. But in “Hope and Healing,” it has a peculiarly visceral impact, because a context has been set up that allows for that, one that accepts the idea of a religious image as, first and foremost, a trigger of feelings, an agent of interior change.

I am far from suggesting that this is the only valid approach to take to Renaissance and Baroque religious art. But it is an absorbing and instructive one, a way to establish direct connections to lives and experiences in the past that have links to the present.

This approach also prompts an encouraging thought. Maybe someday in the future, when we are not here, a few bright scholars will re-examine art produced in response to AIDS in the United States in the late 20th century, and in Africa at the beginning of the 21st century. And maybe those scholars will choose to focus not on the comparative quality of objects or styles, but on intangible elements that science tends to be shy of: how art provokes emotion and conveys belief, and how a certain kind of art, at a certain time, gave certain people who felt the earth had been swept away beneath them a place to stand.

* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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