Open-minded and Judgmental

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

-George Carlin

Often, “closed-minded” and “judgmental” are labels applied only to people or positions you disagree with.

It’s not closed-mindedness per se that’s the problem—it’s just that someone’s mind is closed to the correct view, perspective, or opinion.  I’ve never heard someone sincerely accuse another person of being too open-minded—it’s just about agreement on a particular issue.

If you label a person or action “judgmental”, you are passing judgment on the person or action.  If you label someone as “close-minded”, you are closing your mind to their views and perspectives.

Take the example of gay marriage.  People who disapprove of gay marriage are labeled “judgmental”.  But of course, approval of gay marriage is itself a judgement.  Unless you never consider an issue or form an opinion about it, there is no escaping judgement.

Opponents of gay marriage are criticized for being “closed-minded”.  However, supporting gay marriage is necessarily closing your mind to conflicting perspectives, to some degree or another.  Should supporters of gay marriage “open their minds” to the possibility that the Old Testament is correct about the immorality of gay marriage (Leviticus 20:13)—that god himself spoke out against homosexuality?

The use of these terms sets up a false continuum.  The incorrect position (judgmental, closed-minded) is at one extreme, and the correct position (non-judgmental, open-minded) is at the other.

Labeling a position as closed-minded or judgmental is not an argument against that position; it’s just a label, like “bad”. When people use these terms they are simply stating that you are on the wrong spot on this continuum, instead of arguing why their place on the continuum is justified.  They are, in Carlin’s wording, calling you a maniac or an idiot, without saying why.

Open-mindedness means seeking to understand positions you don’t hold, accept, or understand, in spite of the fact that you don’t hold, accept, or understand them.

Of course there are people who are closed-minded: they have not sought to understand another’s position, considered an issue, or heard the other side’s evidence.  But because “closed-minded” is so often used as a synonym for “wrong”, it’s more useful to say that directly.  For instance, “They are unfamiliar with the other side’s position and their supporting reasoning.” Or “They’re not familiar with the latest evidence”, etc.

Non-judgement in some Buddhist sense may also be a virtue (a topic for another discussion), but that’s not the sense in which people use the term.  Everyone is judgmental about everything, and pretending that your judgement isn’t a judgement is unhelpful.  Maybe “That judgement is incorrect because….”.


Scare Quotes

scare qoutes.png

Wikipedia defines scare quotes as “quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to signal that a term is being used in a non-standard, ironic, or otherwise special sense.”

I’ve seen children experimenting with scare quotes they create with their fingers; using them accurately in a flash of insight and a prideful glimpse into adult conversation, and also completely inaccurately—with total obliviousness to the actual meaning of air quotes, regardless of how many times the concept has been explained and demonstrated.

But today I’m concerned with adult misuse of scare quotes, specifically with two direct quotes taken from emails.  I found these examples slightly confusing, and highly entertaining.    Continue reading

Democracy, Free trade, and other Fictions


The Set Up

WikiLeaks exposed a series of secret free-trade negotiations among the world’s largest economies.  These free-trade agreements, or FTAs, are known and organized under three separate but related acronyms: TPP, TTIP, and TISA[i].  The trade agreements were held in secret, outside of open democratic review. The talks, some of which have already concluded, began in 2012. As WikiLeaks discovered, states that have agreed to these new secret FTAs are prohibited from releasing the details of the agreements for five years.

So where did these agreements come from? All the evidence is anecdotal and inferred but nearly all the commentary on the FTAs points to the World Trade Organizations (WTO) Doha negotiations. Here’s a simplistic picture of the situation: During the talks, the large economies U.S, E.U, etc, who have similar trade goals, ran into increased push-back from BRIC nations[ii] and nations within the global south.[1],[iii] This pushback stalled the trade negotiations. A group of nations known as the ‘really good friends’[iv] broke from the talks and staged backroom negotiations, outside the WTO mainstream, resulting in the creation of TPP, TTIP, and TISA.[v] Continue reading

Happy Mother’s/Father’s Day

roseParents are those who will care no matter what; will cart away the excrement; risk getting it on their hands and clothing; suffer being shat upon.

-William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust, 133

I should be able to save, and even to return something of the money which you have lavished on my life for twenty-seven years.  As for the other intangible and incalculable things you have given me, I can only repay these by leading a fairly happy and useful life, keeping in touch with you, and seeing you when I can.

-Oliver Sacks, excerpt from a letter to his parents, On The Move, 54

Thanks mom and dad–don’t expect a check any time soon.

Meditation Retreat

MedeitationNothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

This past weekend, I attended a vipassana meditation retreat, my third retreat of this kind. Vipassana meditation (Wikipedia) is simple, but not easy. The general idea is to focus your attention on the physical sensations caused by breathing. When your mind wanders to other sensations or thoughts, you observe those thoughts without becoming entranced by them, and without judging them. In the words of Matthew Brensilver, “When we’re in the bubble of thought, we don’t know that we’re thinking.”1 The intention is to step outside the bubble of that individual thought—which allows no mental space for anything else—and notice the thought as another object that has appeared inside of your mind. Then, you should gently return your focus to the sensations of breathing.

Continue reading

Why does cancer exist?

evoluiton and cancer“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Theodosius Dobzhanski, (1973)

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US1. With an aging population, cases of cancer are only expected to increase in the future. To combat cancer, the White House has recently announced a one billion dollar investment in cancer research. Clearly, cancer is a huge problem confronting humanity and thus a fundamental understanding of cancer is essential. Maybe the most fundamental question is: why does cancer exist? The answer is evolution by natural selection.

Evolution by natural selection occurs when organisms acquire mutations that alter their fitness (increase their reproductive success). An increase in fitness means that mutations are being passed on to offspring, whereas decreases in fitness lead to a loss of specific mutations from the gene pool. For instance, a single-celled organism that acquires mutations that allows it to out-compete other organisms will increase in population. In this case, selfish mutations are beneficial for the species’ survival.

At some point during evolution, single-celled organisms came together to form multi-cellular organisms. Multi-cellular organisms contain specialized cells for performing specific functions for the benefit of the entire organism. In certain historical situations, multi-cellular organisms must have acquired a selective advantage over single-celled organisms and increased in population.

Since most single-celled organisms probably came from a lineage where selfishness (the ability to acquire and utilize precious resources to maximize reproductive fitness, at the expense of neighboring cells) was selected for (i.e. survival of the fittest), they had to evolve ways to suppress selfishness, in order to collaborate and function properly within the context of an entire organism. Genes that suppress selfishness are called tumor suppressor genes. Generally, these genes encode proteins that regulate cell cycle, apoptosis (programmed cell death), or are involved in DNA repair. So during the evolution of multi-cellular organisms selection began to work at two levels: the level of the organism, and at the level of individual cells within that organism. Selfishness was shifted from individual cells to the whole multi-cellular organisms.

Considering the evolutionary history of multi-cellular species, cancer is essentially the restoration of selfishness by random mutation and selection at the cellular level. Walking through this step-by-step: loss-of-function mutations arise randomly in tumor suppressor genes2, this causes the cell to grow uncontrollably and selfishly, eventually out-competing neighboring cells for resources (selection), leading to tissue destruction at the detriment of the whole organism.

“All cancers are thought to share a common pathogenesis. Each is the outcome of a process of Darwinian evolution occurring among cell populations within the microenvironments provided by the tissues of a multicellular organism.” 3


The evolution of cancerous cells is a continual process, even after initial tumors develop. Genomic instability—high mutation rates—is a hallmark of cancer, and the more genetically diverse a tumor is, the harder it is to treat. Just as bacterial cells evolve resistance to antibiotics, cancer cells can evolve resistance to anti-cancer treatments like chemotherapy and molecularly targeted therapies. Resistance in both cases is acquired through the same mechanism—natural selection.

Mutation and selection at the cellular level is what creates and sustains cancer. Thus, an understanding of evolutionary principles is fundamental for understanding the development, prevention, and treatment of cancer.



2Ignoring oncogenes here for simplicity. I’m also thinking that during the evolution of multi-cellular organisms oncogenes were just down-regulated to deal with selfishness, as opposed to evolving a new gene as in the case of tumor suppressors. So tumor suppressors are more interesting.