Posts tagged ‘Science’

So the Problem is Social Media?

I had an interesting discussion last night about what has driven our fact free world or more specifically alternate realities depending on how you pick your facts. The gist of my protagonist’s argument was that being awash in media, and especially social media is driving the spread of false narratives and fake news, and once it is out there it spreads so fast that you can’t put it back in the bottle with real facts and data. Now that is certainly true, but I think it is an effect, not a cause, multiplied by technology. I have all kinds of technology, I get news 24/7, yet I seemed to be able to navigate the junk just fine.

I think in some ways this is generational. I was raised in a time when science and accepted research were respected. There were, certainly, a lot fewer narratives to choose from, and I did not think my teachers, whether they taught science, history, or English were just given their opinion on things. Now everything can be questioned and good grammar apparently is in the eye of the beholder? Questioning things is good, but I think we have unleashed a monster in those that neither understand the psychology of the self, or true critical thinking.

Let’s start with the psychology of the self as I like to call it. That is our tendency to decide things from the gut, and pick and choose facts/stories based upon what we want to believe. When I was a young boy, I learned the scientific method. It was based upon removing those biases from the analysis through a systematic application of rules. As I became a young man, I learned what it meant to really know something, not just a feeling or a wish, but to know it. The second part of this and probably closely related is critical thinking. I hear something I want to believe, that supports some wacky idea I have, but is it true? What is the source? What are other interpretations of events.

Let’s take my insistence that President DFF colluded with the Russians, tried to suppress the investigation, and is an ignorant racist. Start with racist. Define what that means because if you are going to have an argument about whether he is, both of you better have the same definition. My definition is simple, he stereotypes various groups, and he favors white people (or discriminates in policy and actions against people of color). I believe based upon his own word and actions, it is quite clear he is a racist. But the argument you might have with someone who disagreed would be around do we have facts or data so support that definition. And we have tons of it.

Ignorant is easy to prove once you understand it means lack of knowledge. He is clueless as he has demonstrated with his myriad of false statements about any number of things, including immigrants, white racists, guns, etc. His interpretation of history boggles historical fact. Next up, has he tried to obstruct the investigation into the Russia incursion? Again the data is overwhelming and the argument that this is just what he was used to in his real estate world falls apart a year later and he is still at it. Did he collude? On that one we simply don’t know yet. Somebody did. One can make a reasonable assumption based upon his actions that he is covering up something, but right now that is just an opinion. See the difference? I cannot connect the dots on the last one, except the number of dots left to connect are getting fewer. Mueller will do that one and probably find that the hold on President DFF is his money laundering of Russian money that his whole family was involved in. Again I am simply connecting dots we have, but I don’t know it yet.

So in this world of massive information, how do you pick out fact and fantasy and how do you avoid labeling things you don’t want to believe fake news? In the end, I don’t think anything has changed really other than if you want to create an echo chamber of your beliefs it is certainly easy to do these days because you can pick a million sources of information and close out those that are not convenient. But man used to believe amazing nonsense about gods and magic and when it turned out not be an effective way to survive in the world, we got science, so too will this happen now. More on that in a minute.

Certainly we need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking in schools. That is an up hill battle because it challenges a lot of local religious beliefs (if you apply it to religion which schools scrupulously avoid, but spill over is unavoidable, you start questioning faith, Heresy!). Religious thinking in and of itself lends to the whole psychology of believing something you want to believe without critical examination. It is called faith. In the modern world we tried to separate religious thinking from secular rationalism (The Enlightenment), but as you can see in today’s Republicans, faith-based ideology (markets are always best, flow down works, tax cuts are always good, to solve gun violence we need more guns, and big government is always bad) has taken over rational analysis. Certainly we need to teach what it is to really know something (models, testing, and examining conflicting data) and that we are programmed to self-select what we want to believe. If we had that knowledge and tools, social media would be ineffective in swaying our opinion.

In the end what really changes people is when their ideas fail and they personally suffer for those beliefs. I would argue that conservatives have just about everything wrong, with a small element of truth buried in there somewhere (like self-discipline is good and we do need to hold people accountable, but only if it is a level playing field). The people in the rust belt who are all gung-ho right now on tariffs think they will get their jobs back. They won’t (See Trade, Tariffs, and North Korea). The tax cut won’t bring rising wages or a fair share in profits earned because of their increase in productivity. Building a wall and making America unfriendly to immigrants will stifle our economy. Cutting regulations will stimulate some business, but we may find that the world we then inhabit is uninhabitable (think about the Lesser Depression in 2008). Believing global warming is a hoax will leave us unprepared for the future. There is a ton of data out there to show these are all fool’s errands.

I think this is starting play out. While Democrats (myself included) salivate for Mueller to save us, what will really save us is to examine the world we live in, the changes that are happening, and come up with a plan based upon a rational analysis of the best way forward. So far, except for Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, Democrats are floundering. But there is hope all around the country as new young people challenge the status quo that Republicans represent, and Democrats fail to challenge. The old ways are failing, we all know it, and that was the impetus to the last election. It will also be the impetus to the next one and maybe this time we have learned our lesson about an ignorant, racist, nativist approach to our future. Maybe those basic values that established the Constitution and what made us exceptional (diversity and an equal chance to succeed) will rise again. Maybe.

Let’s Go Deep – The Destruction of Democracy

There is a narrative out there, one I happen to think is true, that we are on the road to losing our democracy. We have a narcissist child President with a pathological need for lying, who has demonstrated his racism, ignorance, and nativism on numerous occasions, elected by a minority of the people. But I think we could solve that if our institutions and norms were not under assault.

Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have studied the demise of elected democracies around the world. In a new book, How Democracies Die, they argue that too many American politicians, including President DFF (I call him Trump DFF, Dumb Fat F*ck because, well isn’t it obvious?), are violating long-held norms of American democracy, including a respect for the legitimacy of political rivals and a commitment to some restraint in political combat.

They tell us there are four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:

1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules. 2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents. 3. He or she tolerates violence. 4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.  

“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”

But that is just the beginning. In the book and in interviews (The best one is a Podcast with Ezra Klein) they tell us is that “the primary way in which democracies have died since the end of the Cold War, over the last 30 years or so, is at the hands of elected leaders (See above), at the hands of governments that were often freely or close to freely elected, who then use democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.”

Now let’s think about that a minute. We know that on many issues the Congress (Republicans who control both chambers) do not represent the will of the people, be that about Dreamers, simple background checks for gun ownership, or Obamacare. Starting with the House of Representatives, the authors above have shown in the next election Democrats could win by a margin of 6 or 7% and still not be in the majority. That is because of gerrymandering. In the Senate as I and many others have shown, representation favors those living in low population/rural/conservative states (two per state regardless of population). The population of California has the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming. Really, the ratio of population is 68:1. And as the authors above pointed out, those Republicans represent a smaller and smaller minority of white people as our country diversifies and grows.

This then actuated the “who then use democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.” We saw it back in 2009 when Mitch McConnell and the Republicans decided to make the filibuster and needing a super majority for any major legislation the tool they would use to make Barack Obama a one-term President. We see it in gerrymandering and the successful attempt to deny President Obama a Supreme Court Justice so they could control the Supreme Court who is today reviewing gerrymandering. We see it in voter ID laws that are now in 30 states that have one and only one aim, to make it harder to vote for those that don’t support their policies. President DFF tried to continue that with his voter commission, but the states rebelled.

Think about purple North Carolina when in the last election their state government changed hands.  So what did the Republicans do?  In a lame duck session they passed laws that hamstrung the new government to benefit themselves.  That is democracy at work?  Where was the norm that the people want a new direction and we should release the reins of control? But still, with all this, our democracy would be self-correcting eventually, because the institutions and the Constitution would hold up and we would swing back the other way, except it isn’t happening. So why is that?

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that:

To function well, democratic constitutions must be reinforced by two basic norms, or unwritten rules. The first is mutual toleration, according to which politicians accept their opponents as legitimate. When mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.

The second norm is forbearance, or self-restraint in the exercise of power. Forbearance is the act of not exercising a legal right. In politics, it means not deploying one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it’s legal to do so.

Then they catalogue in an interesting way how that mutual toleration and forbearance has eroded.  One of their interesting assertions is that race has played an important role.  As long as the majority say the status quo of racial injustice was okay, we could work together because we had that one mutual interest.  See the formation of the Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the passing of the voting rights act.  They point out that when South Carolina was Democratic, and Wyoming was Republican, we did have accommodation.  Today both are Republican and mutual toleration and forbearance are gone.

As Republicans represent a smaller and smaller segment of America, “Democrats being a party, essentially, of secular, educated whites and a diversity of ethnic minorities and the Republicans being a fairly homogeneous white, Protestant party, or white Christian party, the Republicans have basically come to represent a former ethnic majority in decline. You have many – certainly not all – but many Republican voters who feel like the country that they grew up with, or grew up in, is being taken away from them. And that can lead to pretty extremist views and voting patterns.

And they weren’t afraid to point who started this cycle of extremism:

We think that the most egregious sort of pushing of the envelope began with Republicans, particularly in the 1990s and that the most egregious acts of hardball have taken place at the hands of Republicans. I’ll just list four – the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton, the 2003 mid-district redistricting in Texas, which was pushed by Tom DeLay, the denial – essentially, the theft of a Supreme Court seat with the refusal to even take up the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and the so-called legislative coup pulled off by the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina in 2016. Those are among the most egregious acts of constitutional hardball that we see in the last generation, and they’re all carried out by Republicans.

Of course that does not include President DFF and the total capitulation of the Republicans in Congress to violate norms and the rule of law to try to tarnish and end the Mueller investigation.  The release of an obviously (from FBI statements) inaccurate and politicized Nunes Memo that could damage national security, destroy trust in government, is really the last straw. With all this, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that if Democrats follow the same scorched earth policies of the Republicans, we lose democracy.  Here is where we part company.

Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook. And if they retake the Senate in 2018, there is talk of denying President Trump the opportunity to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. This is a dangerous spiral.

American democracy retains important sources of strength, including vast national wealth, a vibrant media and civil society, and a robust judiciary and rule of law. But the norms that once protected our institutions are coming unmoored. President Trump has accelerated this norm erosion, but he didn’t start it. Intensifying polarization, driven by an extremist Republican Party, is making constitutional hardball a new norm for party politics.

The lessons of history are clear. Extreme polarization can wreck even established democracies. America is no exception. As long as Americans do not overcome their deepening partisan animosities, democracy remains at risk — President Trump or no President Trump.

I have been arguing for years that Republicans no longer represent legitimate partners in a democracy and we should treat them as such.  Not to do so turns our democracy into a wrecking machine. There is a difference between Democrats and Republicans that Levitsky and Ziblatt, as a bipartisan writing team, I don’t think recognize yet.  Democrats don’t usually lie and they believe in facts and science to inform their policies.  That actually leads to rational debate within the Democratic Party on the way forward.

Republicans through their use of Fox news , Right wingthink tanks and media create an alternate reality that does not allow for data, facts, and science, only dogma.  Their ignoring of the threat to America by Russia and following in line behind President DFF is just the latest proof of how illegitimate they are as defenders of the Constitution.

Now in the podcast I cited above, they argued that as the Republicans go further off the rails, the other side, as hard as that argument is to make, must be the adult in the room to save democracy with this argument:  Republicans have valid points of view that should be respected.  They used abortion which Republicans see as murder as an example.  We Democrats should respect that.

Okay, but in that argument they ignore what science tells us about the fetus and abortion, or that nature as a natural process aborts millions more that we ever do in a hospital. Finally and most importantly, Democrats giveRepublicans the right not to have one, to choose to or not to.  Republicans want to take their religious belief and force it down our throats using government, not moral arguments, to end abortions way past what science tells us is necessary.  That is fundamentally different than respecting a point of view.  It is capitulating to their intolerance in defiance of facts, data, and science.

I believe that while I understand their academic view of what is necessary for a democracy, seeing your opponent as legitimate and displaying forbearance, can only apply when your opponent is legitimate, that facts, science, and data can in fact inform an argument and lead to a resolution.  We no longer have in America rational debate.  We have one side creating a propaganda machine to change our perception of reality to maintain their hold power.

There is only one legitimate political party in our two-party system, the Democrats, and quite frankly that is where you will find real debates about the limits of government, the economy, action on global warming, tax reform, immigration policy, and many more issues.  On the other side we have dogma and misdirection to consolidate power, using the levers of a democracy to kill it.  Forbearance my ass.

I think the Democratic Party has to play hardball with an irrational foe.  The damage that we are seeing to institutions as the Republicans in Congress co-opt their need for control and power over good government, can no longer be forbeared.  Democrats can no longer act and look powerless as the truculent child acts freely to destroy our country.  The difference here is the Democrats will utilize facts, data, and science to attack Republicans, and no longer show restraint and forbearance in the face of bold lies.

There is one other dynamic that may be in play here, the Republicans have policies that facts, data, and science show us will badly damage America. As the damage builds up, maybe the radical right will come to their senses.  In the meantime, Democrats have to recognize that their political foe is no longer as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue worthy of tolerance and forbearance.  They lost that respect when they embarked on a fact free and propaganda mission to take over the government.  It is really time to fight back.


Opinion Panels and Tribalism

One of the things you hear and is becoming conventional wisdom is the idea we just need to listen to each other, and that tribalism is how we verify our ideas. To me they are both bull shit. First better listening and polite dialogue, I think, is really a good idea if we had people with open minds and a definition of what a fact is. I was watching Oprah on 60 Minutes last night try to get people to understand each others concerns. And they were talking their feelings. One woman was expressing her fear of what the Republicans might do to Obamacare and its promise to protect those with pre-existing conditions (annihilate it), and clearly a Republican who says we can agree at least on Obamacare needs to be fixed. So what is the problem?

Well it has to do with facts. Feelings are nice, but they can sadly badly mislead you. The woman above has a right to be scared because the Republican Plan while it keeps existing conditions in theory, allows the states to wave coverage and says nothing about limiting cost, so sure they cover existing conditions at only $100K. Now the guy was wanting what we all want, lower costs and better care. Okay, me too. So how do you get that? Well, you got to know the facts, not opinions or feelings, but facts.  Fact, all other nations have universal care, most do not use the market place, and when they do it is highly regulated, and their costs are half our’s with better outcomes.  So why can’t we get there and why if they can afford it, can’t we?

So the obvious answer is to look at all those other systems, take what works, be inventive, and change Obamacare accordingly.  So why don’t we do that?  Because many Americans feel Obamacare must be repealed forgetting the nightmare of serious illness the previous system was.  And when you examine the things we need to do to get cost under control, and provide affordable care to everyone, these are the things that mostly move the system away from marketplace which is heresy to the Party in charge.  But, I don’t care what you feel, I only care about facts and neither should you.  You don’t want to do what it takes because you feel the market place provides the best solutions.  If I give you a 100 places where market place has failed us, well, those facts don’t matter.

And the reason for that is tribalism.  The Red tribe hates government (except their Medicare and Social Security) so government solutions cannot be considered.  The tribe reinforces the belief in our feelings.  The tribe even develops think tanks to cull facts to prove their case.  But culling does not give us truth, just facts to support our feelings (See Cheney on WMD).  So when you mix tribes in the opinion discussions, you certainly expose each side to the other sides “facts”, but most of them have it wrong to begin with.  Now we are back to the issue of what is true.  Who moderates the facts?

Now, I don’t think this is hard.  Climate change exists because the preponderance of science verifies it.  Because you can cull some minor disputes and say it is in question is nonsense.  But in tribal thinking that is where we are.  I am an engineer and I believe in the scientific method.  I love the quote, “Science does not give a shit what you think” (I have a tee-shirt to prove it).  The point is that science and its use of data allows us to arrive at the best version of truth we can no matter how we feel about that truth.  Politics and ideology simply try to skew the data to trick us into following one path or another that meets the parties emotional needs.

We need to get back to finding solutions based upon science and data, and if those solutions don’t work, we modify our approach.  Here again is where the Republicans went off the deep end with ideology.  We all agree Obamacare could be better (especially if the present administration wasn’t trying to sabotage it).  So what are the fixes?  Well one side says we just need to destroy it without any ideas about that. That is ideology at work.  Their tribe has been chanting Obamacare sucks and it has become the conventional wisdom until they figure what they are losing when it goes away. Feelings and tribal beliefs out of control.

Now here is an example.  If you accept finally the truth and consequences of global warming, then the question is what is the best way to control carbon rmiddiond into the environment.  We can have a legitimate argument about whether cap and trade or a carbon tax would be the best way to do that.  But now we are arguing about means, not ignoring the problem.  And data can inform us.  If we select one and it is not as effective or has other deleterious effects, we can change.  That is impossible today. The Red tribe can’t even admit to the problem.

Now the Red Tribe has sold government is bad (big government), taxes are too high, regulations kill innovation, and the market place unregulated is the best way to solve problems. Let’s not forget state’s rights*.  Now I can find instances where all of this is true.  I can also find instances where the opposite is true.  But what the Red Tribe has done is then build a false strawman.  If they believe the above, Democrats, the Blue tribe, must believe the opposite.

And nothing could be further from the truth.  The Blue tribe is much more science and data driven.  When big government works (Medicare anyone? How about FEMA? How about Obamacare?) they are all for it.  If it issues regulations that stymie growth and turn out to be counter productive, they are against it.  Taxes are a mixed bag and sometimes we have to poney up for the things we need. Most of our issues today are ideology driven from the Red side, whether it is tax reform, spending, immigrants, Iran nuke deal, climate change,

The blue tribe has its blind spots, but science, fact, and data are more likely to hold sway.  That’s why the preponderance of scientists are Democrats.  The Red tribe has shown their inability to see gray.  So I want to end this tribal/opinion way of thinking.  Accepting tribal thinking is counter to the ideals of democracy.  Opinion panels without a moderation of facts, are a waste of time.  Ind of like our current approach to our newsmedia.  It is bullshit.  It is destroying America.  Try to remember that the Red tribe’s icon, Ronald Reagan, warned us in 1961 that Medicare will bring a socialist dictatorship.  How many lives has it saved and allowed those of us over 65 to actually afford healthcare, yet the Red tribe is still trying to kill it.  It works and they want to kill it, not improve it, kill it.  It is ideology run amok. I rest my case.

*Right now they are selling state control of healthcare.  Didn’t that work out so well for voting rights, segregation, pollution control, to name just a few giant failures?  Remember the Constitution and where it came from?  It came from the states running amok.  So make no mistake, the Red tribe is trying to hand off the costs to the states so they are out of the game and then the states can be blammed for the cutbacks.  I don’t mind giving local control to better decide how to deal with local conditions, but with lots and lots of strings to ensure affordable healthcare to all.  Right now that is exactly what you are not getting.


The State of Man/Sunday Morning

We have been overrun by the crass.  The President is the shinning example, but his whole Administration reeks of mediocrity and driven by corporations and the profit motive.  Ah, the great god, Money.  We even look now at universities to be the training ground  of corporate innovative life.  If it doesn’t have a perceived marketable skill, why take the course is the prevalent attitude.  David Brooks wrote to some extent about the mindless crassness of our present decline of civilization and actually blamed it on the universities.  Many of his readers took him to task on that one*.  David does a great job of sensing society’s ills, but when it comes to cause and effect, he has a real problem with cause as he cannot see that the Great Republican take over was a long road of worshiping acquisition and dumbing us all down.

But I came across this little article about the Cassini spacecraft that has been out there circling Saturn and expanding our knowledge of the cosmos:

Cassini spacecraft is about to begin its great cosmic swan dive.

On Saturday morning, the spacecraft, which has been circling Saturn and its environs for the last 13 years, will skim over the hazes of Titan, the ringed planet’s biggest moon. Like a heavy hand, Titan’s gravity will reach out and pull Cassini onto a new path, downward into the narrow gap between Saturn and its innermost ring, where no human artifact has ever gone.

Cassini will penetrate that formerly inviolate space not once but 22 times, about once a week until Sept. 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated. This summer then is the last hurrah of sorts for Cassini and the team that has guided it all these years.Now we have extended our reach.

…Nothing Cassini has done or found so far has moved the markets back here on Earth. It moved only our souls, our minds and our imaginations. It made us freer and bigger by showing how little we know and how much more room there is to expand our thoughts and dreams. How little of nature’s repertoire we have even guessed at.

And the last part, that last paragraph really does define the human soul.  We are a society based upon acquisition and measure accomplishment in $.  And it is such a hollow existence when we were given these marvelous minds to think critically and find our place in the cosmos.  Instead we dumb ourselves down fighting for slices of the pie and cutting budgets of the things that are really important to us to fund tax cuts for “the job creators”.  After all, the market loves tax cuts, right?

We, as a human society, could do so much more and yet we elected a man and a party who eschews science and rational thought.  They have solutions to all our problems that are “Great!” and really, really “Big!” Yet they have nothing to do with cause and effect.  Watch sadly as religious freedom gets redefined as the right to impose one’s views on another.  Almost all of our problems are easily solvable, or at least we know the solution, but we are so frightened by change that we imagine the “good old days” and try to create a world where learning stopped.  In order to embrace the solutions of the Trump administration one has to kill about half of his/her brain cells.

Classic example was Jeff Sessions decrying that, “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power,”  Hmm.  First that island in the Pacific is a state with a Federal District Court.  Second, you would not think you would have to explain to an Attorney General about the three branches of government and how the courts have a role in adjudicating Constitutionality.  Third, Sessions voted for the judge’s confirmation and he was confirmed 94-0.  Sessions is just an example of a little piss-ant racist tyrant that is part of the whole Trump phenomenon.  Remember that Sessions coud not be confirmed as a federal judge because of his racism.  Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii called Attorney General Sessions comments “dangerous and ignorant.”  I would up her one and call Jeff Sessions himself dangerous and ignorant.  But that goes to the whole Trump Administration.

Voting is going on today in France and we will see if fear, ignorance, and stupidity will rule Europe too.  It is like we lost our brains or our understanding of the human condition or the advance of human civilization.  We won’t know the outcome until after the runoff elections, but the French mercifully do this in an eleven-day period, including the runoffs.  Hopefully they will put a stop to our right-wing slide back into the dark ages.  If they don’t, I fear for our future.  Well actually I already fear for our future as the damage Cheeto-Head has already done may not be repairable.

One last thing in the interest of rational thought. President Cheeto-Head has signed another meaningless executive order on H-1B  visas that allow us to bring in foreign, well-educated workers.  He wants us to hire Americans first, but there are claims that it is those very H-1B visas that fuel our innovative tech world and this could be devastating.  There is truth on both sides but don’t expect the Cheeto-Heads to do the right thing.  The Economic Policy Institute has put together a good paper on what reforms are really needed so that Americans do not lose their jobs to lower waged H-1B applicants, and that were there are really hard to fill jobs, the H-1Bs can fill those jobs at competitive salaries.  It is common sense, but expect the Tech Industry to fight it because they want lower salaries.  It is always about the money, not what is right. And that is what we have become.  Protecting the powerful and wealthy.  Nothing else matters.  Not quite how I would choose to describe Americanism.

*One response to David’s analysis of our slipping Western civilization:  “So let me get this straight. Millions of Americans worship at the altar of Trump because of how they were taught western civilization? The premise is absurd. First – I doubt most trump voters could identify the “cradle of civilization” let alone tell you the two rivers that form it. Critical inquiry and a more broad historical analysis of western civilization are hardly to blame. The blames lies with decades of your fellow republicans gutting education so that most Americans have never taken a western civ class let alone a good old civics class. These same Americans love to shout how they are the true patriots without having a clue about how our democracy works. Just look no further than the current fool of a president. No – you own this Mr Brooks. Trump is in office due to the willful ignorance of the American populace. It’s precisely the outcome the GOP created from their decades long smear campaign against education, secularism, scientific inquiry and rational thinking.”


I bought some t-shirts that made me laugh as being to true, but of course I can’t wear them in public, except maybe the Neil deGrasse Tyson one.  Here is the gamete:





Yeah, there is a theme.  We are in the mist of an amazing time when half the nation has thrown out critical thinking and lies, if they suit what you want to believe, become facts without any fact checking.  I call it faith-base thinking.  I feel it, or I believe it, therefore it is.  It is the opposite of scientific thinking where you can suppose anything, but then it has to be tested against reality.  Scientific thinking I call critical thinking.  So where did all this faith-based thinking come from?  

Okay, you guessed it, religion. Religion allows you to suspend your disbelief and to choose not to question.  In fact in some religions, actually all depending on what period of history you want to look at, questioning was punishable by death.  Americans, at least religious ones, have no idea how this religious thinking permeates our whole social interaction.  “God bless America”, “…one country under God”, oh, and we can never forget the religious test we use for office holders, “Can you explain how your faith will inform your decisions in office?”

Think about it.  Religion is thrown in your face at almost every gathering whether it is the convocation, or before a football game as the team prays together on the field.  And it is all based on nonsense.  But I am not here to debunk religion, just to point out that it provides a modality of thinking that allows one to ignore facts and data.  Does not mean some religions don’t let facts and data in, but from a faith-based way of thinking, ISIS is just as justified demanding purity to the faith on penalty of death as another religion says life begins at conception.  It based upon belief not science.

So no, I won’t wear them out in most public places because I don’t want to offend you or throw my critical thinking based thinking in your face, I just wish you would do the same with your religion, but of course that is normal and okay.  And then you wonder how we got here where truth no longer matters, just what you want to believe.  Oy Vey.


I am still trying to sort out how people can vote Republican when we know much of what they stand for doesn’t work except for the 1%.  And I say I know.  Knowing is an interesting concept in American thought that has been badly bastardized.  “I just know it is going to rain.”  “I feel in my heart that this is right”.  No, those are not ways of knowing, they are ways of feeling.  Knowing something, really knowing something does not come from you gut.  It comes from well design experiments and verification.  Boring, he is going to launch on some science crap.  Well sort of.

Today in the NYT was an article about the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters in its 14th and final season.  MythBusters would take common beliefs, design an experiment to test it, and then, well, test it.  As the article pointed out they discovered a penny thrown of the Empire State Building will not kill you and poppy seeds will have you test positive for heroin use.  It taught a generation of people to think critically. As the article noted:

Obviously, experiments staged for television can’t have the rigor of peer-reviewed lab work. But “MythBusters” captures the underlying mind-set of science. At a time when “skepticism” too often means rejecting any ideas one finds politically unpalatable, “MythBusters” provides a compelling example of real scientific skepticism, the notion that nothing can be held true until it is confirmed by experimentation.

I guess that is my real frustration with politics today.  So much is knowable and we throw that knowledge away for what we find “unplatatable”.  Global warming for starters.  We know it exists.  We know and are seeing the results, and yet we have a whole segment of our population that looks the other way.  It is some government plot to steal and waste our tax dollars.  And even if you can’t stop it, you can plan for and mitigate the effects.  Nope, does not exist.  The whole Republican Party is science challenged.

And let’s not forget the War on Drugs which we have continued for 60 years and why?  It has totally failed and yet many find legalizing even marijuana “unpalatable”.  How about our Cuba policy?  How much longer are we going to continue that failed policy and not lift trade restrictions?  Why do we do this stuff when the data is there to say it has failed?  Deep in Kansas, Governor Brownback is sticking by his “conservative experiment” of cutting taxes although the state’s economy is crashing and burning?

People, according the latest political narrative, are angry* with Washington and just want to throw the whole bunch out.  They want outsiders is the way they are explaining the Ben Carson, Donald Trump phenomenon. Neither one of these guys is making any sense.  But why doesn’t Washington work?  Because we elected people, mostly Republicans, who know things in their gut, reject what science knows, and refuse to compromise.  We elected people who reject critical thinking.  Oh, you can point out here or there to a Republican who sounds logical, Paul Ryan is one of them, but a real examination of what they propose, like MythBusters does, exposes the tricks or in Paul Ryan’s case, the magic astericks.  But he used PowerPoint, it must be true!

When you step back and look at Republican economic religion (yes, it is based upon faith, not fact), it is worse than what snake oil salesmen used to promise.  “I will slash everyone’s taxes and remove government from our lives, and nirvana will be back again.  You need do nothing but be selfish and worry about no one else but yourself and the truly deserving will be rewarded.”  That’s it in a nutshell and there is tons of data in the real world about how this doesn’t work (See Kansas) and yet half the country still buys into it.

So maybe we need a Mythbusters for political myths.  But there has to be a real understanding of critical thinking because it is easy to trick gullible people with pseudo science.  The Conservative think tanks are full of people who are experts at doing it.  We actually have truth tellers and myth busters, but they are pushed off to the side and we try to compromise with nonsense.  If we could just apply rational thought and real data to problems, well the answers are fairly straight forward.  But as MythBusters points out, if that answer is unpalatable to the way we want to believe, we reject them.  That is what the Republican Party is all about today.  Stimulating your emotions so you reasoning becomes clouded with what you want to believe.

So I will be sorry to see MythBusters go.  But with up to 20 million viewers a year, maybe, just maybe, we have a lot more critical thinkers than we use to.  That is a very good thing.

*Footnote:  George Bush Senior is writing a new book and he has criticized (finally) Cheney and Rumsfield.  But he also said something that those folks mad as hell need to consider:

“I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there — some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the diplomatic problem.”

Science and Religion

I am reading a very good book on whether science and religion are compatible. Can religion and science coexist. Well clearly they do, but it may not be working very well. When you get to the bottom of the argument, religion finds “truth” in revelations and scripture, and science finds it in never accepting anything on face value and testing, testing, testing. And science has shown most of  scripture to be wrong at least on historical facts and its claims about nature. It is also raising questions about some of its moral lessons.

There are accommodationists who try to accommodate science and religion (Evolution is just God’s way of designing life and Genesis is just allegory), but these attempts usually fall apart when looked at in detail.  But along comes the latest conflict, the treatment of gays and homosexuals (is there a difference?) in the Bible and how reality is accommodating them within our society. For Evangelicals this is a real problem because they still haven’t recognized the flaws and conflicts in the Bible, so it has to be taken literally.

But for young evangelicals that live in the real world, the reality that gays are just people is dawning and now they must make a round peg fit is a square hole if they are to hang on to their faith in the Bible. So as the nation readies for accepting gay marriage, evangelicals have a real problem:

Few are dropping their opposition. But aware that they are seen by many as bigots, some evangelical leaders are trying to figure out how to stand firm without alienating the increasing share of Americans — especially younger ones — who know gay people and support gay rights, or who may themselves come out as gay.

“Because this is such a relatively new thing, pastors and church people want to know, ‘How do we navigate this, and how do we navigate this well, without doubling down or capitulating?’ ”

A young evangelical who came out gay is trying one tactic which is to have them reinterpret some of the passages in the Bible.  The problem is that parts of the Bible are explicit about gayness (“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a women; that is detestable”).  Here is the problem for them: If truth is revealed in scripture, then their only choice is to redine its meaning.  Ah, but there is the rub:

“If we accept his argument,” Mr. Mohler wrote, “we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible.”

Quite frankly this challenges the whole concept of faith if in fact scripture got it wrong (and it has in plenty of places).  Science would not make a judgement about good or bad, and instead would evaluate the impact to society.  If the data showed that this was an attack on traditional marriage, or gays made horrible parents, or were preditors turning straight people gay, then science might say this would have a negative impact on society.  Trouble is the data says just the opposite and so does our personal experience.  

So for evangelicals, what to make of scripture?  Even more important, in light of science and “loss of confidence in the Bible”, these poor people might have to think for themselves.  Even worse, faith has robbed them of the skills for critical thinking.  What is a poor evangelical to do?  Of course!  Just redefine the meaning of words to bad means good, and the Bible is perfectly in line with reality.

An Atheist’s Sunday

I am slogging through a book by Jerry Coyne’s, Fact Versus Faith: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.  He is basically making the argument that religion in terms of a magical being that intervenes in our lives and it’s truths are incompatible with rational logic based thought.  I have sort of made that argument in that knowing something based on faith does not stand up to knowing something based upon logic and reason, or the scientific method.  

I have argued that you have to compartmentalize your thinking based upon religious or ideological beliefs, and dealing with the secular world. In the secular world things  must be continuously tested, and if improbable, rejected.  Our changing attitudes towards gays and lesbians comes to mind as we reject some religious dogma, but not all of it, to accept reality that they are as human and deserving of love as we are.

My argument has always been that faith-based belief (I feel it, sacred documents declare it, religious leaders proclaim it) is problematic when it comes to our logic based world.  I say that because it can become problematic when we want to believe something, and we let our faith-based thinking override our logic and reason based thinking.  Why do conservatives deny global warming?  

Why do they hang on to trickle down when the data is clear?  Why do they unflinching declare that the market place is always better than government untill government has to come in and bail out the market place? Their ideology is driven by their faith-based thinking and allows them to reject data and logic.  And we all suffer.  Science says we question everything.  We test and throw out the least probable.  Build a theory and test it.  Faith-based fact finding says ignore all of it.  We have faith.

But I have thought that generally we can live in both worlds if we are careful about segregating religious faith-based thinking in our religious world with logic and reason in the real world.  That is kind of what the Enlightenment was about.  Dr. Coyne is arguing that in his experience, it just doesn’t work out and unless we recognize that science and faith are antithetical to each other, we are destined to make fundamental mistakes in finding truth which will hold the human race back if not lead us to make fundamental mistakes that could threaten our existence.

I have a long way to go in his book, but I have some preliminary thoughts.  Religion and faith-based thinking whether ISIS or the grip ideology has on Republican thinking (some of it religious based) are our biggest threats.  We as Americans have religion so infused in our way of thinking that we have tendency to overlook how this faith-based thinking permeates all these problems.  In other words how religion is at the root of many of our problems or more specifically trying new solutions to our problems.  We see the positive benefits to religion and kind of gloss over the elephant in the room.

For me as an atheist, I know it is all nonsense (the belief in a magical being who takes an interest in our personnel lives, or any part thereof).  As I have noted before, there is a lot of moral philosophy associated with religion  (but not unique to religion)  that can be used for good or bad.  But the faith-based thinking that comes part and parcel with maintaining that belief may no longer serve us at all.  And as I opined before (Atheist’s Sunday) what may finally replace religion is to allow a moral philosophy that can evolve with science and knowledge, while still allowing for what I think is a basic need among most human beings, spirituality.  

In my mind this spirituality is our connectedness.  I could derive a spirituality that says in one form or another we are all connected to all life on earth.  At the moment that is supported by science and that spirituality has to be informed by that science, not wish fulfillment.  Note many “religious” get their connectiveness from being the chosen people (obviously denied by facts) and deneying their relationship to the natural and animal world other than something we can use.  Once again this denied by facts as we find our connectedness in our genes and are beginning to feel the  limits of abusing our environment. 

As Dr. Coyne couch’s the argument, both science and religon are competing to anwser the great questions.  One uses the scientific method, and is skeptical every step of the way.  The other already has the answer and does not allow questioning or you are violating your faith.  Faith means without question.  And so far religion has lost every contest.  Whether it is the nature of the human existence, morality, or the natural world around us, science is providing us with answers that show that religion got it mostly wrong.  Most of us accommodate that and decide not to take the great truths literally.  But he argues you can’t have it both ways.  I will try to finish the book and tell you if I think he made his case.

Do We Know How to Think?

We are probably more educated as a population than we have ever been before, we certainly have more access to information than anyone in our history, yet I am sure with all of this, we make terrible decisions. I couldn’t decide whether to call this blog Denial or address the fact that few of us understand what facts really are. They are two sides of the same coin because we selectively ignore some facts (denial) and leap on others to make conclusions that don’t track reality.

The latest example is a small portion of our population that has decided not to vaccinate. Now on the face of this, it is rational, but it is not. I think the logic goes something like this: I read some stuff that may link immunizations to brain damage or something like that (autism), there really isn’t any threat of disease x, y, or z, so why should I take the risk with my child? Even if this person had read the articles debunking the link between autism and immunizations, well they used to say butter was bad for us, now they say it is good for us, right? So who knows?  I’ll just play it safe.

So we have a confluence of information and an attitude that we are smart enough to shift through it and decide for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that if we know what real science is* and know how to think critically, but, and that is the really big but here, most don’t. In fact what happens in most cases is our prejudices drive what we accept as fact instead of critically examining the information we are basing that conclusion on. Who doesn’t get the email from some well-meaning friend about the dangers of something which could kill us and to stay away from it. Once in a while it is based upon real peer-reviewed science, but most of the time it is pseudo science nonsense.  But it is passed around as fact.

In the case of vaccinations, understanding the real science of immunizations would leave you with only one valid choice, to vaccinate.  But most of us don’t know how to find that science and separate the pseudo science from real science.  Being bombarded by information increases our feeling that we can make choices.  Worse, when we should be listening to our government (even on climate science) we choose not to.  Let me give you a couple of examples which seem innocuous, but aren’t.  Right now the media is focused on the American Sniper trial.  The defendant is pleading not-guilty by reason of insanity.  Good luck with that in Texas and in Chris Kyle’s hometown, but that is not the issue.  For most of us, it really is not news in the sense that it informs us with anything that will help us make decision in the future.  It is, for most, pure entertainment.  And this morning a MSNBC host and their court reporter were discussing if he was insane.  How would they know?  It is opinion masquerading as fact.  There is the legal definition of insanity for that defense, and then there is the psychiatric definition of whether he was really in control of his actions.  We got neither, just layman babbling about his babbling when arrested.

The second is a discussion I heard this morning about whether movies like American Sniper accurately depicted veterans and the war in Iraq.  The guest said something very interesting that will be lost on most viewers.  When asked if American Sniper accurately depicted the war in Iraq, the guest responded with, I believe it was an accurate depiction of Kyle’s perception of the war.  Now he did not answer the question.  He basically said that the movie depicted how Kyle saw it (or needed to see it to perform his job), but not how the majority of veterans saw it.  But that won’t be what is heard.  We don’t think critically about what words mean, and subjectively hear what we want to hear.

I guess my point in this blog is fairly simple.  I am deeply troubled by the fact that the solutions to the issues that we face, whether global warming, immigration, our economy, economic inequality, health care, you name it, are fairly simple and straight forward.  Yet we can’t get there because for many of us, there is an alternate reality.  And no, I am not talking about honest disagreement where the details of these solutions might be debated, but the overall thrust is not debatable.  I am talking about denial.  The failure of a standard of logical thinking and a test for knowing something.  Whether we live in denial, surround ourselves with an echo chamber, or are blinded by our ideology, there should be a simple standard for evaluating solutions.  Yet in our information age, we have become the masters of muddled thinking that leads to false choice after false choice.  Might I remind you that flow down has never worked, yet it is the free ride policy of Republicans that will be buried under further tax cuts to solve all problems.  How can we be so dense?

Here is something to think about.  You would say I am a raging liberal (my definition of Progressive).  Therefore I must love tax increases.  But I would say, only where they work.  You would say I must love government regulation, but I would say, only where they are necessary for public well-being.  No, I don’t think government does everything best.  But I am a man of logic and reason.  If flow down worked, I would embrace it.  We know from data around the world that single payer health care is the best way to provide health insurance, yet half the nation denies that.  We know from data that the planet is warming, and the scientific model of climate warming, tested and proven, shows this is caused by CO2 added to the atmosphere.  We know that we are adding historical amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, and yet half the nation denies this causal relationship and prevents us from taking practical steps to mitigate the damage.  In other words, half our nation is not driven by logic or reason, just feelings and ideology.  If my beliefs prove to be wrong, I am ready and willing to try something else, even conservative ideas.  Many of their ideas have already been proven false and yet they hang on to them.  Yes Houston.  We have a problem.

*Probably one of the most confused ideas many people have is that any theory should have equal weight.  That was an argument made by the intelligent design folks.  Evolution was just a theory, as good as any other, like an intelligent creator, to explain us being here.  Of course that is nonsense.  Gravity is a theory.  But the theory and the models to describe its behaviour have never been found to be inaccurate.  The theory has simply become more complex as we understand it better.  Evolution does not have a single case that refutes it.  We can test it.  We can find examples where we see it in action.  Intelligent design has no factual basis.  There is no data that supports it other than magic.  But we can’t demonstrate or repeat the magic.  No Virginia, all theories are not equal.

Choosing to be Ignorant

Do we have the right to choose to be ignorant? Chris Christie thinks so: “Amid an outbreak of measles that has spread across 14 states, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on Monday said that parents “need to have some measure of choice” about vaccinating their children against the virus, breaking with President Obama and much of the medical profession.” Of course this was the Governor who thought we should quarantine anyone coming back from Africa and stop all travel there.

This really isn’t hard logically. Do you think people should have a measure of choice about the speed limit? When your choice affects someone else’s health or welfare, then government has a responsibility to regulate that choice. Once again I am harkened back to the Frank Bruni quote from yesterday about just this subject: “You can be so privileged that you’re underprivileged, so blessed with choices that you choose to be a fool, so “informed” that you’re misinformed”. In this case the “so informed that you’re misinformed. That would be Governor Christie and those that chose not to vaccinate their children.

I think what you see here is someone who is not thinking as a public official that cares about public welfare, but a politician positioning himself against big bad government. This was, as I pointed out, the same governor who was going to use the government as a Gestapo force against health care workers because then he had the fear card on his side. In both cases he had the science and the public policy wrong. I cannot imagine why anyone thinks this guy should be president.