The world is a crazy, amazing thing full of unbelievable places, people, creatures, and stories. But despite the overwhelming quantity of fantastic and fascinating things all around us, we still have a desire to believe in something more.

Some would argue that religion exists to fill this void, which may be true in some cases, but religion serves many other purposes: providing a moral compass, explaining human origins, and giving us an excuse to wear nice clothes. Conspiracies, on the other hand, provide no practical benefit – just the sensation that we’re in the know about what’s really going on.

But how do we identify a conspiracy? What separates a conspiracy from a fictional story or historical fact? Two of the key components in a conspiracy are implausibility and secrecy.

Conspiracies are, by their very nature, implausible. If a conspiracy was plausible, then everyone would know about it and believe in it. And if a conspiracy was well known to be true, then it wouldn’t be a secret. And if a conspiracy wasn’t a secret, then it wouldn’t be a very good conspiracy, and it wouldn’t provide the sensation that we get from having secret knowledge.

There’s a quick and easy test to determine whether or not a theory is plausible. Simply ask yourself, would this theory require a large number of people working together in secret? If the answer is yes, then it’s implausible.

This is because humans have repeatedly and consistently shown themselves to be completely incapable of accomplishing even the simplest of tasks without complaining, bickering, fighting or dividing. There are countless examples of public programs, at all levels, that fizzled out before seeing the light of day. Believing in conspiracies requires incredible faith in humanity.

Take chemtrails for example. If the government was really dispensing chemicals into the atmosphere using planes, then this would require the silent collaboration of thousands, if not millions of chemical manufacturers, delivery people, airport workers, pilots, security staff, inspectors, air traffic controllers, and many others. This easily fails the test of plausibility without even considering how stupid it would be to use a commercial transportation system to deliver a clearly visible agent in clear weather beneath cloud cover in open view of the public.

Before we continue, it’s important to make a clear distinction between people who believe in conspiracies (believers), and those who don’t (non-believers). In truth, most of us entertain in one conspiracy or another. However, contemplating the plausibility of a conspiracy is most certainly different from propagating it as fact.

Actually, many non-believers have a susceptibility to one or more ideas that contradict conventional thought. Whether it’s politics, economics, global warming, extraterrestrials, or the September 11 attacks, we all seem to be attracted to one conspiracy or another. What separates non-believers from believers isn’t susceptibility to the theory, but its complete acceptance and passionate proliferation.

So why do some people believe while others merely speculate? Well, a conspiracy requires certain conditions in order to sprout. These include any of the following:

  • A suspicious event or activity
  • An absence of explanation or a dissatisfying explanation
  • The need to assign blame
  • The need to feel important or intelligent
  • The belief in supernatural or paranormal phenomenon
  • The resentment authority
The first two reasons describe conditions that are external to the believer, and the last four describe the believer themself. After all, we all live in the same world, but not everyone believes in conspiracies, so belief must depend, in some part, on characteristics of the individual. Conspiracy-believers would argue that it’s the ignorance of non-believers that allows them to reject these ideas, but as we’ll see, the belief in conspiracies actually says more about the believer than it does about the world.
Sometimes things happen for no apparent reason. Obviously there are forces at play that cause the event to unfold, but sometimes there just isn’t a greater meaning behind it. As the saying goes, mistakes happen. But this is unacceptable to the conspiracy believer. A conspiracy believer is the kind of person who cannot accept that something disastrous can happen by accident or oversight. A meaningless tragedy is a breeding ground for conspiracy.

For some, believing in a conspiracy is a way of asserting their superiority over others. While they may not state this directly in conversation, believers often perceive themselves to be more intelligent, more aware, or somehow unique because of their special knowledge. They also tend to frequently use the word sheeple.

sheeple. [shee-puhl-noun.

1. a group of people who, like sheep, mindlessly obey their masters. Why don’t people realize that this crazy thing I believe is true? Wake up, sheeple!

Believers also tend to believe in more than one conspiracy. Here are some of the more popular conspiracy topics:

  • Alien abductions, UFOs, and crop circles
  • Chemtrails
  • The Lunar landing hoax
  • The Loch Ness monster
  • The 9/11 attacks
  • JFK’s assassination
  • The Bermuda triangle
  • Vaccinations
  • Global warming
  • Bigfoot

In order to best grasp the situation, let’s focus on the most complex and significant conspiracy topic: Bigfoot.

Myths of gigantic ape-like humanoids are as old as the hills they are said to inhabit. Not only are these stories ancient, they are also widespread. There are myths about massive, bipedal wildmen from every corner of the world, including:

  • The Yeren of Mongolia
  • The Yeti of the Himalayas (also called Abominable Snowman)
  • The Sasquatch of Pacific North America
  • The Hibagon of Japan
  • The Yowie of Australia

But what’s the difference between a myth and a conspiracy? First of all, myths tend to be hundreds or even thousands of years old, while conspiracies have usually only been around few decades. Second, there isn’t necessarily anything sinister or secret about a myth. Myths are usually more mysterious than they are nefarious, and while they may be unproven, they’re not intentionally hidden. A conspiracy, on the other hand, requires a cover-up. Third and finally, myths tend to be a little less plausible than conspiracies, often incorporating magic, spirituality and fantastic creatures. This means that myth believers are usually less adamant about the veracity of the story than conspiracy believers. In fact, myths are often presented as simply an elaborate moral lesson or a tale meant to astonish.

All that being said, it’s possible for something to be both a myth and a conspiracy. This is exactly what happens when conspiracy believer adopts a myth as a conspiracy by asserting that it is factual and being concealed by some malevolent organization. Because Bigfoot believers are so adamant that Bigfoot is real, even to the point of dedicating their lives to finding him, the Bigfoot myth can be categorized as a conspiracy.

So why do people believe in Bigfoot? One explanation could be that Bigfoot is real, but this doesn’t explain why people believe so strongly that they would sacrifice their time and money to find him, nor does it explain why they feel compelled to convince everyone they meet. Sure, they’ll point to the many volumes of pictures, videos and stories compiled over decades as evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, but the real reason they believe isn’t the evidence. They believe because they are enchanted by idea of a mysterious, ancient beast roaming the wilderness, undiscovered by humans. They want Bigfoot to be real.

The discovery of a living Bigfoot creature could have a significant impact on zoology, origins and animal rights, but Bigfoot believers aren’t scientists or anthropologists – they’re merely infatuated with the idea of Bigfoot being real. After all, what would they do if Bigfoot was confirmed to exist? And whose ends are served by spreading the news that Bigfoot is out there waiting to be found? If humanity’s track record is any indication, discovering Bigfoot likely wouldn’t turn out well for the beast. If they really cared about Bigfoot, believers would be participating in the cover-up.

Unfortunately Bigfoot believers are more interested in exposing the truth than they are with scientific discovery or animal rights. The allure of spewing facts and spreading stories to unbelievers is just too powerful for them to resist. The fact that those who believe in Bigfoot also tend to subscribe to other conspiracy theories supports this claim. After all, what are the chances that someone who believes in Bigfoot also believes in alien UFOs, chemtrails, and the Loch Ness monster? Extremely high, apparently.

This actually highlights an important concept: the purpose of perpetuating a conspiracy. What do believers hope to accomplish by spreading the truth about a conspiracy? Even if, for example, one were to accept the idea that the 9/11 attacks were perpetuated by the American government, that individual has no ability to administer justice to those responsible. The only thing they can do is spread the conspiracy. Conspiracies are self-serving sensational stories that service no real purpose other than to assert superiority and tantalize the imagination. Actually, it’s likely that a conspiracy believer would be disappointed to learn that a conspiracy has migrated to the realm of fact, since they would no longer be able to spread the truth about it.

Conspiracy believers like to think, and would like us to think, that they are doing us a favor by babbling into monotony about some crackpot theory. But, in truth, it is the listener that is performing the favor. The believer is engaged, passionate and full of purpose as they outline the price details by which the conspiracy is orchestrated. All the while, the listener is patiently internalizing their criticism. In this moment, the believer is our savior, delivering us from ignorance and obscurity into the loving arms of paranoia and delusion. In our minds, they are foolish and eccentric, but in their minds, they are valiant champions of truth. As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons state in Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort:

“Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm.”

There are also costs associated with being a conspiracy believer. As we just mentioned, anyone coerced into listening to a believer’s stories will likely suffer boredom and irritation, but believers themselves also pay a price for their conviction. Depending on the nature of the conspiracy and both the frequency and aggression with which the believer shares, the believer may be insulted, ignored or avoided. This can result in damaged relationships and a tarnished image, which may affect the believer’s credibility and career.

If you’re a conspiracy believer, ask yourself what you’re really accomplishing by spreading rumors and accusations. Ask yourself if it’s worth it to annoy people with your wild tales. Ask yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice on the altar of conspiracy. Ask yourself if it really helps Bigfoot to go around telling everyone that he exists.

If you truly love Bigfoot, leave him be.


There is no greater issue facing our world today than human rights. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have excluded, mistreated, and marginalized certain people groups, and today things are no different.

We like to think that we’re more evolved, more advanced than those ancient, primitive tribes. The truth, however, is that we practice the same ostracizing and dehumanizing behaviors of our ancestors. Despite the fact that we’ve made great strides in securing human rights for a majority of people, there are still those who remain unprotected by these efforts.

This is not an issue of politics or cost – it’s a matter of conscience. All people deserve to be protected by the same laws and receive both equal opportunity and equal treatment. It is pathetic and shameful that such a vast number of people don’t experience these necessities, especially in a place and time where many of us enjoy unprecedented freedom, wealth, and security.

This is why we need to take action. We can no longer afford to ignore those among us who are being excluded from the most critical and basic of human rights. We need to stand up to those who would silence the voices of the disenfranchised and exploited.

We may pay a cost for our actions. After all, this issue is considered irritating or even offensive by those who care nothing for the marginalized. But we must persevere and overcome social stigma. We must make them listen. We must make them see that these people are people too. Now is the time for all of us to join together and declare to the world that we care about one of the following groups:

  • Refugees
  • Immigrants
  • Aboriginals
  • Blacks
  • Whites
  • The unborn
  • Seniors
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Women
  • Men
  • People with mental illness
  • People with physical disabilities
  • Christians
  • Atheists
  • Buddhists
  • Muslims
  • Jews
  • Homosexuals
  • Heterosexuals
  • Transgendered people
  • Domestic violence victims
  • Rape victims
  • Sex trade workers
  • Addicts
  • Overweight people
  • Uneducated people
  • Poor people
  • Homeless people
  • Prisoners


Here are twelve examples of twelve different prefixes that invert the meaning of the original word:

  • Typical -> Atypical
  • Normal -> Abnormal
  • Climax -> Anticlimax
  • Intuitive -> Counterintuitive
  • Mystify -> Demystify
  • Similar -> Dissimilar
  • Logical -> Illogical
  • Possible -> Impossible
  • Conceivable -> Inconceivable
  • Align -> Misalign
  • Conformist -> Nonconformist
  • Sustainable -> Unsustainable

Here are twelve examples of twelve different cases where an inverting prefix doesn’t invert the original word:

  • Alive -> Live
  • Aboriginal -> Original
  • Antibody -> Body
  • Countermeasure -> Measure
  • Deliver -> Liver
  • Dismantle -> Mantle
  • Illustrate -> Lustrate
  • Imposter -> Poster
  • Informed -> Formed
  • Mistake -> Take
  • Nonchalant -> Chalant
  • Uneasy -> Easy

Highway Miles

Car shopping can be a frustrating experience. Thanks to dubious salespeople, a liberal use of the word sale, as well as the ambiguous and deceitful nature of bartering, we have reason to suspect that we may be getting duped, especially when we’re shopping for a used car.

We try to make ourselves informed consumers by e-searching reviews, recalls and prices. We may even write ourselves a list of important questions to ask, such as:

  • How long have you owned this vehicle?
  • Why are you selling it?
  • Has it been involved in any accidents?
  • Do you have the service records?
  • Can I take it for a test drive?
  • Can I take it to my mechanic?
  • How many miles are on it?

But despite our best efforts, we often can’t shake the feeling that we’re not being told the whole story. No matter its condition, the seller always assures us that we’re paying a fair price for a quality vehicle. They even try to convince us not to trust the odometer.

Used car owners will tell us that the mileage on the car doesn’t really reflect its condition. They’ll explain how the vehicle was driven gently and that the only reason for the high mileage is that it was used for commuting. But should the fact that the car was driven on the highway every day really relieve our fears? No, it shouldn’t, and here’s why:

First of all, although it’s true that a vehicle will look worse after 5 miles in a destruction derby than it will after the same distance on a quiet rural avenue, the idea we should ignore a car’s high mileage because it was accumulated through commuting is ridiculous.

Aside from special cases, vehicles are only used for two things: driving in town and driving on highways. And while highway driving may be slightly less taxing on certain components, city driving is hardly harmful by comparison. If it were, then we’d be taking the freeway at every opportunity in order to avoid the ruinous hazard of traversing city streets.

This also may cause us to wonder what mileage really means when it comes to wear and tear. Are we just talking about the number of rotations of the drive shaft? Of course not. Mileage tells us the extent to which the vehicle was used.

The odometer is a window into the life of the car. It allows us to imagine how many rocks have chipped the paint, how many spilled coffees have stained the upholstery and how much gum has accrued beneath the seats. Sure, it doesn’t tell the whole story, but high mileage does indicate that the vehicle was highly used.

Another problem with attempting to convince potential buyers to ignore highway miles is that this strategy assumes that there are viable alternative explanations as to why a vehicle might have high mileage.

The average annual mileage of a vehicle falls somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 miles (16,000 and 24,000 km). When we encounter a vehicle with an average annual mileage of, let’s say, 25,000 miles, there’s really only one conclusion to make: it was driven on the highway. Of course, there are special cases. It’s possible that the car was used for local business deliveries, but this is rare, especially since those vehicles are usually driven into oblivion.

The third and final issue lies in the fact that all vehicles are driven in town, even the ones used to commute. Perhaps it’s to a slightly lesser extent, but commuter vehicles must at least travel to and from the highway, which is often a significant distance.

So even if there was a notable difference in wear and tear between driving in town and driving on the highway, which there isn’t, all vehicles are subjected to a similar amount of city driving. This means that the vehicle with higher mileage will, barring other factors, be in worse condition than the car with less mileage.

Maybe we can’t be expected to be completely transparent about the fault in our cars, but we shouldn’t pretend that highway miles don’t count.

Auntle, Mousin and Fousin

Of the following family relationships, which one stands out from the rest:

  1. great-aunt
  2. great-uncle
  3. aunt
  4. uncle
  5. niece
  6. nephew
  7. cousin
  8. grandmother
  9. grandfather
  10. mother
  11. father
  12. daughter
  13. son
  14. sister
  15. brother

The answer, of course, is cousin. Of all the family relationships, including those forged by marriage, it’s the only term that doesn’t describe the sex of the relative.

Of course, grandparent, parent, child and sibling don’t describe the sex either, but each of these terms is the unisex form of one that does so.

It doesn’t really seem like a problem, but that’s probably just because we don’t know what it’s like to have access to the proper tools. Removing sister and brother from our vocabulary would seem like a massive hindrance, but this is exactly the limitation we face when describing the children of our aunts and uncles.

Once we begin to contemplate these issues, we also realize that there are other gaps in our language. There is no unisex form of aunt and uncle, and though the term nibling has been created in order to describe both nieces and nephews, it hasn’t really caught on.

It’s not clear why people don’t use nibling. Perhaps it just needs to be publicized in a popular book, blog or magazine. But if we’re going to start filling in the missing words, let’s just complete the whole set.

auntle. [ahnt-uhl]


1. the sibling of a parent.

mousin. [muhz-uhn]


1. the son of an auntle.

fousin. [fuhz-uhn]


1. the daughter of an auntle.


In many ways, the developed world is becoming increasingly tolerant. We are more educated on mental health, more informed on social and global issues, more sensitive to other cultures and religions, and we even allow those of the same sex to marry. Supporters of a more progressive society continue to advocate for these causes, often summarizing their position with the following statement:

People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

When first heard, this seems like a modern, insightful and reasonable thing to say. In fact, this point of view is actually very old, and this statement has so many glaring flaws and omissions that it’s hardly worth uttering in this context. Let’s begin unraveling this hideous tapestry by exploring its history.

Popularized by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book, On Liberty, this idea, known as the harm principle, is one of the foundational doctrines of Liberalism. Although Mill coined the phrase, a similar statement appears 70 years earlier in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: ”Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else…”

This idea has carried on through the centuries and has recently become a maxim for left-leaning citizens. The modern form of the harm principle can be expressed in a number of ways, usually one of the following:

  • People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
  • People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t affect others.
  • As long as everyone involved approves and it doesn’t affect anyone else, then people can do whatever they want.
  • Consenting adults can do whatever they want, as long as no one else gets hurt.

It’s important to note the small differences because this statement is extremely broad and has powerful, far-reaching implications. After all, the written word is the only thing that protects our most basic rights and freedoms, and as we’ve already discussed, the claims we make often support views that we don’t agree with. In addition, we usually aren’t even aware of the assumptions behind our claims. Let’s illustrate these issues using a relevant example.

In the recent push to legalize gay marriage in the United States, many came forward with pleas for tolerance, and many of them invoked some variation on the harm principle. Their views were frequently summarized in this way:

People should be allowed to marry anyone they want.

This seems like a perfectly reasonable opinion, but hold on a minute, is that really what they mean? After all, they weren’t addressing the age of consent, and yet this statement implies that there should be no distinction between adults and minors.

The point here isn’t to say who should and shouldn’t be allowed to get married, just that we must be careful about how we phrase our views, and we must be aware of the implications of our phrasing. After all, most of those who spoke in favor of gay marriage still support a number of the following marriage restrictions:

  • People should not be allowed to marry ideas, inanimate objects, artificial intelligences or animals.
  • People should not be allowed to marry minors.
  • People should not be allowed to marry either blood and adoptive relatives.
  • People should not be allowed to marry temporarily.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those who are already married.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those they don’t know or those who don’t know them.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those they don’t love or those who don’t love them.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those living in other countries.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those who are mentally impaired.

Some make the defense that the statement is not meant to address these other issues, but because of its phrasing it does exactly that. If the supreme court passed a law stating that anyone could marry anyone else, then all of these conditions, along with many others, would be perfectly legal.

Now we’ve seen how improper or incomplete phrasing can cause problems, so how does the harm principle square up? If we really want to enact a law stating that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, then there at least 205 important questions that need to be answered:

    1.  What does it mean to harm someone?
      1. Does it mean failing to help others?
        • Does it include refusing to donate blood and organs?
        • Does it include refusing to give to a panhandler?
        • Does it include refusing to foil a robbery?
        • Does it include refusing to volunteer?
        • Does it include refusing to donate to charity?
        • Does it include refusing to discourage unhealthy behavior?
        • Does it include refusing to comfort someone who is upset?
        • Does it include refusing to do business with those who can’t afford it?
        • Does it include refusing to share trade secrets?
      2. Does it mean providing unwanted help?
        • Does it include providing poor quality help?
        • Does it include providing untimely help?
      3. Does it mean intending to harm?
        • Does it include failing to cause harm?
        • Does it include helping by mistake?
      4. Does it mean failing to fulfill a responsibility?
        • Does it include failing to converse with acquaintances?
        • Does it include failing to spend time with friends and relatives?
        • Does it include failing to provide quality services and products?
        • Does it include failing to diagnose or assess a problem?
      5. Does it mean causing physical harm?
        1. Does it mean causing pain?
          • Does it include small amounts of pain?
          • Does it include very short duration of pain?
          • Does it include pain caused during medical procedures?
          • Does it include pain caused during sports?
        2. Does it mean causing unwanted contact?
          • Does it include pushing and shoving?
          • Does it include playing?
          • Does it include tickling?
          • Does it include hugging and kissing?
        3. Does it mean causing an injury?
          • Does it include small injuries
          • Does it include temporary injuries?
          • Does it include painless injuries?
        4. Does it include negatively affecting health?
          • Does it include spreading an illness or disease?
          • Does it include enabling unhealthy behavior?
          • Does it include tempting those with addictions?
          • Does it include serving unhealthy food?
      6. Does it mean causing emotional harm?
        1. Does it mean causing emotional discomfort?
          • Does it include saying something controversial?
          • Does it include confronting someone?
          • Does it include approaching a stranger?
        2. Does it mean causing emotional pain?
          • Does it include deceiving someone?
          • Does it include criticizing someone?
          • Does it include insulting someone?
          • Does it include mocking someone?
          • Does it include disappointing fans, friends and family?
          • Does it include disciplining children?
          • Does it include cheating on a lover?
          • Does it include ending a relationship?
        3. Does it mean causing offense?
          • Does it include using crude language or gestures?
          • Does it include showing irreverence toward a religion?
          • Does it include being insensitive to those who have suffered traumatic experiences?
          • Does it include living a controversial lifestyle?
      7. Does it mean causing financial harm?
        1. Does it include disrupting finances?
          • Does it include spreading false information about a person, product or organization?
          • Does it include spreading accurate but controversial information about a person, product or organization?
          • Does it include spreading positive information about a harmful person, product or organization?
          • Does it include refusing to do business with a person or organization?
          • Does it include protesting or boycotting a product or organization?
          • Does it include automating or oursourcing jobs?
          • Does it include putting a competing company out of business?
        2. Does it include failing to properly raise children?
          • Does it include failing to provide life skills?
          • Does it include failing to pay for college?
          • Does it include refusing to buy toys?
          • Does it include refusing to go on vacations?
          • Does it include failing to properly educate students?
        3. Does it include exploitation?
      8. Does it mean causing harm unintentionally or as a consequence?
      9. Does it mean causing risk of harm?
        • Does it include driving above the speed limit?
        • Does it include engaging in dangerous sports or activities?
        • Does it include leaving hazards about?
        • Does it include failing to wash one’s hands?
      10. Does it mean causing indirect or ambiguous harm?
        • Does it include condoning or enabling harmful behavior?
        • Does it include failing to discourage harmful behavior?
        • Does it include supporting exploitative organizations?
        • Does it include hurting someone by affecting those they care about?
        • Does it include supplying substances to an addict?
        • Does it include gossiping or spreading rumors?
        • Does it include using language that some might consider offensive?
        • Does it include illegally copying music, movies and software?
        • Does it include cheating on a test?
        • Does it include buying illicit drugs?
        • Does it include hurting someone without their knowledge?
        • Does it include hurting someone who accepts or invites harm?
    2. Who are the people participating in the behavior?
      1. Does this mean people of all types?
        • Does this include minors?
        • Does this include the elderly?
        • Does this include the mentally disabled?
        • Does this include the mentally ill?
        • Does this include the drug addicted?
        • Does this include convicted or suspected criminals?
        • Does this include businesses, governments and institutions?
        • Does this include the homeless?
        • Does this include illegal immigrants?
        • Does this include politicians and public figures?
        • Does this include people in other countries?
      2. Does this mean people of all beliefs?
    3. Who are those affected by the behavior?
      1. Does this mean all life?
        • Does this include animals?
        • Does this include plants?
        • Does this include microscopic organisms?
      2. Does this mean all people?
        • Does this include the participants?
        • Does this include friends and family?
        • Does this include people from other places in the world?
        • Does this include people who don’t yet exist?
      3. Does this mean the collective?
        1. Does this mean burdening society?
          • Does this include getting a divorce?
          • Does this include engaging in sexual promiscuity?
          • Does this include eating unhealthy food?
          • Does this include failing to exercise?
          • Does this include smoking, using drugs or drinking alcohol?
          • Does this include being homeless?
        2. Does this mean taxing collective or government resources?
          • Does this include overusing parks and public facilities?
          • Does this include misusing emergency services?
          • Does this include having numerous children?
          • Does this include suing insurance companies?
          • Does this include living with a disability?
        3. Does this mean failing to fulfill social responsibilities?
          • Does this include failing to recycle or pick up trash?
          • Does this include failing to be informed on social issues?
          • Does this include failing to hold the government accountable?
          • Does this include refusing to vote?
          • Does this include refusing to procreate?
          • Does this include failing to maintain employment?
          • Does this include refusing to engage in consumerism?
          • Does this include failing to manage personal finances?
    4. What does it mean for a person to want something?
      1. Does this mean people with addictions?
        • Does this include people who are addicted to substances like tobacco, drugs or alcohol?
        • Does this include people who are addicted to activities like lying, stealing or having sex?
      2. Does this mean people with mental health issues?
        • Does this include people who are insane?
        • Does this include people with depression?
        • Does this include people with dementia?
      3. Does this mean people with a dire need for attention or approval?
        • Does this include pressuring peers?
        • Does this include hazing initiates?
      4. Does this mean people who are very poor?
        1. Does this mean allowing any work terms?
          • Does this include voluntary slavery?
          • Does this include unsafe working conditions?
        2. Does this mean allowing any depraved or harmful acts in exchange for money?
          • Does this include paying for permission to humiliate?
          • Does this include paying for permission to rape?
          • Does this include paying for permission to torture or mutilate?
          • Does this include paying for permission to murder?
          • Does this include paying people to fight, even to the death?
          • Does this include paying people for their blood, organs or body parts?
      5. Does this mean people with extreme, demented or violent interests?
        • Does this include engaging in self mutilation?
        • Does this include committing suicide or making suicide pacts?
        • Does this include cannibalism?
        • Does this include incest?
    5. How do we demonstrate whether or not behavior is harmful?
      1. Who is responsible for demonstrating whether or not behavior is harmful?
        • Does this mean the government?
        • Does this mean the people participating in the behavior?
        • Does this mean the people who are affected by the behavior?
      2. What kinds of arguments are acceptable?
        • Does this include surveys and studies?
        • Does this include philosophical speculations?
        • Does this include anecdotal evidence?
      3. How much harm is required for behavior to be considered harmful?
        • Does this mean that a certain number of people must be harmed?
        • Does this mean that a certain degree of harm must be inflicted?
    6. What should be done when behavior is determined to be harmful?
      1. Does this mean that all acts that are harmful should be discouraged?
        • Does this include using government advertisements?
        • Does this include using public schools?
        • Does this include banning dangerous activities?
        • Does this include banning offensive words?
      2. Does this mean that all acts that are harmful should be illegal?
        • Does this mean that it’s okay to harm those who harm others?
        • Does this mean that it’s okay to cause harm in order to prevent harm?
      3. Does this mean that those who accept or invite harm should be protected?
        • Does this include those who welcome harm in the name of a belief?
        • Does this include those who instigate harmful behavior?
        • Does this include those who are indifferent to harm?

The issue isn’t that the harm principle has no value, it’s that those who use it to argue a position usually haven’t considered the many ramifications of such a belief. This is true of many other popular sayings. Take a look at the following statements and try to identify any potential problems:

  • We should not implement socialist programs.
  • The government should not regulate the economy.
  • People should be allowed to own firearms.
  • Parents should not indoctrinate their children.
  • The government should not censor anything.
  • Parents should be allowed to raise their children however they choose.
  • People should not force their beliefs on others.
  • The government should stay out of the bedroom.
  • We should do whatever it takes to stop terrorists.

The world is an incredibly complicated place, and a great deal of thought and discussion that goes into making important decisions. Pretending that the our problems can be solved by such simple rules hardly improves the conversation, and making declarations that we don’t fully understand is foolish and irresponsible.

Boiling Acid

Most of us remember the 1995 movie Batman Forever for its wacky villains and cheesy dialogue, but there’s one scene that stands out from the rest.

Early on in the film, Batman attempts to foil an evil plot by his nemesis, Two-Face, to rob a bank. Of course, it turns out that the robbery is merely a ploy to kill Batman. Our hero is lured into a vault in an attempt to save an unlucky security guard, but they become trapped when the door suddenly swings shut.

The vault is then snatched from the building by a chain connected to a helicopter, leaving Batman and the hapless guard inside the vault, now precariously dangling high above the streets of Gotham City. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, safe deposit boxes burst open, spewing forth a suspicious, steaming fluid. The frightened security guard screams, “oh, no! It’s boiling acid!”

Wait a minute. Forget about the vault, the helicopter, the terrible acting and the source of the acid. Why is Two-Face filling the vault with boiling acid?

First of all, a criminal mastermind like Two-Face would know that a human body dissolves much more quickly in a base than an acid. This is why both Mexican drug cartels and medical institutions use them to dispose of unwanted cadavers.

Second, there is no apparent reason to boil the acid. Sure, it speeds up the process a little, but it would still take several hours to dissolve our hero, assuming that his suit isn’t acid-resistant, which it probably is. In addition, the liquid in question was likely sulfuric acid, and sulfuric acid boils at 648 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s an awful lot of planning, equipment and energy spent just to make Batman melt slightly faster.

Perhaps Two-Face had something else in mind other than dissolving the Caped Crusader. Boiling the acid would cause Batman to inhale its toxic fumes. But though he would likely suffer severe and long-lasting respiratory damage, it takes significant time for someone to feel the effects of exposure, sometimes hours or even days.

It’s also worth mentioning that submerging someone in boiling water, which is only a fraction of the temperature of boiling acid, results in sudden, instant and even immediate death. Since Batman would die just as quickly in boiling water as in boiling acid, there’s seems to be no rational reason to boil it.

Finally, filling the vault with any liquid, regardless of its temperature or corrosive properties, would certainly drown our hero in a few short minutes. Batman is courageous and resilient, but he still needs to breathe.

So what possible explanation could there be for using boiling acid? What sinister objective was Two-Face trying to achieve? As a well-educated former district attorney, how could he possibly fail to realize the glaring impracticality and absurdity of such an elaborate plan? Apart from producing a suspenseful and memorable scene in the film, there’s really only one conclusion we can make, and it’s explained by the origin story of Two-Face.

Harvey Dent became Two-Face after being driven insane by his hideous facial disfigurement – a disfigurement that he received as a result of contact with sulfuric acid. Like Batman, Dent was a crime fighter, and he paid the price for his cause in the form of a courtroom attack in which he was deliberately splashed in the face with the corrosive substance. This explains why he would use acid as part of his plot against Batman. He wanted to remind our hero of what was done to him and make Batman feel what he felt. Perhaps he even hoped that Batman would ultimately survive, but only after being burned and disfigured like himself. This theory is supported by the fact that the bank heist took place on the anniversary of Two-Face’s capture at the hands of Batman.

If this was indeed the case, then this would also explain why he boiled the acid. Two-Face could have suspected that Batman might keep a small oxygen tank hidden in his utility belt, so he likely couldn’t drown him. And maybe, just maybe, he considered that Batman might wear an acid-resistant suit in preparation for just such a scheme, so he likely couldn’t dissolve him. And so Two-Face boiled the acid, ensuring that Batman would certainly and immediately succumb to its unbearable heat.

Unfortunately we still don’t know why the attacker in the courtroom used acid to attack Dent or, more importantly, whether or not it was boiling.

Mind Control

Robotic prosthetic limbs are truly amazing. These devices allow those who have suffered catastrophic, life-altering illnesses and injuries to regain lost mobility or dexterity and to experience aspects of life that were once inaccessible. In addition to improving the quality of life for millions of people, robotic prostheses have also inspired us to imagine new, exciting ways that the technology could be used.

While modern electronics continue to offer more immersive and intuitive interfaces, these inventions are still bound by the limitation of physical interaction. Touchscreens, mice and keyboards are very useful devices, but they still require us to translate our thoughts into actions before accepting input. This might lead us to wonder, “wouldn’t it be great if we could control devices with our minds?”

Although telepathic communication is often depicted as a lightning-quick, visceral technology in science fiction, there’s actually no convincing evidence that it would increase the speed or ease of communication, and the details of such interfaces appear anything but simple and intuitive. Let’s find out why this is the case.

Most of us believe that we can think faster than we can move or speak. This is based on the false assumption that the physical body merely limits the conscious mind. In actuality, the truth is often the opposite.

Our bodies not only optimize our cognitive abilities by sending important data to the brain, prioritizing things that require our immediate attention, they also carry out critical, complex tasks without conscious direction, often without our knowledge or consent, which frees our minds to spend attention in other ways. Examples include everything from walking and talking to biking and typing. By restricting our interface to only accept conscious thought, we are actually forcing ourselves to take control of automated systems, which impedes our mental capacity. It forces us to think about every individual instruction rather than the function as a whole. Imagine trying to think out a sentence one word or even one character at a time.

Another problem is that we don’t actually know how fast our brains can think. We also don’t know how fast they think whatever type of thoughts a telepathic device would accept. What we do know is that a comfortable rate of speech is about 150 words per minute and that skilled typists can reach upward of 120 words per minute. It’s likely that an improved keyboard configuration would allow for even faster speeds, so the disparity between speech and typing is actually very small. We also know that the average person reads at about 250 words per minute, which is about as fast as an auctioneer speaks. Using speed reading techniques, it’s possible to achieve a pace exceeding 500 words per minute. While comprehension at these rates usually falls between 60 and 70 per cent, these figures reveal that our brains can actually accept data far faster than they can generate it.

Of course, it’s possible that our rates of comprehension and speech are limited by our senses, so we we might accept and transmit data faster if we removed our mouth, fingers, ears, eyes and other body parts from the equation. But as it stands, the average person can type and speak at a rate similar to how they read and listen, which means that the bottleneck that telepathy would supposedly overcome has not yet been observed.

If we take a look at how modern robotic prostheses work, we observe yet another hurdle. Robotic limbs pick up signals sent from the brain, but they do not sense them within the brain. They merely intercept instructions in the nervous system on the way to the muscles. The difference is a significant because the type of thought that moves a limb is very different from other thoughts that occur in the brain. And this is precisely the problem: there are many different types of thoughts.

Our brains carry out a variety tasks, both conscious and otherwise. They are constantly sending and receiving signals to and from various locations in the body, monitoring and controlling our cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, muscular, respiratory, lymphatic, urinary, excretory, reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Our brains are also remembering the past, perceiving the present and predicting the future, and they’re usually doing more than one of these at any given moment.

The thought protocol for each functions is unique and must be distinguished if we plan to implement telepathic technology, for even the way we ponder a simple idea can vary significantly. We don’t just think in complete, coherent sentences, like mind-readers would have us believe. Our brains process emotions, sensations, opinions, images, music and ideas, and we’re thinking all these things while both consciously and unconsciously controlling our bodies. To illustrate the variation in thought, let’s examine all of the ways that we can think about a dog.

First of all, thinking the word dog is different from thinking about the word dog. It’s different from saying the word dog, thinking about saying the word dog and reading the word dog. It’s also different from thinking about a dog, some dogs or dogs in general, and it’s different from imagining or remembering a dog. It’s different from wanting a dog, missing a dog and loving or hating a dog. It’s different from looking at a dog, looking at a picture of dog, imagining a picture of a dog, and it’s different from imagining a picture of the word dog. It’s different from thinking about what it’s like to be a dog, from wanting to be a dog, and it’s different from actually being a dog. And thinking the word dog is different than thinking about thinking the word dog, and it’s different from considering thinking the word dog. Of course, considering thinking about the word dog is impossible, which brings us to our next point.

There’s a big difference between thinking something and doing or saying it, but if devices are controlled by thoughts directly from the brain, how would they know the difference? If someone with a prosthetic arm imagines punching another person in the face, the arm doesn’t do it, because it is merely sensing signals in the nervous system. But if we were controlling a device purely through thoughts in the brain, how would it distinguish which thoughts to obey and which to ignore?

If we consider taking an action, our body does not execute that action until we have made the decision to send the signal to our muscles. But in the brain there is no such confirmation through action. If we were to try and write an e-mail using a telepathically-controlled computer, how would we separate the words we wanted to send from the words we were considering? And how would we control punctuation, spacing, format and other details? Would we have to construct each sentence using individual words, or would we simply send raw thoughts, ideas or emotions? Would we be able to mute incoming signals or control their priority or storage? Would we be able to transmit images, music and other media? How about emotions? How would our brain receive emotional signals? And how would we deal with distractions and multitasking?

One possible solution to a few of these issues could be to use the nervous system to communicate. This would involve training our minds to control imaginary limbs that we pretend are part of our bodies. The instructions could then be translated into other signals that could be interpreted by a device. We can prove that this is possible by simply imagining that we have another set of arms beneath our normal arms and then imagining moving them around. This produces an eerie sensation that is likely similar to phantom limb syndrome.

Another less efficient option would be to confirm thoughts by thinking the words out loud (or speaking internally). It’s much harder to articulate how this type of thought works, but it’s probably best described as strongly imagining saying a word. Unfortunately, this solution would mean that we could only transmit words and only do so one at a time.

One of the more serious problems with telepathic technology would be deciding exactly what would be transmitted. Thoughts would have to converted into electrical signals, but our thoughts are usually very abstract, and the brain hides the complexities of most of its functions from our consciousness. In addition, the brain also prioritizes, categorizes and filters incoming information, so sending mere words would not only be incredibly difficult, but also incredibly incomplete when compared to the advanced level of thought that normally occurs in the mind.

In addition to all these barriers, there is also the issue that our brains, while absolutely amazing, are quite terrible. We are constantly overlooking, misinterpreting and forgetting things, and we get distracted easily and often. Just stop and think about your thoughts for a moment. Are they ordered, logical, focused and useful? Are they even coherent? The brain is a complex, damaged, dysfunctional machine, so if we want mind control, we must control our minds and do so in a much different way than we do now.

There’s also the serious and inescapable problem of connecting a human brain, which both controls our bodies and defines who we are, to a electronic device that can be forged, faulty or even compromised. That’s right, hackers could potentially gain access to our minds and monitor, steal, copy, corrupt or destroy our thoughts and memories. They could also take control our bodies, forcing us to obey their instructions, or even tell our hearts to stop beating.

Finally, though this is more of an indirect and ethical issue, it is interesting to note that even as society is beginning to recognize and prioritize the importance of regular physical activity, technology continues to alleviates us from physical duties. Standing desks, for example, have recently become a trendy way to improve our health. But with telepathically-controlled devices, we certainly don’t need a desk, and we may not even need to get out of bed. In fact, we may not need to wake up or even have bodies.

Thoughts aren’t what you thought. Think about it.

In Memoriam

We make them always, all the time,
and out of every thing.

We make them out of friends and facts,
and out of songs we sing.

Locked inside the cells within,
they’re with us all the time.

Shaping and defining us,
both awful and sublime.

They can’t be killed or stolen,
but most are changed or gone.

And some are hidden deep,
so we can carry on.

They follow, charm and haunt us,
no matter what we do.

Until one day they slip away,
and we become one too.