Monthly Archives: October 2015

Norman Coordinate!

I watched the 3rd Republican debate with great amusement. As comedy it was pretty entertaining I must admit. But as a rational debate of public policy it was pretty sad. Beyond all the usual comments about their performance art, a few things jumped out at me.

First, you may have noticed that all the candidates seemed eager to step over each other to scramble to the top of the Bernie Sanders bandwagon with rhetoric about how all of the money has been sucked out of the middle class and into the hands of the ultra-wealthy. Ok, they’re right there even if they’re finally now saying this only because the Tea Party Conservatives agree with Bernie on this.

However whenever asked about the possibility of expecting any more from the ultra-wealthy they are all quick to point out that “you could take all the wealth from the rich and give it to the poor and it wouldn’t make a dent in the wealth inequity.” Now, I’m confused. If as you say the ultra-wealthy have all the money, all the money the middle class used to have when they were an actual middle class, then how is it possible that the wealthy could not make a dent in the wealth gap? Something seems fundamentally illogical here.

Then there was another example. On many occasions they insisted that we absolutely, positively must free business from all those terrible, crippling regulations that force them to do things, you know like produce safe and ecologically responsible products. Or you know, like pay living wages.

But then when asked what they will do when businesses run amok and put their own profits ahead of the social good, as they do more often than not, the answer these candidates give is “that’s no problem because we have or should pass regulations to guard against that!

NormanI’m confused again. Remember the “I Norman” episode of Star Trek? The one where Kirk and Mudd defeated the logical, well-meaning robots by forcing them to try to process illogic until their circuits fried? The robots cried out to their central computer Norman for help processing these contradictions with the plea “Norman Coordinate! Norman Coordinate!

I feel a lot like Norman trying to process Conservative logic.

The wealthy have all the money but they have no money but regulations are bad but regulations protect us but we must eliminate regulations but we must institute them but the poor must pay but the poor have no money but the bible is the source of economic knowledge but the bible says anything but the bible says nothing but… Norman Coordinate! Norman Coordinate! Illogical Illogical! Shutting down!

So, if we ever encounter a planet of ultra-powerful robots dedicated to saving us from ourselves, we only need to send some Conservatives out to explain their public policy positions and those poor logical robots end up with their circuit boards fried like Norman and me.

 UPDATE FROM THE 4th DEBATE:

Apparently the candidates got the message that you can’t claim that we need to end all evil regulations at the same time that they say that regulations are the remedy to corporate excesses. This time, Ben Carson said:

“Well, I think we should have policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.And I think this all really gets back to this whole regulation issue which is creating a very abnormal situation.”

So apparently regulations are bad but policies are good. But don’t we need regulations to enforce policies? Norman Coordinate!

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Evolution Did It!

While serving in the Peace Corps in rural South Africa, I loved to visit different schools to talk about science. One of my favorite activities was playing the “Why” game. I’d encourage the kids to ask “Why” about anything at all and we’d use scientific thinking to formulate hypotheses.

It would take a while to coax even one “Why” out of the kids as they were totally unfamiliar with any kind of meaningful dialog with a teacher. When I invited them to ask “Why” questions, the only responses I got were dazed and confused expressions. Students were seldom encouraged to ask any questions, and if they did the only answer they were likely to get was “because it is” or “god made it that way.” But clearly those answers are not really satisfying because as soon as just one kid bravely took the chance to venture a question, the floodgates of pent-up curiosity unfailingly broke loose and a deluge of “Why” questions came pouring out from the entire class.

Tellingly, one of very first questions was inevitably “Why am I black while you are white?”

Now that might seem like a tricky question but it isn’t really hard at all. In everything to do with life, be it human or animal or plant or microbial, the answer to pretty much any question is “evolution.” Even if that isn’t a complete answer, it’s the perfect foundation upon which to discuss further nuances.

Why are you reading this article right now? Evolution! Granted, we could just as legitimately answer “chemistry” or “physics” and start from there. But when it comes to the traits and behaviors of living things that most kids are naturally most interested in, “evolution” is always the sensible starting point.

eggsTo get things started I would often hold up a hard-boiled egg that I typically carried around for a snack. Why do you suppose eggs are egg-shaped? This question would be met with confused looks, so I’d oil the hinges of their flood gates with squirts of evidence. Do you think it means anything that eggs of birds become increasingly oval as the land they live on becomes steeper? Within minutes we’d find ourselves testing the evolutionary importance of egg shape by rolling my lunch down a slanted desk-top and speculating on how rolling behavior can help or hinder the survival of those birds.

You don’t need to join the Peace Corps or teach school to play the “Why” game. You can play it with family and friends or even all by yourself. Think of any characteristic of living things, make it as simple or hard as you can, and start by asking why it is so. The answer of course is “evolution,” but now the real fun begins. Now you can think about “Why” that particular trait or behavior might have been an evolutionary advantage or hindrance.

To help you play the evolution game, here are some rules that are not always obvious:

1. Every trait of living things – physical, mental, behavioral, social, temperamental – all arise through evolution. Practically anything at all is fair game.

2. It is OK to personify evolution to help us talk about it. Personification makes it much easier to understand and relate how evolution works. It just needs to be understood without necessarily saying that personification is only a communication technique and that evolution does not really have motivation or intent.

3. Not all traits are necessarily helpful. Some are simply the result of innocuous mutations that don’t particularly help but they don’t hinder enough to get selected out. However the best starting hypothesis is to assume evolutionary significance. And just because we cannot imagine the significance of a trait, that doesn’t mean it has none.

4. Most traits have many advantages and disadvantages. In the grand dice-roll of evolution, the advantages of a trait must only collectively outweigh the disadvantages. In the case of egg-shapes, rolling down hills is just one of the many ways this simple trait affects the survival of that species. There are lots of right answers.

5. Evolution does not “care” about individuals. There is a rampant misconception that evolution favors the survival of individuals. This is largely a misapplication of the concept of “survival of the fittest.” This misapplication causes some to claim that examples of evolved traits that cause harm to individuals disprove evolution. Nothing could be more wrong. Evolution only cares about the species. It will happily kill individuals off, even within a species, if it helps the population to survive. Certain spider females eat their mate after fertilization. This helps the species to survive. The male is most useful as food after his job is done. Evolution holds individual lives in no particular regard.

6. Evolution does not guarantee the “best” traits. It merely makes it more likely that those random traits that happen to be good enough in a given circumstance are passed along. Our spine isn’t a good design let alone the best design. An intelligent designer would have come up with something much better. But it is good enough.

7. Evolution is not “going” anywhere. It is not “leading to” any sort of perfect human for example and mankind is not the “pinnacle” of evolution. All of evolution did not happen in order to create us.

8. Just because evolution is not going anywhere does not mean it is not going anywhere. Evolution is like a driverless car. There is no driver and it knows not where it is going. But it is definitely going somewhere nonetheless, following forces that direct it along a logical, non-random route defined by its characteristics, obstacles, terrain, and the physics of motion.

9. Evolution is not guaranteed to find a way for a species to survive change, especially rapid change. Most in fact do not survive change. Evolution certainly has not found ways for the vast majority of species on the planet to survive dramatic changes, the worst of which may be the holocaust of humanity.

10. Certain unimportant traits might have little role in survival right now, but they might either save or kill your species when the environment changes.

11. A good trait isn’t always good. Change the environment slightly and that trait that helped you survive yesterday may cause your extinction tomorrow. Belief is one of those. Just because it evolved yesterday does not mean it is not bad for us today.

12. Bad traits can be good. If a trait isn’t bad enough to kill you before reproducing, it’s good. Sickle-cell Anemia is not a desirable genetic trait right now. But it may be the only trait that grants immunity to the zombie apocalypse virus that is right around the corner of random mutation. The more biodiversity a gene pool can support, even “bad” genes, the more likely that species will survive over the long haul. Wiping out a “bad” gene today could doom us tomorrow.

Those are just a few of the things to consider when you think about how traits and behaviors might have evolved. So enjoy the “Evolution Did It” game! It’s infinitely more fun and stimulating than the “God Did It” game.

Pascal’s Folly

PascalsWagerYou’re probably familiar with Pascal’s Wager. It says that even if there is only an infinitesimally small possibility that god exists, the consequences of eternal reward or punishment far outweighs any earthly cost. Therefore, a smart person should “hedge their bets” and believe in god.

This is incredibly specious logic but it nevertheless holds powerful sway over a great many people. Lots of otherwise intelligent thinkers put it forth as a reasonable argument, even as an inescapable iron-clad rationale. But there are many flaws in it including the assumption that belief is a harmless hedge. In the end it is no more than a silly trick of logic that can equally justify anything whatsoever. By this logic, for example, the proposition you received via email from a Nigerian Prince might be legitimate. However small the chance that it’s real, isn’t it worth responding? In fact, the Nigerian Prince is far more likely to be real than is god. Such a prince could actually exist.

But you might reject that argument with yet more pseudo-logic. You might argue that only heaven is sufficient reward to offer compelling enough stakes to accept Pascal’s Wager. And I then counter by suggesting right here and now that you cannot get into heaven unless you give up ice cream. Regardless of how small the chance that god only favors those who prove their faith by forsaking ice cream, Pascal’s Wager demands you give it up. But I doubt you would accept that wager and actually swear off ice cream.

We reject most such nonsense out of hand. Here is yet one more flaw of Pascal’s Wager. We apply it only to one extremely specific assertion and reject an infinite number of others even though they are equally legitimate according to the logic put forth. You can counter yet again and say, well but I cannot play all possible lottery games, and I choose to play this one. Fair enough, so I can counter your counter. This logical fencing goes on and on unendingly without resolution. Playing mental games is something we humans do extremely well.

But why do we reject the same logic for pretty much anything else except the god proposition? We reject it because such logic is clearly stupid. And this brings us to yet another problem with Pascal’s Wager. There is actually in fact no possibility, none, nada, nil, zero, absolute zero, that god actually exists. Someone will in fact actually win the $100M lotto, so that might be worth a $2 ticket by Pascal’s logic. But no one can actually go to heaven because it does not exist. And you cannot claim “but it could” unless you really are equally willing to ACT ON every other impossible proposition.

This illustrates a fundamental problem with logic. As powerful and important as it is, logic has limitations. Thinking that abstract logic necessarily reflects reality can be like a Chinese Finger Trap. I just read an interesting book by Jordan Ellenberg called “How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” (see here). I do recommend it highly. But in it he twice states emphatically that “reason cannot answer the question of god.” If that is true, then it is our reason that is flawed. And it’s easy to see how. Ellenberg is a mathematician. Even a mathematician can become too familiar and comfortable with mathematical concepts like infinity that have no actual basis in reality. Our minds can conceive of symbols and rules of logic that cannot exist in reality. God is one of those. Pascal’s Wager is one of those. It is a human conceptual model that leads to seemingly incontrovertible but nevertheless absurd conclusions.

To illustrate the problem of blindly accepting a “logical” argument without insisting upon testing that logic against reality, consider Zeno’s Paradox. In the 5th century Zeno gave us his famous paradox that says that since we cannot arrive at our destination without infinitely cutting the remaining distance in half, we can never actually arrive at it. The “logic” of this proposition has confounded thinkers ever since as it is extremely difficult to refute by the rules of logic. But a guy called Diogenes the Cynic disproved it by simply standing up and walking across the room.

We humans have an amazing capacity to imagine things outside physical reality and to conceptualize logical systems of rationality that are imperfect in describing that reality or that extend beyond physical boundaries. But we have to be careful that our own cleverness does not make us stupid. Get up and walk across the room. God does not exist and religion is not a harmless hedge.

Here’s the bottom line. If your system of logic leads you to the conclusion that god might exist or that you cannot ever reach the other side of the room, it’s because your system of logic is flawed or ever-extended or you just want it to be true. If your logic cannot disprove flying pigs or gods, you are not thereby proving that god might actually exist. You are merely encountering the limitations or failings of your logic.

And to my agnostic atheist friends who refuse to say with certainty that god does not exist, if you allow for any possibility that god might exist, you have essentially lost the argument. You have admitted that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable and that belief and religion are therefore reasonable. You may think you can logic your way out of that shifting maze, but that only leads to endless ridiculous arguments that mostly serve to give undue credibility to the ridiculous.

WE HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO SHOUT!

gunPresident Obama’s press conference after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon yesterday set the right tone – one of barely contained anger and frustration. In appropriately subdued Presidential tones Obama screamed as passionately as he could for people to get angry and make their voices heard by our leaders.

Later in the day, when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave his obligatory post-massacre interview on the Chris Hayes Show, he also conveyed evident outrage but his message was substantively less compelling:

Condolences are not enough, we’ve got to do something, we have to stop shouting at each other, we need sensible gun control legislation, and by the way we need to significantly improve mental health services.

Don’t get me wrong. I will vote for Bernie. You should vote for Bernie. He is the only one with any inclination to make substantive positive changes to the status quo. But in statements like this even Bernie merely reiterates the endless feckless calls for “sensible legislation” and again diverts the focus toward mental health. This is nowhere near the level of outrage and action that even the President understands is warranted and necessary.

Look, I’ve railed against guns for going on 40 years. I’ve argued with family, friends, associates, and even random strangers whenever the issue of guns has come up. I write impassioned articles whenever I can (see here). But none of these even begin to “shout.” These are all attempts at rational, reasonable debate about sensible gun control legislation. But here’s the thing. Calls for sensible gun-control legislation have never worked and never will. Any “sensible” regulations accepted by the killing-industry would only be those that actually do nothing at all.

Bernie, here is what shouting looks like…

BAN EVERY FUCKING GUN IN AMERICA! MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO MANUFACTURE, SELL, OR OWN ANY FUCKING GUNS WHATSOEVER! COLLECT THEM ALL UP AND MELT THEM INTO SCRAP AND DROP THE SCRAP DOWN A PIT THAT LEADS INTO HELL. FUCK THE RIGHT OF HUNTERS TO SLAUGHTER WHATEVER FEW NOBLE BEASTS REMAIN ON THIS PLANET. FUCK THE DISTORED AND PERVERTED AND ARCHAIC SECOND AMENDMENT. FUCK THE IDEA THAT GUNS ARE PATRIOTIC. FUCK THE ENTIRE GUN INDUSTRY AND GOOD RIDDENCE TO EVERY FUCKING GUN MANUFACTURING JOB. SUE OR PROSECUTE EVERY FUCKER THAT MANUFACTURES OR TRAFFICS IN GUNS EVERY TIME THEY ARE USED TO CAUSE HARM!

Now that is shouting. See the difference Bernie? The upper case and profanity kind of give it away. Perhaps now you can see that we have not actually yet even begun to shout. But we need to start. Unless we take the most extreme position, and unless we shout that extreme position in every hall of government and on every street, gun-lovers and their merchants of death will never give so much as an inch. The only way we can make any changes is if we are so extreme about gun control that they must crawl to us with hats in hand in the hopes that we might give them an inch. Maybe, if they can pass the background checks and mental health exams and buy sufficient liability insurance and jump through every other hoop we can think of, maybe we will let them keep a gun locked safely away in their house.

Readers, we need to show this country what shouting really looks like. We need to shout so loudly and with so much vitriol that the gun industry shits their pants and finally becomes willing to accept a modicum of social responsibility and accept a bit less profits.

Link this article to join my “WE HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO SHOUT!” anti-gun movement and show our leaders and the gun-industry what shouting really sounds like.

POST-DEBATE ADDENDUM

The first Democratic Debate was held last night and Bernie doubled-down on his “stop the shouting” rhetoric. His hypocrisy on this issue is incredibly disappointing. His entire brand is the red-faced chest-thumper calling for us to get angry and shout our outrage on a wide range of issues he cares about. But when it comes to the blight of guns, he admonishes us to calm down and stop the shouting. Bernie, we are going to keep shouting until even YOU cannot ignore us!