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In the Name of God بسم الله
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By Haji 2003 in ContemporaniaNote: I'll be updating the initial entry with additional points over time, as discussions elsewhere on Shiachat help me to flesh out the original arguments.
The popularity of 'do your own research'
This is a phrase that we are increasingly hearing. It sounds good, since it refers to going out and gathering information in order to make informed decisions. It's part of the consumer capitalist culture we have been brought up with which holds that capitalists should be able to sell whatever they want and people should be free to make their own (informed) choices. The downside for individuals is that should something go wrong, they can be held to blame for their own actions.
Do your own research and wider capitalist /liberal democratic ideology
Of course reality does not work that way and capitalists know this and hence their preference for a laissez faire economic model that emphasises low levels of regulation.
Ordinary people are notoriously bad at gathering information, analysing it and then making use of it. This is why people continue to smoke after the link with cancer has been proven and why the cigarette industry is happy to go along with whatever restrictions are placed on it (except for outright bans). This is why firms that sell fatty and sugary foods are happy to place information on their packaging (the more complicated the better) rather than have taxes imposed or even outright bans.
Capitalists encourage people to 'do their own research' because they know that most of the time people will get it wrong. Capitalist models of behaviour change are ones that say to people you are ultimately free to choose based on the informed choices that they choose to make. Those of us who live in the West have been sold this model since the Second World War and the ideological battle with countries that choose to have a higher level of government diktat and to this end capitalists have been aided by liberal democrats.
In reality that worldview works where there is no external threat to a society. When such a threat arises, as in a plague like the coronavirus, the governments have to exercise high levels of control if their priority is the greater public good. Where other priorities exist, such as the economic welfare of elites, governments' messaging may again focus on individual responsibility and open up the field for those who recommend 'doing your own research'.
What happens when people do their own research
When anti-vaxxers for example tell others to do their own 'research', they are either being naive or deliberately taking advantage of others. Because what do you research? What papers do you read and do you trust what they have to say?
People tend to read what is understandable to them and for most people that will be the polemic in a blog rather than scientific papers.
Reading the latter requires a certain minimum education and indeed patience and time, that most people do not have. So they end up reading material published by conspiracy theorists which is easy to read, but which glosses over technical issues and may just even be wrong. The following quotation is from a scientist who says that his work has been misused by conspiracy theorists and he explains why:
So why do people fall for the 'do your own research' baloney?
Because it makes them feel powerful. Following a comment below I feel I should clarify what I mean by 'powerful', since it's possible to misconstrue what I mean. My usage of the term is closer to what social psychologists may refer to as 'behavioural control'. This term is used to reflect situations such as for example being able to cook with healthier ingredients because someone has taught you how to do so.
The conspiracy theorists however subvert what is good and noble into something wholly unethical. They encourage people to believe that they have behavioural control by making simple what is complex, by misinforming, using anecdotes where statistics would be more relevant and so on. And the reason for doing this is to make their message easier to understand, more interesting to watch, share and more likely to elicit an emotional reaction.
This is not dissimilar to the recent growth in investing apps, which have drawn the following criticism (emphasis is mine):
The above context is wholly different to dealing with a pandemic, but what is common to both is people offering us a false illusion of having control over our destiny.
Having processed YouTube videos people feel that they have done their 'research' and that they can now make an informed choice. The choice making seems more 'rational' and in a cultural and educational environment where we have been brought up to celebrate rationality this seems like a good thing, in and of itself.
So in comparison to following government edicts to wear face masks, the 'own research' crowd watch some videos and consciously choose not to do so on the basis of information that they have gathered. They are therefore exercising behavioural control over their lives in a manner that they could not previously. And when challenged they can cite 'evidence' that supports their position - further enhancing their behavioural control.
The reality is of course, that wearing a mask costs very little in terms of money and behaviour change. There are many benefits to others in addition to any to the wearer. But the anti-maskers are told that wearing a mask is some kind of subjugation to government control. Choosing not to wear a mask because someone tells you that you'll breathe more CO2 as a result, sounds like an informed decision that gives you control over your own life.
God, nihilism and the human condition
This new section was inspired by the following post:
At one extreme then, the individual can feel that there is so much in the way of different perspectives, error on all sides etc. that we simply cannot identify what is the right course of healthy behaviour and what is not. In my opinion that reflects a worldview which questions God's benevolence.
In my opinion the theist would always believe that God provides us with the critical faculties that enable us to follow the right course of action. The human condition in my view is one where we have to endeavour to find what that right course of action is - and it takes cognitive effort and it requires us not to give in to emotion or laziness.
And just as the above increasingly become more challenging in a more technologically advanced world, so the tools that we have available to help us increase in their sophistication and effectiveness.
Technology allows us to keep a record of who said what and when. In the case of covid-19 we know who downplayed the seriousness of the virus from the start (likely because of their need to protect their economic interests) and we also know who recommended an abundance of caution because they knew that in the long-run a healthy population will be better off economically. Those people who took the virus seriously encourage mask wearing, social distancing and vaccinating.
That information can be used to follow individuals on social media, who have the medical expertise and benevolence to support your interests. Once you follow a reliable expert you can:
See who else they follow And you can then also follow the health experts they follow Conclusion
Few if any people are capable of 'doing their own research'. Ultimately it becomes a matter of choosing who you decide to believe. And in that regard it becomes a matter of assessing someone's character, their education, and their track record. People who believe in the concept of taqlid know exactly what the issues are here.
By Haji 2003 in ContemporaniaThe background
The starting point is the Qur'anic injunction (in various places) about the requirements of commerce. Here is some commentary from 'The Study Qur'an', I have previously noted the need to use this resource with discernment, but on this topic it seems to be ok. The following are Qur'an injunctions about buying and selling:
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Dagli, Caner K.; Dakake, Maria Massi; Lumbard, Joseph E.B.; Rustom, Mohammed. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (p. 438). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
This post is about the reasons why there is so much imperative in the Qur'an on sellers not taking advantage of their customers, the point being elaborated here is that it can be easy for sellers to take advantage. The Qur'an uses a specific context (weights and measures) but this notion can be extended to other areas of the transaction.
We can lump together all sorts of decisions that we make everyday. These can be decisions about what products and services to buy and they can be decisions about whether or not to wear masks or get vaccinated. They can also be decisions about haram and halal behaviours. Many (but not all) decisions are underpinned by the information that we have to go on.
But not all information is the same.
The information that we receive about products and services (and indeed about any life decisions) can be divided into two types, that which has high predictive value or low predictive value. The former helps better predict how a product will perform, how a virus works or what the world will be like and information of low predictive value does not do so. It's better for us clearly to rely on information that has high predictive value.
But there is a problem, not all information is equally easy to understand and use. We all know this to be the case from personal experience. Some information is easy to understand and remember, other information we may find impossible to understand, perhaps because it is too technically complex and we do not have sufficient education. This is why we split information into that with which we have high confidence and that with which we have low confidence.
If you want a more graphic illustration of what I am talking about watch this 1.5 minute video:
Morgan Spurlock provides a humorous insight into how the fast food industry 'deceives' its customers. This screengrab from the trailer gives some indication as to how it does this. Each of the labels below carries a 'meaning' for us as consumers, in each instance I think we can agree that these are positive meanings. What Spurlock does in his engaging film is to show how in reality the meanings can be far different to what we think they mean (free range) or in the case of 100% natural the word has no meaning at all, but it still feels good..
The problem we have in making sense of the world around us is that information which can better predict how products or even events and pandemics will pan out (it has high confidence value) may actually be hard to understand and evaluate (it has low confidence value). This is shown in the top right hand box below.
The human condition
An aspect of the human condition is that sometimes we can be a little lazy in our efforts to engage with information that helps us to see how things will be because it is intellectually more challenging.
This leads us down the dangerous path of following information that is easy to understand (has high confidence value), but which has low predictive value (won't really tell us what the future will be like). This is shown in the bottom left hand box in the diagram below.
Unscrupulous people will give us the latter in abundance and we will enjoy a false sense of security, but will ultimately arrive at a destination that is considerably different to what we expected. This applies both to the products and services that we buy and the ethical and moral decisions that we make and indeed the health and lifestyle choices that we follow.
The diagram below illustrates that thought leaders within society are needed to show us those things which are easy to use and can accurately tell us about reality and they're needed to explain to us those things which inform us about reality and which are hard to use. Certainly one thing which we need from societies leaders is the ability to protect us from those things which we think will help guide us and/or inform us about the way the world really is, but which in reality will not do so.
This example shows how the above can work in practice:
Here's another example, from the same article above:
Both of these examples show how consumers can make decisions off very limited amounts of information that do not fully reflect what it is that they are buying and the more important issue here is that marketers can take full advantage of this in terms of how they label products and how they photograph and present them.
By Haji 2003 in ContemporaniaWestern countries are beginning to see what it is to be Palestinian or for that matter any group that they have previously oppressed and then criticised the victims for their response. The problem the oppressed faced was that any choices they made would be bad.
If the Palestinians did not object to the occupation of their lands the assessment would have been that the appropriation was ok, if they did protest then they were the ones who were breaking the peace.
When your opponent has the best cards any hand you play will likely be a losing one.
In the 21st century, it is beginning to look as if the Chinese have the best cards. for example Huawei makes good and cost-effective telecoms infrastructure.
Western countries may have security concerns, but if they ban Huawei, they could end up with a poorer solution. Other countries that have no such qualms could benefit from the cost advantages that Huawei equipment offers. But if Western countries accept Huawei they risk entrenching the advantages that the Chinese have, as well as the claimed security risks.
Sanctions have been a preferred Western method of taking action against countries that have fallen out of favour. But this tool only works where you have something the other person wants, when the situation is reversed - you can end up damaging yourself.
By Haji 2003 in ContemporaniaJurassic Park
Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park says "You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you never bothered to ask if you should."
Are changing attitudes towards transgenderism a function of technology?
Would it be a fair assessment of human history to say that whenever we have developed the capability to do something we have, and whether or not we should has not really stopped us? The current debates around transgenderism reflect this, I think. It's more than a co-incidence that the awareness and attitudes around this have arisen at a time when the technology exists for individuals to effect gender re-assignment.
The latter has made more culturally acceptable (at least in the West) an aspect of sexuality that was previously hardly discussed or even visible. In my opinion it was because westerners did not find it culturally acceptable to see transgendered men in everyday life that had been accepted in countries like India for centuries, though their status was marginal at best.
The same issues arise when it comes to technology around genetics for example, where codes of ethics need to evolve to deal with developments about what is now possible. Clearly there will be a concomitant pressure on religious authorities to pass judgements on an increasingly wider array of issues. Some of these religious edicts will need to happen after the technology has developed, in other instances existing edicts will cover future developments, as argued in the following thread that I created about the intimate possibilities with androids.
Nuclear and biological weapons come to mind as technologies that we can, but don't use. But in both instances it is the threat of retaliation which stops us. But where there has been little prospect of retaliation, people have used them, e.g. Churchil using chemical weapons in Iraq in the early 20th century.
The implications for ulema
As new rulings are needed to cater for technological developments that have significant moral, ethical and religious implications surely the power wielded by ulema will increase? There is the possibility that the variations in rulings between mar'je increase or alternatively they remain broadly similar. It will be interesting to see how religion evolves (or does not) as the broader technological environment develops.
By Haji 2003 in ContemporaniaWe need proof
One of the challenges presented to people who believe in God by atheists is the lack of what is considered to be acceptable proof for His existence.
But what happens when you are given proof? The case of CV19
I think our experience with covid over the past two years provides a really interesting case study in terms of how people respond to a phenomenon where you could argue that the type of evidence atheists are looking for is available in abundance and yet there are still people who will deny:
its existence (as happened at the very start of the pandemic) its severity (the old death with cv19 or death with cv19) the need for precautions (whether to socially distance, wear masks, get vaccines, get boosters) the need for any lifestyle changes (travel, socialising, going to cafes etc.) the need to address economic inequality (saying no to patent waivers) Accepting proof can lead to behaviour change
The above list is interesting since the progression of the bullets shows how acceptance of the earlier points is more likely to lead to acceptance of the later ones. If you believe in the severity of the disease, you are more likely to make lifestyle changes in order to address the risks. But if you believe it is as dangerous as ordinary flu, then why make any change at all? All the way through the progression of the pandemic we have seen that there are people who are very resistant to any lifestyle changes - since these invariably involve prioritising health risks above the need to make money (economic activity) and maintain contemporary lifestyles (having fun).
But if you don't want change - question the evidence
And underpinning the difference between accepting the disease and challenging its existence & importance is the issue of evidence. What is the data, how do you interpret it and what inferences do you draw from it?
Throughout the pandemic we have seen people provide what they felt to be adequate evidence for each of the bullets above and for that evidence to be challenged. And even where the evidence has been accepted, there are the new issues raised, e.g. even if closing schools can be effective in slowing the transmission of the disease, we should not do so because of the impact on children's mental health.
Why are people resistant to change?
What the above tells me is that no matter how much proof is provided, you will always get rebuttals and/or people trying to find loopholes even for what is patently something that kills. But why do people do this?
The two most obvious reasons are that as a result of accepting the disease and therefore agreeing to respond to ti, people will need to make social and economic sacrifices i.e. they will need to give up things that they already have and behavioural economics tells us that loss aversion is an impediment to change - people really don't like losing what they already have.
[to be edited]
By Last Chance in Poems for the Ahlul BaytAn orphan is the name of a child who lost his mother,
But what is the name of a mother who loses a child?
Crushed between the door and the wall along with the souls of Hassanain,
Robbed of her child, her right, her husband's, she fights through the pain.
Her name is Fatima. The one whose essence mankind will never reach,
For God Himself has shielded her with a protection that none can breach,
Mistress of my soul and the women of the worlds,
With her name and her hand the secret of this life unfurls,
The strength of my heart and the strength of Haidar,
The strength of the lion who conquered Khaybar,
For who else can converse with such beauty and power,
Fight the usurpers after the loss of Mohsen, the wilted flower?
Her name is az-Zahra, the radiant light, illuminating a path,
For those who want to see and be away from God's wrath,
For he who angers az-Zahra has evoked the Messenger's displeasure,
And no doubt, God's own wrath which follows is that beyond any measure,
For who is so aligned with the will of her Creator,
Which woman did He create, that other than her there is no greater?
Her name is al-Batool, unsurpassed in every way,
Be it the chastity, the virtue, or the worship she did display,
No man equalled her strength the day she fought her right,
Look around you now- see the destruction of Fatima's might.
For which woman could have such eloquence and knowledge of the Book?
Fadak was hers then and now, no matter what they took.
Quoting the verses to them that were revealed to her very door,
Every lie, every plot of theirs and tactic, into shreds she tore.
For she is as-Siddiqa, the truthful, no matter who calls himself this too,
A name is just a name but the truth lies in what we do,
Ali is with the truth, truly this is no lie,
And the truth is with Ali, but she will shortly die,
Leaving behind a house that is both so full and bare,
Full of Ali's grief, but of a mother's warmth, left bare,
A homely nest no more, for its mother is no longer,
A house that used to buzz with life, now remains mourning and sombre.
Hassan holds her feet and Hussain cries on her chest,
An imagine after which the heart of Ali will never find rest,
Zainab and Kulthum sob as they await the darkness of night,
One final farewell they crave before facing a new plight.
And Ali...? A broken man, half a human, dealt his biggest blow,
He sits with his head in his hands, and tears of anguish now freely flow.
The lion, the warrior, the hero that roared with such might,
Now quietly sobs for her pain and her loss, a flame of grief now alight.
Two souls intertwined...now world's apart,
A long journey of loneliness Ali has to start,
Her orphans, her prayer mat, the memories of her days,
With these he will survive, and he now says...
'A flower, nipped in the bud. From paradise it came, and to paradise it went, but has left its fragrance in my mind'.
By Haji 2003 in ContemporaniaIn Shiachat threads many years ago the argument was presented that the sums spent e.g. on the Imam Raza ((عليه السلام).) shrine could be better spent on various social services for Iranians. My counter argument at the time was that visiting the shrines was and is for many ordinary Iranians their only escape from the mundane aspects of everyday life.
In addition spending such sums on the social space meant that it could be consumed by all, rather than the few.
The British journalist and commentator George Monbiot has expressed this idea in a more general manner in order to defend sustainable consumption:
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