About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pinochet, Holocaust deniers, and the lessons of history

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is dead, though god could have done us the favor of calling him a few decades earlier, thus perhaps sparing the Chileans a brutal dictatorship that has been responsible for the deaths of thousands. During the same week, Iranian president Ahmadinejad is hosting a “scholarly” conference where participants raise doubts about the Holocaust, denying that Nazi Germany killed six million Jews, or at the very least arguing that the figures have been greatly exaggerated in order to trick worldwide opinion into allowing an independent state of Israel (as if people's national aspirations need a carnage to be taken seriously).

What do these two events have in common? At first glance, not much. But in fact they do tell us something interesting about the roots of the human tragedy. It was seriously disturbing, for example, to see images of “supporters” of Pinochet gathered outside the hospital were he died. Supporters of a brutal murderer? Yup, and they are (historically) not alone: there are people who would like to see Saddam Hussein back in power, skinheads who long for the good 'ol days of Hitler, plenty of Russians who think Stalin was not so bad after all, Italians who voted for Mussolini's granddaughter just in the same way in which their grandfathers marched under Benito's banner, and Serbs who think Slobodan Milesovic was the good guy and NATO the evil empire. How is this possible? What sort of ideological blinders do these people sport, and where on earth did they get them?

The answer, I think, is similar to that of the other unnerving question raised by this week's events: how can some people deny one of the best documented (and recent) historical events of all times? I mean, these guys have no trouble believing in unseen gods, or swallowing tall tales of miracles allegedly performed by long-dead prophets, but cannot bring themselves to accept the reality of an event for which there are still eyewitnesses around, that has been documented on film, and of which there are detailed historical records kept not by the victims, but by the perpetrators! Evolution deniers are pure dilettantes in comparison with Holocaust deniers.

The commonality between these cases is provided by the frightening effects of ideological blinders on human thinking. While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris (justly) rail against the damage caused by religions, they are missing the broader and most important point: unquestioning ideological commitment is the real enemy, be that in favor of a religion or political position, in reverence of a prophet or a political leader. Ironically, I think our tragic tendency to fall for facile ideological brainwashing may be the result of the fact that, despite our literature, science, and technology, we are still little more than a species of social chimpanzees – and we instinctively align ourselves with the alpha male, regardless of how much stupidity and suffering may result from it.


  1. The reductionist view, of humans as social apes, I think is the closest to reality. Society or civilization is a thin veneer. What is underneath is ape. The slighest outside pressure and humans abandon rational and independent thought for the warm embrace of a dictator or alpha. Take the Jesus Camp movie, with the praying to pictures of Bush. Some of us see the president as a temporary employee, others see him as a king or savior. Thinking the latter leads to Pinochet types.

  2. RBH,

    yes, though the word dogma often has specifically religious connotations. But it can be used to mean what I was referring to in the post.

  3. Persons who would rather not think, tend to do what comes naturally or easiest. One could be a religionist or a non-religionist, but either would have to be almost as bad as the other.

    The Jesus camp thing, I agree, is a bit odd. I know that the spirit and intent of the Bible is to call on people to be FIRST individually accountable for what they think and do. And tho I think it is obviously good to understand political issues of our times and hold to sustainable ideas opposed to faulty ones, persons who "believe" ought to not place their hope in any political figure.

    Such was the similar mistake of the Jews from ages gone by. They had tended to favor the notion that the Messiah was to come and save them from oppressive polytheistic cultures around them. And speaking of that, if anyone can, try go see to "The nativity" whether you believe in all that stuff about the Messiah or not. It may at least provide an interesting cultural commentary, (or context) for the times that the Jews lived in and why a Messiah was so longed for.

    I thought I knew the story and was not that interested in seeing the movie. But in reality, it was a gentle reminder of what truly hard times that existed on the earth when the Messiah entered the world.


  4. Sometimes I think humanity is divided into two species: those capable of rational thought and those not. Of course we're all capable of being irrational, but only some of us are consistently so.

  5. How is it automatic that Pinochet did save Chile from the Soviet sphere and therefore produced a greater good for humanity in general than the casualties he caused?

  6. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a strong supporter of Pinochet, fought against his arrest in 1998, and expressed "profound sadness at his loss" last week. Her stance was lampooned by the British satirical magazine "Private Eye", as saying, "OBVIOUSLY these people that Pinochet killed were disgusting traitors, having supported the democratically-elected Allende, who was a SOCIALIST!!!"
    This seems, however, to be uncomfortably close to the truth. If you believe, as Thatcher does and Pinochet seems to have done, that Communism/Socialism (right-wing idealogues often confuse the two) is the ultimate evil, then whatever you do to combat that evil is justifed, including mass murder. After all, if they're the bad guys, it can't REALLY be genocide, can it...?
    As to why so many people are willing to follow such dogma blindly, I think it's because they are intellectually lazy, and crave certainty where none exists. (This is why evolution deniers bang on and on about "only a theory", because science is open to potential falsifiability--pace Popper--and they want to feel certain in their hearts that there is no way what they believe can ever be falsified; that seed of doubt must, for them, never exist.) Consequently, when a big-mouth, charismatic Alpha male stands up and says that he KNOWS THE ANSWER, and accepting THE ANSWER means that you won't have to think any more and THE ANSWER will make your life more comfortable, people jump at it.
    Just one thing, Max; I disagree that the word "dogma" pertains specficially to religion; if it did, then the phrase "religious dogma" would be tautological. I see plenty of political dogma in my daily life; Tony Blair is the epitome of the political dogmatist. And he thinks he knows all the answers, too.

  7. There are obviously evolutionary reasons that people gravitate towards alpha male political figures when they feel threatened, but... I think a large part of the problem can be dealt with through education in logical fallacies and things of this sort.
    For me, what it comes down to is that to an untrained ear, an assertive person talking utter garbage often sounds better than a meek wise man. The facts can get totally lost.
    Every time I turn on CNN, FOX NEWS etc. I see another talking head exploiting this concept.
    But I'm also prone to think that most people really respect those who show they can be fair in a debate, and I'm sure we can come up with good evolutionary ideas why this might be the case as well. It's reason for some hope, anyway.


  8. Max, you wrote, "While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris (justly) rail against the damage caused by religions, they are missing the broader and most important point: unquestioning ideological commitment is the real enemy, be that in favor of a religion or political position, in reverence of a prophet or a political leader."
    But are you sure they've missed the most important point? All the major political idealogues of today (Bush, Blair, Merkel, Kwaśniewski, and Ahmedinejad) are all religious ideologues whose superstition informs their political viewpoints. To attack their religion is to attack their politics ipso facto.

  9. Tony "All the major political idealogues of today (Bush, Blair, Merkel, Kwaśniewski, and Ahmedinejad) are all religious ideologues whose superstition informs their political viewpoints. To attack their religion is to attack their politics ipso facto. "

    Can you name one decent political leader that holds to no religion whatsoever? I believe what you are expecting here is way out of the realm of human experience and plausibility.

    Wouldn't it be more ingenious if leaders were more or less able to "hold" their religion in its proper context. And secularists meanwhile, should not attempt to make "the standard" the thing that is suspect, but instead, the being suspicious of the actual suspects themselves?

    In suggesting such a thing, one really expects very little of presumably intelligent leaders and secularists.


  10. Kimpatsu,

    >> But are you sure they've missed the most important point? All the major political idealogues of today (Bush, Blair, Merkel, Kwaśniewski, and Ahmedinejad) are all religious ideologues whose superstition informs their political viewpoints. To attack their religion is to attack their politics ipso facto. <<

    Yes, but my point is broader: I see religion as a particular kind of pernicious ideology, and there are clear examples (like communism under Stalin) that have nothing to do with religion.

  11. Massimo Pigliucci said...
    Yes, but my point is broader: I see religion as a particular kind of pernicious ideology, and there are clear examples (like communism under Stalin) that have nothing to do with religion.

    How particular? Communism and theocracy are semantically different but functionally the same in my opinion, dogmatic ideology for the maintenance of political power blocks.
    One site supernatural revenge and the other execute real world revenge for nonconformity.
    My question is how divergent are the two forms of dominion and why should I evaluate one form as superior over the other?


  12. First, a little pedantic correction... There was no "death of tens of thousands" under Pinochet, really. Wait don't laugh. I do despise him, of course. The number I've seem in the Brazilian press, and which I think is the one used in Chile, is a little less than 3,200 deaths. And about 28,000 tortured (including current Chilean president, whose father was one of the murdered people). Anyway, not because there were less deaths that the evil was lesser...

    "Can you name one decent political leader that holds to no religion whatsoever?"

    Sure, nothing easier. Since we are talking Chile here, here it goes: Michelle Bachelet, current Chilean president, a socialist, divorced woman and openly atheist, elected president. And they haven't complained much about her yet (it hasn't been long, anyway), so it seems she's not too horrible. At least blood hasn't been flowing...

    So let's get a guy who stayed much longer in power: former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, world renowned sociologist and political scientist, elected and re-ellected president(total of 8 years), atheist (everybody new about it). He might not have been the greatest statesman ever, but he was pretty decent overall as far as politicians (specially Latin American ones) go.

    And I'm sure you can find more political leaders, specially in Europe, who are/were decent and not religious, just gotta look.


  13. David Duke


    I am not the least bit surprised that DD would align himself with holocaust deniers. A person who has a vested interest in denying equal rights for all people, will surely deny the original races (and especially ones that would seem to have been set apart by God) their place in history.

    Scientifically, "white people" would not be particulary genetically sound if they had interbred amongst themselves for centuries, (see the evidence in Finland), as he seems to think they should be.

    Racism can be considered plainly unscientific on genetic grounds alone.


  14. I'm not sure what you're question's supposed to be asking, Cal; I can't name a single decent political leader, because there aren't any. They are all of them dishonest, conniving, self-centred little snots. If I could just find an honest politician, I'd vote for them.

  15. Communism's a dead duck, Max, so attacking the pernicious ideology of Communism in today's world is about as meaningful as deconstructing phrenology. The ideologies of the past have no meaning in this context. Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, et. al. are all railing against a clear and, most importantly, present danger.

  16. Given the very high number of alpha males waiting for followers, one remaining question would be: how do these guys chose one?

  17. Kimatsu,

    I completely disagree. History does teach us lessons (if only we listened), and the current problem is simply one more instantiation of a recurring one. Besides, if it is fair to complain about the Crusades or the burning of Giordano Bruno (which I think it is), it is also fair to ponder the much more recent events of Stalin's Russia or Mao's China.

  18. Kimpatsu said...
    "Cal: are you suggesting the the Suomi are inbred?!"

    Yes. Maybe less so than they use to be. Not only was raised in a Finnish house (tho i am not finnish) I read about this in an issue of the Discovery mag a couple of years ago. You've never heard this?

    The Finns are truly a fine people ethically speaking. But there is the matter of mutations being duplicated and not being essentially shrugged off, and thus there is an unusual ratio of heart disease and bone degenerative (hip) diseases in the population.

    wish I knew how to find that article in Discovery. It is VERY interesting


  19. OH OH OH !!!! I found IT!

    Three proper key words, that's all it takes!


    Sorry, Tony, I know a lot of unimportant, impractical stuff, but I can't remember how to make this into a regular link!

    Please read this study tho. It is very interesting.


  20. Max, I'm going to be a real pain in the butt, here, but the point I'm making (and am evidently belabouring) is that now matter how recent the Communist genocides of Stalin, Mao (and lets throw Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh in there for good measure), the ideology that informed their barbarism is now dead, whereas the ideology that led to the Crusades and the execution of Giordano Bruno, not to mention European witch hunts, is still very much with us. One is now an historical study; the other is a clear and present danger. There are no Communists left to kill you for being bourgeois, but go wave some Danish cartoons in downtown Teheran and see what happens...

  21. Your link appears to be broken, Cal.
    Anyway, I found the following on PubMed (emphasis mine):
    "We have compiled data on the frequency of first-cousin marriages in Finland using royal dispensation records for the time period 1810-1872 and national population statistics for the time period 1878-1920. For the earlier period, 0.315% of Finland's marriages were contracted between first cousins (2,331 of 739,387). During the second time period, 0.174% of Finland's marriages took place between first cousins (1,325 of 761,976). These figures, which yield average kinship coefficients of 0.00020 and 0.00011, respectively, show that the level of inbreeding in Finland due to first-cousin marriage has been quite low. An analysis of individual parishes shows that first-cousin marriages are, on average, substantially less frequent than predicted by a random-mating model."
    As this is PubMed, I think it safe to say that you are wrong.
    --Tony Kehoe

  22. "as if people's national aspirations need a carnage to be taken seriously"

    If the land you have aspirations to is already populated you may need some extra arguments to justify "relocating" the earlier population.

    Of course, whether or not the Holocaust has been used unfairly in propaganda doesn't change the fact that it occured.

  23. As an American living here in Chile for the last few years the recent death of Pinochet has been an interesting time. It cannot be denied that under his dictatorship the economy improved and the amount of crime diminished. People like my wife's family finally were able to buy food and other necesities. However, at what cost? Over 3000 missing or murdered people and thousands more forced into exile. And yet, a week or so before his death, as quoted by the President of the Augusto Pinochet Foundation, Pinochet swore on his mother's grave that he had "never done anything wrong." Even if you believe that he had no knowledge of what was being done by those under him, can you justify the benefits in light of the costs? Many do, or at least choose to ignore the costs. Nevertheless, the Chilean government and military (whose President was tortured under Pinochet's rule) are also guilty of "unquestioning idealogical commitment" in the dismissal of Augusto Pinochet III, Pinochet's grandson, for political comments made by him during his speech at the funeral. In a country already polarized, their actions only serve to keep the two sides from seeing eye to eye and beginning the healing process so desperately needed here. What does it take for all of us to remove our blinders and begin to think outside of the idealogical box we have created for ourselves? This goes doubly for us Americans who support Bush and the continued deaths of American soldiers and Iraqi, even if it is with our own inaction.

  24. Kimpatsu

    Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we dismiss Stalin & Pol Pot on the grounds of irrelevance.

    What about the future? Will we be able to detect upcoming threats from secular ideologies?

    Shouldn't we have a fairly general theory of political dogmatism that would encompass hopelessly romantic appeals to the past (3rd Reich), utopian futures, or personality cults- as well as the supernatural?

  25. "As this is PubMed, I think it safe to say that you are wrong."


    (excerpts from)
    Finland’s Fascinating Genes
    Learning Series: Genes, Race, and Medicine [Part 2]

    The people in this land of lakes and forests are so alike that scientists can filter out the genes that contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and asthma

    By Jeff Wheelwright

    DISCOVER Vol. 26 No. 04 | April 2005 | Medicine

    "...But even more important for a geneticist, “the genealogies are already built,” said Peltonen, referring to the family pedigrees through which diseases can be tracked. “The setting of a limited number of ancestors and hundreds of years of isolation make Finns good study subjects.”

    The genetic homogeneity, or sameness, of the Finns makes them easier to study than Californians, say, who hail from all over. To illustrate, Peltonen drew two pairs of human chromosomes, which were shaped something like swallowtail butterflies. Symbolizing two Finnish people, the four chromosomes were similar—banded horizontally with the same light-and-dark patterns. “These guys are the boring Finns,” she said with a trace of irony.

    ..The uniformity of Finns, created by several centuries of isolation and intermarriage, results in a large set of hereditary disorders. So far researchers have identified 39 such genetic diseases, many of them fatal, that crop up in the unlucky children of unwary carriers. Peltonen, who began her career as a pediatrician, said: “Genetic diseases transform the family. You know the children won’t get better.” Since switching her focus to research, Peltonen and her associates have identified 18 of the 39 endemic conditions.

    Although far less common than cardiovascular ailments and much less of a drain on the health-care system, the hereditary disorders identified so far are so well known to Finns that they are part of the lore of the nation. The Finnish Disease Heritage has its own Web site.

    ...[page 2]During the 1500s about 250,000 Finns inhabited the coastal zone of what was then Swedish territory. Concerned about the unguarded border with Russia, King Gustav of Sweden induced Finns to migrate north and east into the pine forest. After the colonists established small farms and villages along the eastern frontier, immigration stopped, and the region remained isolated from the rest of Finland for centuries.

    With an initial population in the several hundreds, the situation was ideal for what geneticists call genetic drift and founder effects. Mutations that were too scarce to make a dent on a larger population were enriched in the small but expanding group of people in East Finland. Most of the disorders that transpired were recessive, meaning that two copies of a flawed gene had to be inherited, one from each parent. Although people did avoid marrying their relatives, after 5 to 10 generations it was almost impossible that bloodlines would not have crossed in spouses from the same area."

    I do think that this is saying what I thought it was saying.

  26. Is "Discover" a peer-reviewed magazine, Cal? On the level of "Nature", or of "Social Text"?
    Madman: WTF is a "secular ideology"? Surely the very phrase is self-contradictory? Or, what doi you (mis)understand by the word "secular?

  27. Cal, I just read the excerpts you published. You seem to be confusing intermarriage and genetic isolation with inbreeding.

  28. An ideology that declares that religion is the opiate of the people, then goes on to declare that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a necessary prelude to the (utopian) classless society might be an example of a secular ideology.

    But then again I am now not so sure that I know WTF "secular" means.

  29. Boys (I'm assuming, without evidence, that Kimpatsu and madm4n are't girls :) be careful with the insults, please.

    Kimpatsu, I must say that this time I think you are on the wrong side of the argument. Of course secularists can have ideologies, and my original point was that any ideology is potentially dangerous, secular or religious. Which is why our goal should be to understand (and fight) ideology, regardless of its metaphysical matrix (how do you like that for a cool term?).

  30. Yeah, that's a really cool term, Max, but would a humanist ideology that consisted entirely of the golden rule be in any way dangerous?
    --Tony Kehoe (so there's no doubt about my sex.)

  31. My apologies to Tony & other readers, and Massimo. Sarcasm shouldn't be necessary if one is speaking rationally.

  32. Tony/Kimpatsu,

    ah, the golden rule. But notice that it is, in fact, a rule, not an ideology. Socrates and Kant proposed it as a reasonable heuristic to moral action, which means one can exercise discretion. Also, there are other reasonable heuristics for morality. The problem with ideologies is that they are presented as unquestionable truths, usually derived from some "sacred" book (be that the Bible or Mao's red book).

  33. Tony: Cal, I just read the excerpts you published. You seem to be confusing intermarriage and genetic isolation with inbreeding."

    The article said repeatedly that genetic isolation occurred for a period of time. Do you only consider inbreeding to mean when a person marries their offspring, parent or sibling? I don't see why such does not extend to cousins and the like. Further, it misses my original point that white supremacists are not particularly wise in their beliefs.

    Not that the Finns are WSs either, btw.

    Are you Finnish? ;)


  34. No, Cal, I'm not Finnish, but I always make sure I end with the last word... (Ha! Ha!)
    Max, It seems to me that we're disagreeing on the definition of the word "ideology" here. If an ideology is more than just a set of rules (do as you would be done by, think half for others and half for yourself, love justice and respect humanity, etc.), then what is the magic extra ingredient that tips the rule set over into being an ideology? (I'm not being pissy here, I genuinely want to know your opinion.)

  35. Cal, in answer to your question, as JBS Haldane said, "I'll die for eight cousins or two brothers". Second counsins are already genetically very dissimilar.
    Oh, and I'd still like to know the providence of the Discover magazine.

  36. Kimpatsu/Tony,

    the "magic" ingredient would be, I think, intolerance. To me, that's what makes the difference between ideas (which one can endorse, and yet retain the possibility of changing one's mind) and ideology. What do you think?

  37. Tony,

    Here is the full Discover article, with all the details and credentials of the researchers. Pretty interesting. I didn't know Finns had that history of isolation and all that. I knew about the Icelanders -- they are an even bigger genetic gold mine...

    Anyway, I'd like to give my opinion that Cal is right. I haven't read that article you found in Pubmed, so maybe the authors themselves have already said it in there (or maybe they have something in there that gives then the upper hand), but simply the level of marriages among cousins or something like that does not tell you much of the genetic diversity in a population (which is what matters here) -- well, it would in ideal conditions (which for population geneticists means basically infinite population and random mating, if I remember well).

    But if a population was founded by a handful of individuals, even if they reproduce and become thousands and any two randomly chosen people are distant several generations, they will all be genetically very similar, almost clones -- that's what's happened to the poor cheetahs, for example. And by what the researchers tell in the Discover article, something similar (while not as drastic as the cheetah case) has happened in Northeastern Finland.

    Why are we talking about this anyway? I'll have to backtrack in the thread to find it out... :O)


  38. J: "Why are we talking about this anyway? I'll have to backtrack in the thread to find it out... :O)"

    Holocaust deniers = White supremacists = the end of the human race.

    rather intelligent, aren't we.

    And altho I do love dearly the family and culture that I was raised by, Finns essentially show us that a people group could get on the road to ending the human race or their own by shunning (much less hating) other races.

    Hatred and fear certainly come at a price.

    All in all, most people tend to take the variability and flexibility of the genome all too much for granted. There may have been a time when the genome was more complex i.e. expandable (that is more genetic options within one smaller group) but I think the genome is showing us now, that is something that cannot be re-engineered again.


  39. "T" is for "Tony": No, Cal, I'm not Finnish, but I always make sure I end with the last word... (Ha! Ha!)"

    Then you can have the last word. :) I'm not Finnish either.

    You know, the Finns are very literate (on the average) and ethical. They are also very understated. They often accomplish marvelous things, and just don't do too much in the way of self promotion.



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