On Absurdities and Atrocities

“As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”

– Voltaire

The Scharff Approach to Interrogation

Perhaps ironically, the most effective approach to extract information from someone may be kindness. In 2014, Swedish researchers compared a common, direct interrogation—where the questions are direct and specific—to the Scharff Technique, named after the highly successful German interrogator Hanns Scharff.[1]

Scharff was not a typical Nazi interrogator. Unlike the infamous Klaus Barbie, he did not believe in using physical violence. Instead, Scharff got prisoners to spill their secrets through kindness and cunning.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire

According to Pacific Standard magazine, he even used to share his wife’s baked goods with allied fighter pilots. Once, while strolling with a captured allied fighter pilot through the woords, Scharff claimed that American tracer bullets left a white instead of red smoke due to a chemical shortage, the pilot jumped in to correct him, saying the white smoke was a signal to pilots that they were low on ammo. Thus Scharff was armed with the information he sought. Contemporary researchers are now beginning to put his techniques to the test.

In the Swedish study, participants were given a story with 35 details and interrogated by phone, Scharff’s approach not only resulted in more (and more precise) information, but those being interrogated thought they gave up less information than they actually had, while those being interrogated directly felt they gave up more than they actually had. Kindness is not the only key ingredient to the Scharff Technique; having a “know-it-all” attitude compels information-disclosing corrections, as in the case of the pilot correcting his “friend.”

“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?” ― George Orwell, 1984

[1] Oleszkiewicz. S., Granhag. P.A., Montecinos. S.C. (2014) The Scharff-technique: eliciting intelligence from human sources.

The Argument from Design

‘The next step in the process brings us to the argument from design. You all know the argument from design: everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design.

It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application. It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists? Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending — something dead, cold, and lifeless.

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.’

– Denonn. L.E., Egner. R.E. Ed. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell London, United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin (1962) p. 589-590

Bertrand Russell delivered the lecture Why I am not a Christian (of which this is an excerpt) on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

Look For New Connections

Always write down things you do not already know. People find this hard, because formal education is all about recycling and repeating other people’s knowledge (some wag once defined education as the process by which the notes of the professor appear in the notebooks of the student, without passing through the mind of either). Interestingness is a lot like humour – it can’t be defined or taught, it’s a spark which arcs between two previously unconnected things.

“Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.” – Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

See other: Philosophy of Interestingness

Ask More Questions

An interesting life is one long string of questions. Six year-olds are full of questions, before school and busy parents teach them that you get on quicker by pretending to know things. Socrates asked lots of difficult questions. He might have ended up dead (who doesn’t) but he was never bored and he never bored anyone else.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire

See other: Philosophy of Interestingness

What If Christianity Had Defeated Reason?

What if the Christian organised religion had successfully blocked all scientific progress and philosophical development of reason for the past 2000 years?

  • We would probably still think the earth was located at the centre of the solar system (this school of thought is known as geocentrism, as opposed to heliocentrism), despite what brilliant astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo have argued.
  • We would still think that the sun revolved around the earth. (Having said that, in 2012, 18% of Americans still believed the sun revolves around the earth.)
  • Mankind would probably not have tolerated any kind of modern democracy, since theocratic politics do not tolerate opposing views, let alone critical or secular ones. After all, there is a strong argument to be made that organised religion does not tolerate dissent.
  • Secularists, radical and experimental scientists, thinkers and philosophers – dissenters of any kind for that matter – would still be silenced. That is, regularly burned at the stake.
  • Homosexuals, bisexuals and people with multiple casual sexual partners would probably be in the same amount of danger as people of a similar nature are nowadays in central Africa – perhaps even more danger.
  • Women would still be banned from most of public life; in the same way history has shown us for the past centuries.
  • We would still think human beings are a special divinely created exception in biology. Facts about evolution and genetics would be unknown.
  • And since mankind would be considered to be above nature, animals would probably be exploited even more than today.
  • Since evidence based sciences would have a tough time, evidence based medicine would probably not exist in the form we know today, we would still use quacks, faith healers and prayer to combat diseases instead of vaccinations and other medications.
  • Nations that would identify themselves as devoutly Christian would probably still be fighting religious wars against the other faithful.
  • Many of the works of noteworthy intellectual figures would never have been published (perhaps because they were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or similar black list). Notable thinkers on this list include: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Emanuel Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, John Milton, John Locke, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal and Hugo Grotius. (Interestingly, Charles Darwin’s works were never included.)

‘Yes. To you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn’t it? […] No that’s what I think, that’s what I think, what do you think? Try to have a thought of your own, Baldrick. Thinking is so important. What do you think?’

– Joseph M. 1998. Blackadder The Whole Damn Dynasty London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (1999) p. 137-138