Monthly Archives: May 2017

Healthcare is a Limited Right

PrivilegeIt is obscenely immoral when Conservatives argue that healthcare is a privilege reserved only for the privileged few who deserve it, especially when the only criteria that determines whether the privileged few deserve healthcare is whether they happen to be rich enough to afford it. For Conservatives, wealth is the only measure of merit and the wealthy are the only ones meriting healthcare.

Conservatives have a wide range of specious logical arguments and appeals to emotion that they invoke with great fervor to support their petty shortsighted selfishness. Here is just one horrible article in the Washington Times that regurgitates much of this vomitous bile (see here). Among these arguments are 1) the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate any such right, 2) why should others pay for your healthcare, 3) this right to healthcare would have no limits, 4) it would lead to government death panels, 5) it would ration healthcare and slow it down, 6) it would stop all new research, 7) the free market is the best solution, 7) healthcare is a commodity like any other, 8) free healthcare would disincentivize work, and 9) we don’t consider food, shelter, or clothing to be rights, so why should healthcare be one?

Of course these all have relatively simple and well-known rebuttals so I won’t go into them all here. I won’t repeat the overall cost savings or make further appeals to basic humanity and decency. I will only point out that Conservative claims that healthcare as a right cannot work are all empirically proven wrong by the fact that every other civilized country in the world manages to make it work. And their claims that national healthcare in those nations leads to worse outcomes is empiracally proven wrong by actual metrics of healthcare outcomes.

The most popular recent argument worth singling out is “why should young people pay for the healthcare of older people?” Well, not ONLY because when today’s younger generation gets old, tomorrow’s younger generation will subsidize THEIR healthcare, but also because today’s older generation helps to pay for the colossal medical bills incurred when young people break their neck while skate-boarding or bungee-jumping.

Religion does not help us out much in this debate. As with pretty much every issue, religion only rationalizes and provides justification for whatever position one wishes to take. For progressive Christians, the Bible demands universal healthcare. But conservative Christians manage to find passages to justify their healthcare Darwinism. Representative Jodey C. Arrington, Republican of Texas, defended work mandates at a Congressional hearing for food stamps by quoting the Bible: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” This “Bible logic” has been applied to healthcare as well (see here).

Look, the answer is not that complicated. It is only made complicated by Conservatives who strive to make it seem murky and fraught with practical and ethical problems. The answer is simply reasonable moderation. No one suggests that a “right” to healthcare would not be a limited right. No right is unlimited. We should and could provide basic public healthcare that would do immesurable good. Just as we should provide a minimum wage and, yes, a minimum amount of food, clothes, and shelter to our fellow humans.

Rich people could still buy whatever elective or costly life-extending healthcare they like, just as they can still buy all the expensive food, clothes, or homes they can afford. But Conservatives won’t abide even reasonable moderation. They don’t want those good for nothing, undeserving poor people to have one penny “handed out” to them, whether it be food, clothes, shelter – or healthcare.

The false choice that Conservatives try to force us to accept is either to provide no base level of public healthcare whatsoever – like mindless animals – or to grant everyone an unlimited right to medical care. That is an intentionally paralyzing false choice. We can provide reasonable healthcare and retain an elective healthcare market and retain all the advantages of a private market with a public safety net. No one would turn up their nose at life-saving healthcare because it will not pay for their boob job.

We should not let Conservatives engage us in this false choice arguement, rather insist upon a sane and humane universal public system that ensures reasonable basic healthcare for all. The only debate should concern the extent and limits of healthcare that is covered under the public system. But that debate should not endlessly paralyze us either. Tweaks to specifics can be made at any time as needed.

And as to paying for all this… I say what I say about all social funding. Cut the military to a fraction of its current budget and tax the rich far more progressively, then we can talk about how much, if any, we still need to limit social programs.

We are Townsfolk in a Spaghetti Western

ClintAre you old enough to have watched those wonderful old Spaghetti Westerns? The typical story went something like this…

When the townsfolk people of some poor dust bowl are abused and impoverished by a gang of ruthless cutthroats, they elect an unsavory drifter as “sheriff” to protect them. A bloody shootout ensues, involving lots of gratuitous gunfire and dynamite explosions.  When the smoke finally clears, it never ends all that well for the townsfolk. Most of them are dead or wounded and their ramshackle town is pretty much reduced to a smoldering wood-heap. Their “sheriff,” having done what they asked of him, rides away from the dead bodies and the smoking rubble with saddlebags overflowing with their life savings.

None of those townsfolk were crazy extremists. They were just regular folk, farmers and shop owners, out of options and fearful for their futures. They were driven by desperation and circumstance to put their faith in the toughest, meanest, bad-ass Alpha male they could find.

Many of us lament that we vote so many arguably dangerous people into high office. Not only into the Presidency, but into the Congress and the Senate and even into the Supreme Court. Too many of these office holders hold frankly crazy views on science, on climate change, and on evolution. They advocate for policies rooted in their faith in the twin religions of capitalism and god. They take extreme positions on guns and militarization. They hold crazy Libertarian and Free-Market views on health care and social programs and racism and sexism and sexuality and abortion and deregulation. They seem to have no scruples whatsoever and will make any ridiculous argument, propagate any lie, to pursue their self-interest and ideology.

No wonder chaos ensues.

We generally blame the crazy extreme of our population for this situation. We argue that our lunatic fringe, driven by their zealous energy and amplified by Gerrymandering, have disproportionate power over electoral outcomes. If only we moderates could take charge, then we’d elect sane, reasonable, and compassionate leaders!

But I want to suggest that moderates are culpable as well. It’s human nature, or at least American nature. Even moderates, like the townsfolk in a Spaghetti Western, turn to crazy and dangerous individuals when they are looking for someone who can make a difference in their lives.

Look at it this way. Most of us are understandably concerned about our physical security and economic self-interest. When we’re worried about home security, we don’t hire someone like ourselves to protect us. We hire a bad-ass body guard, or maybe we adopt a vicious pit bull and buy a deadly semi-automatic pistol. If we are worried about going to jail, we don’t want the most reasonable and knowledgeable lawyer to represent us. We rather want the most aggressive and unscrupulous lawyer possible. We want a lawyer who is willing to say or do whatever it takes to protect our interests, law be damned.

Similarly, to protect our physical and economic security, we elect representatives that are far more extreme than we are. We find the nastiest, most crazy representative we can to fight for us and defend our interests. Even if our head tells us to hire someone smart and reasonable, we are overwhelmingly attracted to the brutal, unreasoning Alpha male (or female).

Part of our decision process is our calculation that no leader can be fully successful. So for example if we believe it would be good to eliminate fat from social programs, we elect a leader who says he wants to dismantle all social programs. We figure that maybe at least he’ll be successful in getting rid of that waste and abuse we are so outraged by. When our elected leader ACTUALLY dismantles vital social programs that we value, we are shocked and outraged. Even though the crazy candidate campaigned on throwing out the baby, we figured he would really just get rid of that dirty bathwater.

So when extremists vote, they tend to vote in someone much more extreme than they are whom they believe will fight hardest for them. They make extreme demands that they don’t necessarily hope to achieve. And then even those same extremists express shock and anger when that representative they worked so hard to elect actually does succeed in achieving what they demanded. I don’t think it is so much about voting against our own self-interest as it is about adopting a pit bull to protect our baby.

But moderates do the essentially same thing. Even moderates in large numbers buy guns as “reasonable” protection, then lament when they are used to shoot up a school-full of kids. Even moderates vote for the Alpha male to keep our country safe, then express outrage when he lies us into an unnecessary war. Even moderates vote for extreme “strongmen” (or strong-women) whom they foolishly believe will become reasonable and restrained and diplomatic upon taking office.

Just like in those Spaghetti Westerns, we moderates and lunatic fringe alike, have elected President Trump and a dirty dozen of tough, extreme bad boys to save us. One has to wonder what will be left of America when they get done protecting it. Or will Trump and the corporatist elite around him merely ride into the sunset of America with saddlebags packed full of our life savings?



Scientific Models

I recently attended a book club discussion on The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (see here).  In it, Blackmore puts forth a thesis of “memetic evolution” to describe how our minds work. In fact, her assertion is that our minds can only be understood in terms of memetic selection. Although that seems to be a wildly exaggerated claim, the scientific model she proposes is both stimulating and promising.

But memetic evolution is not the topic of this article. I only cite it as one example of the kind of topic that  many non-scientists and even some scientists have great difficulty discussing fairly. Often in discussing such topics, a great many unfounded criticisms are lodged, and these quite often flow from an inadequate understanding and appreciation of scientific models.

This is understandable. Unless you are a trained, experienced, and particularly thoughtful scientist, you probably have had inadequate background to fully appreciate the concept of a scientific model. In fact, if you look up the word model in most dictionaries, the scientific usage of the term is typically not even mentioned. No wonder many people have a very limited if not completely mistaken appreciation of what a scientific model is. A scientific model is not analogous to a plastic model kit that is intended to look just like the real race car in every detail. It is not at all like a fashion model, intended to present something in an attractive manner. Nor is it like an aspirational model to be put forth as a goal to emulate and strive toward.

No, a scientific model is a working system that does not need to actually “look like” the real system it describes in any conventional way. The important characteristic of a scientific model is that it behave like the real system it describes. How accurately a scientific model reflects the real system it models is measured by how well it explains observed behaviors of the real system and is able to predict future behaviors of the real system.

For example, in 1913 Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr put forth the atomic model of matter that we are all familiar with – a nucleus of protons and neutrons orbited by electrons. This was a highly successful model because it described a huge number of observed characteristics and behaviors of matter, allowed us to gain great understanding of matter, and most importantly allowed us to predict as yet unobserved traits of matter.

But in truth the Bohr model is a laughably simplistic stick-figure representation of matter. It describes certain behaviors adequately but completely fails to describe others. It was quickly extended by De Broglie, by Schrödinger, and innumerable others to include wave and then quantum characteristics.

Despite its almost laughable simplicity and innumerable refinements and extensions made over the last century, the Bohr model remains one of the most important and consequential scientific models of all time. If the Bohr model was presented in many book discussion groups today, it would be criticized, dismissed, and even mocked as having no value.

Certainly we can and should recognize and discuss the limitations of models. But we must not dismiss them out of a mistaken lack of appreciation of the limitations of scientific models. Often these misguided criticisms have the more widespread effect of unfairly discrediting all science. Following are some examples of the kinds of criticisms that are valid and some that are invalid.

  1. We must first recognize when we are talking about a new idea like memetic evolution, that we are talking about a scientific model.
  2. A scientific model does not need to answer everything. We must recognize the limitations of every model, but the more important focus is on how useful it is within its applicable limits. Newton’s Laws do not describe relativistic motion, but in our everyday world Newtonian physics is still fantastically useful. Critics of science should not claim that a model – or science in general – is fundamentally flawed or unreliable because a particular model is not universal.
  3. Many critics of science think they have scored points by pointing out that “you can’t trust science because their models are always being replaced!” But models are hardly ever replaced, rather they are extended. The Bohr model was greatly extended, but the basic model is still perfectly valid within its range of applicability.
  4. The fact that there are many different models of the same thing is not proof that “science contradicts itself and cannot make up its mind.” We famously have the two major models of light- the wave model and particle model. The wave model correctly predicts some behaviors and the particle model correctly predicts others. Though they appear irreconcilably different, both are absolutely valid. Real light is not exactly like either model but is exactly like both models. Think of your mother. She has a mother-model that describes her behavior as a mother. But she also has a wife-model, a career-model, a daughter-model, a skeletal-model, and many others. None of these in themselves completely describes your mother, and many may seem irreconcilably different, but all of them correctly model a different set of behaviors in different situations and only collectively do they all communicate a more complete picture of your mother.

So, when discussing something like memetic evolution, it is proper and correct to ascertain its boundaries and to critique how well it describes and predicts observed behaviors within those boundaries. But it is wrong and counter-productive to dismiss it either because there exist other models or because it does not – yet – describe everything. And worst is to dismiss all of science as flawed because it puts forth multiple models of reality and extends them over time.

To describe and predict human thinking, Skinner put forth a stimulus-response model, Blackmore puts for forth a meme-model, and I often focus on a pattern-recognition model. These are not in competition. One is not right and the others all necessarily wrong. The fact that there are these three and many other models of human thinking does not reflect any fundamental weakness of science, but rather its strength.

It us unfortunate that far too few people have a sufficiently deep appreciation and level of comfort with scientific models. We must do much better to understand and communicate these subtleties that are so fundamental and critical to science.