Entries for August 2011

August 31, 2011

Competitive lock picking

I am constantly amazed at the kinds of things that get made into serious competitions.

In this video, Schuyler Towne explains what this particular sport is and how it is done (via Boing Boing).

Iowa Tea Party fiasco

There is an interesting soap opera developing with Sarah Palin and Christine ("I am not a witch") O'Donnell over who will appear at some event in Iowa on Saturday.

So will they both show up on Saturday and exchange icy stares? Or will they both skip the event, leaving the organizers in the lurch? Tune in and see!

Samosas for Jesus?

samosa.jpegIn more samosa-related news, I learned from the latest issue of The New Humanist (with its provocative cover photo of comedian Ricky Gervais) that the Islamist group known as al-Shabaab has banned samosas in the regions of Somalia controlled by it.

Why, you ask? Because they feel that its triangular shape is suggestive of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

So there you have it. An Islamist group suspects that a food item originating in a Hindu culture is secretly promoting Christianity.

Who knew that people involved in a civil war in a country facing a famine still had time to ponder the subliminal religious messages embedded in food snacks?

Some entrepreneur should take advantage of this snack vacuum to make crescent-shaped samosas.

Samosas and the soul

samosa.jpegSamosas are a triangular shaped Indian pastry that can have any filling but usually consists of a spicy mixture of potatoes, peas, and other vegetables. Quite improbably, they became the focus of a recent legal case in New Jersey.

As part of an India Day celebration in 2009, the plaintiffs placed an order at the Indo-Pak restaurant for vegetarian samosas, informing the restaurant that the food was being purchased for a group of strict vegetarians. The restaurant filled the order and assured the plaintiffs that the food did not contain meat. After consuming some of the samosas, the plaintiffs returned the remaining samosas to the restaurant and were advised that the food was, in fact, filled with meat. As a result, the plaintiffs claimed spiritual damage and asserted a number of causes of action against the restaurant, including product liability and breach of express warranty.

A lower court judge ruled against the vegetarians on all counts but an appellate court reversed part of that decision, saying that the restaurant had in fact violated a warranty. But they rejected the claim that the diners, by unwittingly eating meat, had experienced "negligent infliction of emotional distress" and "become involved in the sinful cycle of pain, injury and death on God's creatures, and that it affects the karma and dharma, or purity of the soul. Hindu scriptures teach that the souls of those who eat meat can never go to God after death, which is the ultimate goal for Hindus. The Hindu religion does not excuse accidental consumption of meat products. One who commits the religious violation of eating meat, knowingly or unknowingly, is required to participate in a religious ceremony at a site located along the Ganges River in Haridwar, Uttranchal, India, to purify himself. The damages sought by plaintiffs included compensation for the emotional distress they suffered, as well as economic damages they would incur by virtue of having to participate in the required religious cleansing ceremony in India."

The court ruled that they did "not find any evidence of an ascertainable loss on plaintiffs' part". The court said that while they may have not got what they asked for, the product itself was "safe, edible, and fit for human consumption."

This case raises some interesting points. One is how a restaurant that caters to an Indian clientele could make such a mistake, since vegetarian samosas are the norm. The answer to that was that on that same day there had been another order specifically for meat samosas and the two orders had got switched.

The more interesting one is whether one should be eligible for damages because of the harm that one believes one has done to one's soul. I have some sympathy for the diners because I know plenty of people who have strong religious proscriptions against certain foods and would be very upset if a similar thing had happened to them. But the court's ruling made some good arguments as to why the spiritual damage claim was unwarranted.

In the present matter, plaintiffs have not pled or provided evidence of any "loss of moneys or property." Indeed, it would be difficult for them to do so, since unrefuted evidence demonstrates that, following recognition by the restaurant of its mistake, Moghul Express furnished an order of conforming samosas to plaintiffs without cost.

Plaintiffs claim that they have sufficiently plead ascertainable loss by seeking damages in the amount of the cost of a trip to India to undergo a purification ritual. However, what they are seeking is the cost of cure for an alleged spiritual injury that cannot be categorized as either a loss of moneys or property.

Here, an underlying loss of the value of property cannot be demonstrated.

The court said that violations of religious dietary laws did not rise to the standard needed to meet the claim of serious emotional injury, which requires that there must be "an especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious."

How far should we go to accommodate people's religious beliefs? Should we take seriously the claims of religious people that their immortal souls have received damage and that as a result they will not go to heaven?

I don't think so. After all, there is no evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as an immortal soul let alone a heaven for it to go to or any consensus on what standards should be met to gain entry.

I am not denying the fact that the people who strongly believe in these kinds of dietary proscriptions may feel a deep sense of anguish at having broken them even inadvertently. But it seems to me that their beef (if you'll pardon the expression) is with god. The ultimate issue here is whether it is fair for god to punish them for such an infraction. If such people wish, they should plead their case in the heavenly courts or set up religious courts where they can argue their case before theologians and priests, and not use the secular ones which, rightly, have little use for evidence-free claims.

August 30, 2011

Godspeak from AI machines

What happens if you get two Artificial Intelligence chatbots to talk to each other? Cornell Creative Machines Lab tried it out and a theological discussion broke out.

And the financial skullduggery continues…

Matt Taibbi describes how the Obama administration and the Fed are part of the group trying to put the screws on New York's attorney general Eric Schneiderman to get him to agree to a sweetheart deal that will let the banksters escape with a slap on the wrist for all their mortgage-backed fraud.

David Atkins explains how the Obama administration and others had Schneiderman removed from a group of state attorneys general that were investigating mortgage abuses because he was not satisfied with the deal being offered. (Thanks to Peter G.)

I wrote about this before here.

A national weight problem?

A new study suggests that obesity is increasing in the US:

Currently, figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the prevalence of overweight and obesity in adults at about 66 percent. But lead study author Dr. Youfa Wang of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore says that if current overweight and obesity trends continue, 86 percent of Americans could be overweight or obese by the year 2030.

The standard measure used is the body mass index (BMI) that is obtained by diving your mass (measured in kilograms) by the square of your height (measured in meters). This website calculates it for those who use pounds and feet and inches. A BMI of 30 or over indicates obesity while 25 or over means overweight. The 'normal' (i.e., supposedly desirable) range lies between 18.5 and 25

The study's authors also say that, "By 2048, all American adults would become overweight or obese." I tend to be wary of this kind of extrapolation, especially when it involves human behavior. A self-correction usually sets in at some point.

Another study released around the same time projects figures that are not quite as high:

If obesity rates continue to climb in the U.S. as they've done in the past, about half of all men and women could be obese in 20 years, adding an extra 65 million obese adults to the country's population.

The current figure of 66% of overweight and obese adults surprised me. Can it really be that two out of every three people are like that or is the cut-off for being overweight too low? One common comment I hear from overseas visitors is their initial surprise at the number of overweight people they see in the US. Have I simply got used to thinking of larger people as the norm after living in the US for so long?

One of the peculiar features of the coverage of people's weight in the media is the appearance of headless torsos accompanying the stories. News stories on obesity will be accompanied by photos and videos of people from the neck down, an indication of the stigma associated with being overweight. In fact, overweight people are often subjected to gratuitously rude comments and made to feel as if they have some kind of moral failing.

Some are fighting back, saying that they do not see obesity as a disease or even a problem, and definitely not anything to be ashamed of or have to apologize for. They say that that is simply who they are and the rest of the population simply has to deal with it. They have rejected the idea that the word fat is some kind of slur requiring the use of euphemisms to soften it, and have embraced it and made it their own, the way that the gay community did with the word queer. They are fat and proud of it.

The Daily Show had a segment on the coverage of obesity some time ago, and interviewed some who see the campaigns against obesity and the drive to eat healthier as a sign of creeping fascism.

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August 29, 2011

Jerry Lieber (1933-2011)

I tend to not know the names of songwriters. So I did not know until he died recently that Jerry Lieber was behind the lyrics to so many of the greatest songs of my youth. An old interview on Fresh Air of Lieber with Mike Stoller, who wrote the music, played excerpts of one great hit after another. Here's a sample showing their range.

The silly Yakety Yak by The Coasters:

The poignant On Broadway by The Drifters:

And the ultimate ennui song, Is that all there is? by Peggy Lee:

Important First Amendment ruling

Recently there has been a spate of events where police have prevented ordinary people from recording them and even public meetings of congresspeople.

In a ruling on Friday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals has now said that such prohibitions violate the First Amendment.

Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone's digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a young man on the Boston Common. The charges against Glik, which included violation of Massachusetts's wiretap statute and two other state-law offenses, were subsequently judged baseless and were dismissed. Glik then brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his arrest for filming the officers constituted a violation of his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

In this interlocutory appeal, the defendant police officers challenge an order of the district court denying them qualified immunity on Glik's constitutional claims. We conclude, based on the facts alleged, that Glik was exercising clearly-established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause.

It is firmly established that the First Amendment's aegis extends further than the text's proscription on laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information. As the Supreme Court has observed, "the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw." First Nat'l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) ("It is . . . well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas."). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that "[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news 'from any source by means within the law.'" Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681-82 (1972)).

The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting "the free discussion of governmental affairs." Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966). Moreover, as the Court has noted, "[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because '[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.'" First Nat'l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n.11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)). This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Cf. Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1035-36 (1991) (observing that "[t]he public has an interest in [the] responsible exercise" of the discretion granted police and prosecutors). Ensuring the public's right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, see id. at 1034-35 (recognizing a core First Amendment interest in "the dissemination of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct"), but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally, see Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 8 (1986) (noting that "many governmental processes operate best under public scrutiny").

In line with these principles, we have previously recognized that the videotaping of public officials is an exercise of First Amendment liberties. (All emphases mine)

This is an important blow against the repressive use of the state apparatus.

Hurricane Irene

Cleveland was not in the path of Irene so we just observed it from afar but I am puzzled by those who now claim that it was over-hyped, merely because it caused less damage than expected.

It is quite extraordinary that the National Hurricane Center is able to predict the track and intensity of a swirling storm five days out with pretty good precision, enabling cities and people to take safety precautions. David Kurtz points out that there have been huge gains recently in the ability to predict the track of hurricanes, and less progress in our ability to predict the intensity, as was the case with Irene.

But it was still quite an impressive feat for which the people at the NHC deserve a lot of credit.

The shape of things to come

I tend to be generally optimistic about progress in almost all areas of life. For example, I think we are making progress on important areas of social values. We have seen huge improvements in attitudes on race and gender and it is only a matter of a short time before equal rights for gays will also be taken for granted. The rights of animals are also increasingly being respected. Compared to even just a century ago, we have made tremendous advances in expanding the circle of those we think worthy of treating justly.

On the religious front too, the prognosis is good. I think the decline of religion is irreversible. We may never be able to eliminate religion completely but relegating it to irrelevancy is likely although that will take time and pockets of religious fervor will continue to exist. I think that religion will end up like astrology, something that never goes away but becomes largely harmless, with those who take it seriously being looked upon with amused indulgence.

When it comes to the environment, I have mixed feelings. While there is some serious concern about the degradation we have caused, I think that there is still hope that it can be turned around and that we have not passed the point of no return.

The one exception to this generally sunny outlook is when I turn my gaze to the economic and political situation in the US. Here I think the future looks very bleak indeed and I see nothing but disaster in store. The rapacious looting by the oligarchy, the domestic war being waged to further impoverish the poor and middle class, the interminable and multiplying foreign wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the semi-war in Pakistan, and possible soon-to-be wars in Iran and Syria), coupled with a political system that seems increasingly disconnected from reality, have created the conditions for collapse.

The US ruling class elite are in a state that is typically found during the last gasp of an empire: greedy, wasteful, bloated, hypocritical, contemptuous of the needs and feelings of the mass of people, arrogant in its view that its military supremacy will enable it to meet all challenges, and unmindful of the rot that is eating away at the foundations of the republic

I occasionally get the question as to what we should do to reverse this trend. To be quite honest, I don't know that we can. I feel like we are on a massive ocean liner headed straight towards a reef. Although the speed does not seem to be that great, the sheer momentum of the massive vessel is such that there is nothing that can be done to stop or reverse its direction in time before the crash occurs, even assuming that the people on the bridge commanding the vessel (i.e., the oligarchs) want to do so. The only thing to be done is to alert people so that they can brace themselves for the impact and prepare them to start anew picking up the pieces and repairing the damage.

What form the crash will take and what the fallout from the crash will be is something that I cannot foresee, just as I cannot predict what will emerge from the rubble. Post-collapse situations, like post-revolutionary ones, are highly unpredictable and their direction can be swayed by relatively minor events. What we can say for sure is that many people are going to be hurt.

When the crash will occur is also hard to predict. What keeps civilized societies functioning is the social compact that persuades people to voluntarily obey certain norms of behavior with the expectation that others will too. When that compact is seen as being ignored with impunity by some people, you breed general contempt for the norms and open the door to chaos. When people see how the ruling class loots in open contempt of the general expectation of having responsibility for the greater good, they begin to wonder why they should subject themselves to those norms. The symptoms of impending trouble are a rising level of social unrest consisting of grumblings, protests, demonstrations, strikes, vandalism, and even rioting as people begin to realize how bad things are, how bleak their own futures are, and start to take the law into their own hands.

The warning signs are so obvious that I cannot believe that the oligarchy and its political and media lackeys do not see them. I think they do, which is why the looting has reached such reckless levels. In the excellent documentaries Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2006) and Inside Job (2010) you see the top people on the inside realizing that the situation is unstable and too far gone to remedy, that the crash is coming, and trying to make as much money as possible and escape while they can, destroying the lives of millions of people in the process. It would be a big mistake to think that the corruption was confined to just the institutions depicted in the films. They are merely indicators of a rot writ large.

In watching the Enron documentary, what struck me was that the key perpetrators of that fraud were actually prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail. Chairman Ken Lay (a close friend of the Bush family) was found guilty in 2006 and faced 20 to 30 years in prison but died before sentencing. Chief Executive Office Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in jail and fined $45 million. Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow was sentenced to six years in prison and fined.

Those were the good old days. It seems so quaint that at one time people actually went to jail for major financial crimes. The oligarchy soon put a stop to that nonsense. Now they control the government and the regulatory agencies so thoroughly that no one risks going to jail for using their big institutions to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Despite the massive scale of malfeasances during the financial debacle of 2008, as far as I am aware not a single person went to prison. The only people who are prosecuted are relative small-timers like Bernie Madoff who make the mistake of swindling other rich people.

We now have a class of people who seem to believe that they have immunity from any legal consequences for their financial actions. That should tell us all we need to know about how bad the situation is.

August 28, 2011

How the US outsources torture

Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill says that the US government and the CIA now use secret prisons in Mogadishu, Somalia to house and torture prisoners that they pick up in the rest of the world.

What do atheists do in a crisis?

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was brought on to some Fox news show to address this question in the context of hurricane Irene. His advice to everyone: Act like atheists and prepare, without wasting your time appealing to some deity to save you.

In the process he showed up the host and one other guest as total idiots.

Way to go, David!

(Via Pharyngula)

Rabbi Yehuda Levin should get an R-rating

It looks like Judaism has its own share of anti-gay crazies who claim that there is a direct connection between earthquakes (like the one last week that touched DC) and homosexuality. That is the message from a rabbi named Yehuda Levin who quotes god saying in the Talmud thusly: "You have shaken your male member in a place where it doesn't belong. I too, will shake the earth."

Really? The Talmud has our old buddy Yahweh actually saying things like that?

I wonder what nifty quote he will dig out to explain Hurricane Irene, especially since it is hitting New York City, home to many ultra-Orthodox communities.

I still don't get why god metes out these crude and indiscriminate punishments that affect gays and non-gays alike. God seems to be somewhat scatterbrained and lack focus. Why not simply send in some divine drones to kill just the people he hates?

August 27, 2011

The obsession with gas prices

I have always been a little puzzled by the obsession in the US with the price of gas. From as long as I can remember, the price of gas has been reported regularly in the news, even when the prices were not fluctuating. NPR news reports on the national average of gas prices on a regular basis. Michele Bachmann has even vowed that she will bring gas prices down to $2 if she is elected president though she does not say how. (Plunge the country into a deep recession? Invade all the oil producing countries?)

Why, among all the commodities, is the price of gas singled out for special mention and monitoring?

I understand that the price of gas influences the price of other things and so is perhaps a proxy for inflation but surely the cost of living index would be a better gauge? I also understand that this is a car culture. When my mother used to write letters (remember those?) to me from Sri Lanka, she would always quote the price of bread and coconuts as indicators of the cost of living. Maybe because it was because she did not own a car and besides, gas prices in Sri Lanka were controlled by the state.

Perhaps gas is focused on here because it is perhaps the only thing that we buy regularly in isolation. When it comes to other staples like bread or milk, which would serve equally well as rough indicators of the cost of living, they are usually bought in conjunction with other groceries and so their price variations do not stand out. Also, gas stations are everywhere and they post their prices in huge signs so you cannot avoid being aware of them.

If you were ask me the price of bread or milk, I probably could not tell you even though I buy them every week. This is because I have no choice but to buy these staples and can afford to, so there seems to be no point in agonizing over their prices. But I do know the price of gas, even though the same conditions apply.

August 26, 2011

Dead pope's blood to reduce crime?

Catholic theologians tend to be a pretty sophisticated bunch. How can they possibly reconcile themselves to their church when the Vatican does things like this?

A vial containing the late pope John Paul II's blood will soon be winging its way to Mexico in a bid to help bring down crimes rates in the largely Catholic country, Vatican Radio reported Wednesday.

Several vials of blood were taken from Pope John Paul II during the last days of his life in 2005. They have since taken on the aura of holy relics, with Catholic faithful invited to venerate them.

That's not all. The Vatican is also going to display vials of his blood for people to venerate.

There's something truly creepy about the Catholic church's obsession with the actual flesh and blood of dead people.

Mythic hero films

When I was a teenager in Sri Lanka, there seemed to be a never-ending supply of adventure films involving bare-chested muscular heroes (usually played by body builder Steve Reeves) portraying mythic characters fighting evildoers and monsters. The films had titles like Goliath and the Barbarians, Ursus, Hercules, Hercules Unchained, and Hercules and the Three Bears (ok, I made the last one up). These films were made in Italy and the actors' lines were badly dubbed into English. The films were low-budget and cheesy, and although they and made for some campy fun, one quickly grew tired of them.

By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger came along, I had no desire whatsoever to revisit that genre and in fact have not seen a single film of his. I will not see the current remake of Conan the Barbarian either, but I found Stephen Whitty's review to be hilarious.

When the US government takes advantage of Sharia law

Sharia law is a system of justice based on Islam as defined in that religion's sacred texts. Like any system of justice based on religion, it is intolerant, cruel, obsessed with sex, and incompatible with our modern understanding of what makes for a humane society. For example, "Within Sharia law, there are a group of "Haram" offenses which carry severe punishments. These include pre-marital sexual intercourse, sex by divorced persons, post-marital sex, adultery, false accusation of unlawful intercourse, drinking alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Haram sexual offenses can carry a sentence of stoning to death or severe flogging."

There has been some hysteria in the US about the creeping threat of Sharia law being imposed in the US, and the claims that Barack Obama may be a secret Muslim are part of this paranoia. Twelve states have even proposed legislation to ban it, although the First Amendment would make these superfluous since it would rule out any laws that seek to advance the interests of any one religion.

But despite this anti-Sharia feeling, what people may not be aware of is that Sharia law is what the US used to enable CIA agent Ray Davis to escape trial and punishment for murder in Pakistan.

You may recall the case in which Davis was captured after gunning down two men in a crowded city. The US demanded that he be released immediately while the Pakistan government said that he had no alternative but to go through the legal process. The US government and the media kept the public in the dark about the facts of the case.

Then to everyone's surprise, Davis was suddenly released and quickly spirited out of the country. How did that happen? Because the US took advantage of Sharia law in which a person accused of a murder can be released if the family members of the victim pardon him in exchange for 'blood money', which is what happened in the Davis case. The Pakistani government has confirmed this.

Shaukat Qadir, a retired senior Pakistani military officer, explains the deal that was struck.

It appears, therefore, that the deal struck between the military leadership included a shut down of CIA’s HUMINT operations in Pakistan, retaining only ELINT, Davis would ‘sing’, within limits, of course, and only then could Blood Money be negotiated for his release. And the US would be bled in that final deal also so as to ensure the safety and the future of the immediate families of both Davis’s victims.

At the height of the debate on the question of Raymond Davis’ immunity from trial for murder, this writer emphasized that Pakistan could not release him without a trial. A trial took duly place and, in accordance with prevalent law in Pakistan, the next of kin of the deceased young men, pardoned Davis in return for ‘Blood Money’. However outlandish this law might seem to those peoples whose countries have their based on Anglo-Saxon principles, such is the law in Pakistan and so there was nothing underhand in what transpired.

Alexander Cockburn says that reports have emerged that "a price tag of about $1.5 million per family was been paid, with US citizenship for a dozen or more members of each family, with job guarantees for those of age and education opportunities guaranteed for children - more than they could ever dream of and sufficiently tempting for them to pardon Davis. Money in sufficient quantity rarely loses its persuasive powers."

So there you have it. Sharia law was used by the US government to enable Ray Davis to escape punishment for his crime. But don't expect the wingnuts to make a fuss about it.

August 25, 2011

France taxes the rich

What is looked upon with horror in some circles in the US is viewed as perfectly reasonable in France.

The French government is to impose an extra tax of 3% on annual income above 500,000 euros (£440,000; $721,000).

It is part of a package of measures to try to cut the country's deficit by 12bn euros over two years.

The tax increase came after some of France's wealthiest people had called on the government to tackle its deficit by raising taxes on the rich.

See, that wasn't so hard was it?

What the Pledge of Allegiance is really doing

Having young children recite the Pledge of Allegiance always seemed to me to be a somewhat disturbing thing, smacking of childhood indoctrination, even leaving aside the 'under god' part. This video captures the problem with it.

(Thanks to Fu Dayi)

The logic of science-15: Truth by logical contradiction

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Theologians often try to claim that they can arrive at eternal truths about god by using pure logic. In some sense, they are forced to make this claim because they have no evidence on their side but it is worthwhile to examine if it is possible to arrive at any truth purely logically. If so, we can see if that method can be co-opted to science, thus bypassing the need for evidence.

In mathematics, there is one way to prove that something is true using just logic alone and this is the method known as reductio ad absurdum or reduction to absurdity. The way it works is like this. Suppose you think that some proposition is true and want to prove it. You start by assuming that the negation of that proposition is true, and then show that this leads to a logical contradiction or a result that is manifestly false. This would convincingly prove that the starting assumption (the negation of the proposition under consideration) was false and hence that the original proposition was true.

The most famous example of this kind of proof is the simple, short, and elegant proof of the proposition that √2 (the square root of 2) is NOT a rational number. I believe that everyone should know this beautiful proof and so I will give it here.

This proof starts by assuming that the negation of that proposition is true, i.e., that the square root of two IS a rational number. You can then show that this assumption leads to a logical contradiction, as follows.

A rational number is one that can be written as the ratio of two integers. For example, the number 1.5 is rational because it can be written as 6/4, 12/8, 3/2, and so on. Similarly 146.98 is a rational number because it can be written as 14698/100. Conversely, the famous number π=3.1415927… is not a rational number. It cannot be written as the ratio of two integers since the number does not terminate AND there is no repeating pattern of digits.

(As a slight digression, to see why an infinite but repeating pattern is a rational number, take the number 4.3151515… where the sequence 15 is repeated indefinitely. Call this number y. If we multiply y by 10, we get 10y=43.151515… If we multiply y by 1000, we get 1000y=4315.151515… Subtracting 10y from 1000y, we get 990y=4272 exactly, since the repeating numbers after the decimal points are equal in both cases. Hence y=4.3151515… =4272/990 exactly and is thus a rational number. Similar reasoning can be applied with any repeating sequence.)

So IF √2 is a rational number, then it can be written as the ratio a/b, where a and b are integers. We then make sure that the ratio has been 'simplified' as much as possible by getting rid of all common factors. For example in the case of 146.98 discussed above, the ratio 14698/100 can be simplified to 7349/50 by cancelling the only common factor that the numerator and denominator share, which is the number 2. In the case of 1.5, the ratio we would use is 3/2, since the others have common factors.

So our starting assumption becomes that √2=a/b where a and b are integers that do not have any common factors. We can now multiply each side by itself to get 2=a2/b2. Hence a2=2b2. This implies that a2 is an even number (because it has a factor of 2). But if the square of a number is even, that means the number itself must be even. Hence a=2c, where c is also an integer. This leads to (2c)2=2b2 and thus b2=2c2. This implies that b2 is an even number and hence b is also an even number. Thus b also has a factor 2 and we have arrived at the conclusion that a and b both have the common factor 2. But if a and b have a common factor, this contradicts what we did at the start of the proof where we got rid of all their common factors. We have thus arrived at a logical contradiction. Hence our starting assumption that the square root of 2 is rational must be wrong. Since there are only two possible alternatives (the square root of 2 is either rational or not rational), we can conclude that it is not rational.

Note that we have proven a result to be true without appealing to any experimental data or the 'real' world. As far as I am aware, the only way to prove that a proposition is true using pure logic alone is of this nature, to show that the negation of the proposition leads to a logical contradiction of this sort.

Philosophers and theologians down the ages have tried to apply the reductio ad absurdum argument to prove the existence of god using logic alone. But the problem is that assuming that there is no god does not lead to a logical contradiction. So instead they appealed to what they felt was manifestly true, that the assumption that god did not exist meant that the existence and properties of the universe were wholly inexplicable. Almost all arguments for the existence of god are at some level appeals to this kind of incredulity.

But this is not a logical contradiction, since they are after all appealing to the empirical properties of the universe. In days gone by when much of how the world works must have seemed deeply mysterious, this subtle equating of empirical incredulity with logical contradiction may have passed without much notice. Even if what was shown was not strictly a logical contradiction, if the negation of a proposition 'god exists' seemed to lead to an obvious disagreement with data in that the properties of the world could not be explained, the negation of the proposition could be rejected, thus proving the original proposition to be true and that god exists.

But those arguments no longer hold since science has explained much of how the would works. Assuming that god does not exist no longer leads to either a logical or empirical contradiction.

Next: Some concluding thoughts

August 24, 2011

Malcolm Marshall

There is perhaps no more graceful sight in cricket than to see a great fast bowler in action. The long flowing run up, the planting of the feet and the swiveling of the body before the arms wheel and delivers the ball at high speed, is really something to see.

Perhaps the greatest of such bowlers in modern times was Malcolm Marshall of the West Indies, who stood out even during the 1970 and 1980s when that country was churning out great fast bowlers that were demolishing their opponents. He was not a big man by fast bowler standards but his sheer skill and athletic ability made him successful. His untimely death in 1999 at the age of 41 a few years after he retired from international cricket was a great loss to the sporting world.

Here he is in action in one international match against England.

The Bush-Obama presidency

David Bromwich, a professor of literature at Yale, argues that there is a remarkable continuity between the Bush and Obama presidencies. He repeats the warning that I have made earlier, that Obama and the Democrats are in fact more dangerous to the fortunes of the not-wealthy than the Republicans were.

In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president’s "debt deal" -- a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.

Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.

A certain mystery surrounds Obama's perpetuation of Bush’s economic policies, in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his expansion of Bush’s war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.

Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all whose hopes once rested with him.

Bromwich looks in detail at which advisors the president likes to keep and which ones he is quick to jettison and sees a pattern that points to Obama's willing complicity in the looting by the oligarchy.

Meanwhile Glenn Greenwald argues that the increasing surveillance powers that the US and UK governments have developed to spy on and monitor their own citizens is because they are afraid of the growing anger among their populations at the fact that most people are being marginalized while a very few are doing well. The governments will need this information to crack down on possible mass protests in the future.

This year, the Obama administration began demanding greater power to obtain Internet records without a court order. Meanwhile, the Chairwoman of the DNC, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, is sponsoring a truly pernicious bill that would force Internet providers "to keep logs of their customers’ activities for one year." And a whole slew of sleazy, revolving-door functionaries from the public/private consortium that is the National Security State -- epitomized by former Bush DNI and current Booz Allen executive Adm. Michael McConnell -- are exploiting fear-mongering hysteria over cyber-attacks to justify incredibly dangerous (and profitable) Internet controls. As The Washington Post's Dana Priest and William Arkin reported in their "Top Secret America" series last year: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." That is a sprawling, out-of-control Surveillance State.

One must add to all of these developments the growing attempts to stifle meaningful dissent of any kind -- especially civil disobedience -- through intimidation and excessive punishment. The cruel and degrading treatment of Bradley Manning, the attempted criminalization of WikiLeaks, the unprecedentedly harsh war on whistleblowers: these are all grounded in the recognition that the technology itself cannot be stopped, but making horrific examples out of those who effectively oppose powerful factions can chill others from doing so.

There is already a lot of anger in the US. This is often taking inchoate forms and directed at the wrong targets out of ignorance (the Tea Party is a good example of this) but the ruling class cannot depend on that happy state of affairs continuing forever.

August 23, 2011

Greedy geezer

Harvey Golub, former CEO of American Express, takes to the opinion pages of the August 22, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal to whine about how unfair the current tax system is to rich people like him and that it would be an outrage if his taxes are raised. But he has solutions to the budget deficit! He feels that eliminating the departments of education and energy is better than him paying more taxes.

There is one statement that is flat-out incredible, where he says: "Of my current income this year, I expect to pay 80%-90% in federal income taxes, state income taxes, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and federal and state estate taxes."

80-90% of his current income goes in taxes? To the calculators, Batman!

I have no idea what Golub's income is this year is but let's say it is one million dollars. Let's be most generous in our calculations in his favor and assume that it is all from salary and that he is a single person and claims no deductions at all.

First off, federal and state estate taxes are not based on income at all, so it is deceitful for him to include that in the list of taxes that are set off against income. Furthermore, aren't those taxes a one-time thing imposed at death? Does he die at the end of every year, pay the tax, and come back to life the following year? If so, he should really write about that, rather than this bilge.

As for the rest, he would pay federal income tax $327,643, social security tax $11,106 (assuming that he generously pays the employer's contribution as well), Medicare $29,000 (again picking up the employer's tab), and state income tax (if he lived in Ohio) $56,464, for a grand total of $424,213, or 42% of his income.

In reality, people like him claim a lot of deductions, have tax shelters, and get a lot of their income from investments that are taxed at a lower rate. I would be surprised if he pays even half that amount.

Rubik's cube contests

The son of a friend of is very good at solving the Rubik's cube and takes part in the annual national contest to see who is the best in the US. In successive years he has come in 3rd, 2nd, 4th and 5th, but frustratingly has never won.

Here is a video of someone solving it in competition in 6.77 seconds.

What I learned recently is that the contest also has a category where people are required to solve the puzzle with their feet! Here is someone solving it in 31.56 seconds.

Being somewhat of a klutz myself with quite poor small motor skills, I find this amazing.

You have to be a bit cautious about YouTube videos of people claiming to be able to solve the puzzle quickly with their feet or hands. Some of them are hoaxes where they start out with an ordered cube, make it disordered while filming it, and then run the video in reverse. Make sure there is a lot of background stuff going on which unambiguously indicate forward time, and that there are no cuts.

The logic of science-14: The rational progress of science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Karl Popper's model of falsification makes the scientific enterprise process seem extremely rational and logical. It also implies that science is progressing along the path to truth by successively eliminating false theories. Hence it should not be surprising that practicing scientists like it and still hold on to it as their model of how science works. In the previous post in this series, I discussed how Thomas Kuhn's work cast serious doubt on the validity of Karl Popper's falsification model of scientific progress, replacing it with a seemingly more subjective process in which scientists switched allegiance from an old theory to a new one based on many factors, some of them subjective, and that this transition had some of the elements of a gestalt switch. This conclusion was disturbing to many.

Another historian and philosopher of science Imre Lakatos was one of those concerned that Thomas Kuhn's model of gestalt switches implied a certain amount of irrationality in the way that scientists choose a new paradigm over the old or the way they pick problems to work on. In his major work The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (1978) he argued that scientists are rational in the way they choose paradigms, and he proposed a new model (which he called methodological falsificationism) that he contrasted with Popper's older model (which he called 'naïve falsificationism'), that he claimed solved some of its difficulties

In Popper's naïve falsification model, when there is disagreement between the predictions of a theory and observations or experiment, the theory must be abandoned. Kuhn and Lakatos agree with Duhem that when such a disagreement occurs, it is not obvious where to place the blame for the failure so summarily discarding the theory is unwarranted. In such situations Duhem appealed to the vague 'good sense' of the individual scientists and of the collective scientific community to determine what to do. Kuhn refined this by saying that the choice of which direction to proceed is based on whether the scientific community perceives the existing paradigm to be in a crisis or not, and that when there is a crisis, the revolutionary switch to a new paradigm is akin to a gestalt switch, whose precise mechanism is hard to pin down, in which individual scientists suddenly see things in a new way.

Lakatos agrees with Kuhn (and disagrees with Popper) that experimental tests are never simply a contest between theory and experiment. At the very least they are three-cornered fights between an old paradigm, a new emerging rival, and experiment. But he disagrees with Kuhn that a crisis within the old paradigm is necessary for scientists to switch their allegiance to a new one (p. 206). He argues that a new theory is acceptable over its predecessor if it (1) explains all the previous successes of the old theory; (2) predicts novel facts that the old theory would have forbidden or would not even have considered; and (3) some of its novel predictions are confirmed. (p. 227)

Lakatos says that Kuhn places too much reliance on vague psychological processes to explain scientific revolutions and that the process is more rational, that scientists proceed in a systematic way in choosing between competing theories. In Lakatos' model of methodological falsificationism, he emphasizes that experimental data is never free of theory. An experimental result in its raw form is simply a sensory observation, such as dot on screen, a pointer reading on a meter, a click of a Geiger counter, a track in a bubble chamber, a piece of bone, etc., none of which have any obvious meaning by themselves. In order to give them some meaning, we have to use theories that interpret the raw sensory experience. For example, a fossil bone that is found is useless unless one can determine what animal it belongs to and how old it is, all of which require the use of other theories. In addition, we have to assume that our knowledge about the other elements surrounding the raw data is unproblematic.

Meanwhile, a theoretical prediction is never the product of a single theory but consists of a combination of four components: the basic theory being investigated, the initial conditions, various auxiliary hypotheses that are needed to actually implement the theory, plus the invocation of ceteris paribus (roughly meaning "all other things being equal") clauses. For example, to understand the origins of the Solar System, we need Newton's laws but we also need to make assumptions about the initial state of the gas (the initial conditions), that the laws have not changed since the time the Earth was formed (an auxiliary hypothesis), and that no other unknown factors played a role in the formation (the ceteris paribus clauses).

Lakatos said that when there is a disagreement between a theoretical prediction and experimental data (where the two are interpreted in these more complex ways), scientists use both a 'negative heuristic' and 'positive heuristic' to systematically investigate and isolate the cause of this disagreement and that this process is what makes science rational.

The ‘negative heuristic’ says that one must deflect attention away from the ‘hard core’ theory when there is an inconsistency between predictions and experiment. In other words, scientists look for the culprit in all the factors other than the basic theory. The 'positive heuristic' consists of "a partially articulated set of suggestions or hints on how to change, develop the 'refutable variants' of the research program, how to modify, sophisticate, the 'refutable' protective belt." (p. 243) So the positive heuristic tells scientists how to systematically investigate the initial conditions, auxiliary hypotheses, ceteris paribus clauses, etc., in short everything other than the basic theory. These two strategies protect the basic theory from being easily overthrown. This is important because good theories are hard to come by and one must not discard them too hastily.

Lakatos claims that this process rationally determines how scientists select problems to work on and how they resolve paradigm conflicts (contrasting it with Kuhn’s suggestion that scientists intuitively know what to do in such situations). In some sense, Lakatos seems to be fleshing out the rules of operation that Kuhn refers to but does not elaborate.

Lakatos argues that as long as a basic theory is fruitful and the negative and positive heuristics provide plenty of avenues for people to investigate and thus steadily produces new facts that both advance knowledge and are useful (a state of affairs that he calls a progressive problemshift), the basic theory will be retained. This is why Newtonian physics, one of the most fruitful theories of all time, is still with us even though it would be considered falsified using Popper's criterion. It is only when the theory runs of steam, when all these avenues of investigation are more or less exhausted and do not seem to provide much opportunity to discover novel facts that we have what he calls a degenerating problemshift. At that point, scientists start abandoning their allegiance to the old theory and seek a new one, eventually leading to a scientific revolution.

Next: Truth by logical contradiction

August 22, 2011

The escalating war on the poor

The ruling class and their media lackeys do not even make an attempt anymore to hide their contempt for the poor and their desire to crush them completely. If they keep this up, who knows what will happen.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Partners in crime

Back in May, I wrote about the hopeful sign that the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was investigating the role of the big banks in the housing bubble, but cautioned that "The oligarchy is going to close ranks and pull out all the stops to defend itself and preserve its privileges and get away with a plea deal that involves just a slap on the wrist and fine."

Well, the oligarchy seems to be doing just that. And who are their friends who are going to bat on their behalf to get the New York AG to accept a plea deal that is highly favorable to them? Why, the Obama administration. What a surprise!

Yves Smith explains what is going on in great detail and says:

It is high time to describe the Obama Administration by its proper name: corrupt… Team Obama bears all the hallmarks of being so close to banks and big corporations that it has lost all contact with and understanding of mainstream America… As far as the Administration is concerned, its goal is to give banks a talking point and prove to them that Team Obama is protecting their backs in a way that the chump public hopefully won’t notice.

"Don't call my bluff"

Recently Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters, speaking about the Tea Party, said: "They called our bluff and we blinked. We should have made them walk the plank."

Similarly President Obama said to Eric Cantor during the debt ceiling discussions: "Eric, don't call my bluff. I'm going to the American people on this."

In both these cases, the speakers implied that they possessed the stronger hand so it does not make sense to say "Don't call my bluff". In such situations, you either call your opponents' bluff or you want your opponent to think you are bluffing and call you on it. To say that you are bluffing and then warn them not to call you on it does not make any sense.

It seems like in both cases the speakers meant to say "Don't think I am bluffing because I am not." In other words, the people who are saying "Don't call my bluff" should really be saying "I am calling your bluff."

Debunking the cosmological argument for god

One of the curious features of modern religious apologists is how they try to use the latest scientific research to argue for the existence of god. Of course, science makes the traditional idea of a personal god who intervenes in the world utterly preposterous and few religious intellectuals outside the evangelical community argue in favor of it. So sophisticated religious apologists have resorted to arguing for the existence of a highly abstract form of god that has no practical consequence whatsoever but for some reason seems to meet some sort of emotional or psychological need. But in order to make their case, they have to cherry-pick scientific research and hope that their audience is not aware of the full science.

The latest attempt is in the area of cosmology. The following very nice video (via Skepchick) exposes how some Christian and Muslim apologists try to use the latest cosmology research in selective ways to make their case.

If the latest developments in cosmology comprise the best arguments for god, then you might expect that cosmologists might be the most religious of all scientists. And yet, as the above video shows, even the scientists quoted by the religious apologists are nonbelievers, suggesting that the cosmological arguments for god are a distortion of the actual science. This paper by cosmologist Sean Carroll titled Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists explains why.

He first addresses what it would take to require a god hypothesis to be taken seriously.

There are several possible ways in which this could happen. Most direct would be straightforward observation of miraculous events that would be most easily explained by invoking God. Since such events seem hard to come by, we need to be more subtle. Yet there are still at least two ways in which a theist worldview could be judged more compelling than a materialist one. First, we could find that our best materialist conception was somehow incomplete --- there was some aspect of the universe which could not possibly be explained within a completely formal framework. This would be like a ''God of the gaps,'' if there were good reason to believe that a certain kind of ''gap'' were truly inexplicable by formal rules alone. Second, we could find that invoking the workings of God actually worked to simplify the description, by providing explanations for some of the observed patterns. An example would be an argument from design, if we could establish convincingly that certain aspects of the universe were designed rather than assembled by chance. Let's examine each of these possibilities in turn.

He examines both these possibilities and weighs their merits using the normal ways that scientists use to compare theories and finds the god hypothesis wanting, arriving at the following conclusion:

Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description. In the various ways in which God might have been judged to be a helpful hypothesis --- such as explaining the initial conditions for the universe, or the particular set of fields and couplings discovered by particle physics --- there are alternative explanations which do not require anything outside a completely formal, materialist description. I am therefore led to conclude that adding God would just make things more complicated, and this hypothesis should be rejected by scientific standards. It's a venerable conclusion, brought up to date by modern cosmology; but the dialogue between people who feel differently will undoubtedly last a good while longer.

I for one am glad that people religious apologists are advancing these sophisticated cosmological arguments for god. While they may think they are rescuing religion from science, they are the ones, not atheist scientists, who are going to ultimately destroy religion because in order to salvage the idea of god, they have made it so abstract and remote that it will not appeal in the least to most religious people who want a father figure who listens to them when they talk and who will answer their requests at least some of the time. The idea of god persists because children are indoctrinated at an early age with the idea of a Santa Claus-like figure who will both look after them and punish them if they are bad. That basic childlike idea is what gives god its appeal. The cosmological god is unlikely to have much appeal to a child.

If the cosmological view of god gains ground, it will become the sole preserve of a few intellectuals who will comfort themselves with the idea that a disengaged god exists somewhere out of reach of science. But such a god is a far cry from the warm and fuzzy invisible friend that can command mass appeal.

August 21, 2011

Matt Taibbi talks with Keith Olbermann on the SEC covering up Wall Street crimes

Why does god hate the pope?

It looks like he hates his most devoted followers too.

The need to have a plan B

NPR had a story about people who get lost, stranded, and even die in Death Valley because their GPS devices led them astray. After repeated instances like this, a Death Valley Ranger investigated and discovered that the devices were using old maps with roads that had long since disappeared. People following the GPS devices ended up on dirt roads that led nowhere.

I have written before at how surprised I am that people put their faith implicitly in technology. I find it incredible that anyone would even go to a place like Death Valley without at least some backup plan in case the GPS failed. Apart from errors, what would they do if the device started obviously malfunctioning or stopped working?

Just recently I had to go to someone's home. Their address was on Shaker Boulevard, which is a very long street with a wide grassy median with few crossover points, so I put their street number into Google Maps to get a rough idea of where the house was. I was surprised to find that the location given was two towns away from mine, since I was pretty sure that they lived in my own suburb. So I tried MapQuest and sure enough, it was very near my home. Google Maps had made an error. My habit of being skeptical and checking saved me from wasting time.

I also recently drove to a distant town for a wedding party and as is my practice before I left got directions from Google Maps or MapQuest and compared it with a physical map. But when I got to that town, construction had closed off many of the streets that I was supposed to go on. This did not bother me because I had a map and quickly found an alternate route to my hotel.

I don't have GPS but was wondering what it would do in situations where its directions cannot be followed due to various reasons. For example, for people traveling in Death Valley, if they sense that the dirt road they are asked to go on is a mistake, what options do they have? Does anyone know?

August 20, 2011

The late blooming of Michael Steele

When Michael Steele was the head of the Republican National Committee, he ran a scandal-plagued operation and his attempts to put a good face on his party's politics made him look like a buffoon.

Now that he is free of the institutional constraint of having to defend everything his party does, he turns out to be an astute, interesting, and engaging observer of the current political scene, as this interview on The Daily Show reveals, where he speaks quite frankly about the divisions within the party that have emerged as a result of the loss of control by establishment Republicans.

The protectors of Wall Street criminality

Matt Taibbi has a new article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone whose title Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes? pretty much says it all.

It recounts the story of Darcy Flynn, a staff attorney at the SEC (the Securities and Exchange Commission that is supposed to regulate Wall Street) who blew the whistle about how the SEC has been systematically destroying documents about matters that it had investigated, thus destroying the chances of seeing patterns of criminal behavior.

Imagine a world in which a man who is repeatedly investigated for a string of serious crimes, but never prosecuted, has his slate wiped clean every time the cops fail to make a case. No more Lifetime channel specials where the murderer is unveiled after police stumble upon past intrigues in some old file – "Hey, chief, didja know this guy had two wives die falling down the stairs?" No more burglary sprees cracked when some sharp cop sees the same name pop up in one too many witness statements. This is a different world, one far friendlier to lawbreakers, where even the suspicion of wrongdoing gets wiped from the record.

That, it now appears, is exactly how the Securities and Exchange Commission has been treating the Wall Street criminals who cratered the global economy a few years back.

The article also relates how the SEC is particularly prone to the revolving door, where SEC regulators get lucrative jobs at the very firms that they are supposed to be regulating, and then come back and lobby their colleagues to drop investigations.

Cenk Uygur talks with Matt Taibbi about the revolving door following an earlier article by Taibbi.

August 19, 2011

The Daily Show on the search for a savior candidate

Why does god hate Rick Perry?

God seems to go out of his way to do the opposite of whatever Rick Perry prays for.

Welcome to World War III

How bad is the economic warfare being waged by the oligarchy on the rest of us? Bad enough that David DeGraw calls it World War III. He has published a book The Road Through 2012: Revolution or World War III (to be released on September 28, 2011).

Here is the abstract of a long paper based on the book that lays out the gruesome details.

Despite increasing personal financial hardship, most Americans remain unaware of the economic world war currently unfolding. An all-pervasive corporate and government propaganda campaign has effectively obscured this blatant reality. After extensive analysis, it is evident that World War III is a war between the richest one-tenth of one percentof the global population and 99.9 percent of humanity. Or, as I have called it, The Economic Elite Vs. The People. This war has been a one-sided attack thus far. However, as we have seen throughout the world in recent months, the people are beginning to fight back.

You can read a condensed version here.

How John McCain destroyed the Republican party (and Tim Pawlenty)

When the history of the Republican party is written, John McCain will have to share the brunt of the blame for its demise, and the central piece of evidence will be his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. To support this contention, I am going to indulge myself with a highly self-referential post.

I wrote on September 3, 2008, soon after he announced her selection:

Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: "Hey guys, watch this!" The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to "think outside the box" and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating 'thinking outside the box' from 'being out of your mind'.

I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a 'game changer'. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.

And so it turned out.

I believe that the seeds of Tim Pawlenty's failure as a presidential candidate were also planted by that same event. As I wrote a few days after the 2008 election:

On election night, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the reported four finalists to be McCain's running mate, was interviewed just after Obama had become elected. I knew the others in the running (Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge) and I could see why the campaign might not be excited about them, since they both seemed kind of dull and stodgy, not adding much to McCain's appeal. But I had never seen Pawlenty before and he seemed to me to have many of Palin's positives (youth and energy and ideology) without all of her obvious negatives.

Pawlenty spoke fluently and well about the issues that drove the campaign, and graciously about Obama. Furthermore he is an evangelical Christian and is solidly in step with their anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda, although in the early 1990s he was not quite as hard-line. As he spoke, I became increasingly mystified as to why McCain had overlooked him for Palin.

But while being the vice-presidential candidate in 2008 would undoubtedly have helped Pawlenty in 2012, it was not being overlooked that hurt him so badly. The real problem was that the Palin selection opened a Pandora's box within the Republican party, releasing furies that have divided the party and in the process destroyed his presidential hopes. As I predicted in November 2008:

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the 'real Republicans' are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

We now know the answer to that last question: No. For Michele Bachmann, the answer is yes.

The final nail that McCain drove into the Republican party coffin is that by putting one of their own into the running mate slot, he gave the social base their first real taste of power. Until then, they had been successfully manipulated by the Republican leadership into delivering their votes and energy to the establishment candidates the party chose, while being kept out of leadership positions. That changed in 2008. As I wrote in July 2009:

The old-style conservatives seem to have been routed and are even more marginalized than before. At this stage, they look like people unhappy with what the Republican Party has become and not sure if they can bring it back to what they see as sanity or whether it is hopelessly under the control of nutcases and they need to look for a new home.

The second group [the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, religion, homosexuality, and immigration are the main concerns] has not grown larger but has grown more militant. It is digging in its heels and demanding to be in the party leadership and will not go back to their former role as mere foot soldiers. This group has always been made use of by their party leaders but never given a real shot at leadership. McCain's choice of Palin changed that. For the first time, they felt that one of their own was close to the driver's seat and they are not returning to the back of the bus.

And so it has turned out. We saw the rise of the Tea Party as the manifestation of this phenomenon. We now see candidates for the nomination swearing fealty to the most extreme positions of this group. It seems obvious that the Republican party establishment is worried that they have lost control of their party's agenda to a bunch of loonies. Republican David Frum has been quite harsh about the direction his party has taken, and the desperate search for a 'savior candidate' (Paul Ryan or even people like Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels who have been emphatic about not seeking the nomination) are further symptoms of this unease.

The oligarchy cannot be happy about this development. They need both party leaderships to be smooth manipulators of the system who can deliver the fiscal and economic policies that enrich them under cover of the noise generated by extreme social policies, so that whichever party wins, the oligarchy's interests are advanced. They are not social issues ideologues that believe in the crazy policies and slogans that are used to inflame voters, particularly at election time. As the process moves forward, it will be interesting to see how the oligarchs try to shoot down the candidates they dislike and advance the candidacies of 'sensible' people like Romney or Huntsman.

This is the headache that John McCain created for the Republican party with his impulsive and ill-thought out decision in 2008.

August 18, 2011

How to manipulate politics

Stephen Colbert gets advice from Republican media consultant Frank Luntz.

Stanford prison experiment

This week marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous experiment that showed how quickly people can turn into brutes when given unchecked power over someone else.

The video in the link is worth watching for its interviews with some of the original participants.

Last place aversion

One of the enduring mysteries is why so many struggling poor people in the US are opposed to government programs that would assist people just like them. The Economist reports on recent studies that shed new light on this odd phenomenon. (via Boing Boing)

Economists have usually explained poor peoples counter-intuitive disdain for something that might make them better off by invoking income mobility. Joe the Plumber might not be making enough to be affected by proposed hikes in tax rates on those making more than $250,000 a year, they argue, but he hopes some day to be one of them. This theory explains some cross-country differences, but it would also predict increased support for redistribution as income inequality widens. Yet the opposite has happened in America, Britain and other rich countries where inequality has risen over the past 30 years.

Instead of opposing redistribution because people expect to make it to the top of the economic ladder, the authors of the new paper argue that people don't like to be at the bottom. One paradoxical consequence of this "last-place aversion" is that some poor people may be vociferously opposed to the kinds of policies that would actually raise their own income a bit but that might also push those who are poorer than them into comparable or higher positions. The authors ran a series of experiments where students were randomly allotted sums of money, separated by $1, and informed about the "income distribution" that resulted. They were then given another $2, which they could give either to the person directly above or below them in the distribution.

In keeping with the notion of "last-place aversion", the people who were a spot away from the bottom were the most likely to give the money to the person above them: rewarding the "rich" but ensuring that someone remained poorer than themselves. Those not at risk of becoming the poorest did not seem to mind falling a notch in the distribution of income nearly as much. This idea is backed up by survey data from America collected by Pew, a polling company: those who earned just a bit more than the minimum wage were the most resistant to increasing it.

Poverty may be miserable. But being able to feel a bit better-off than someone else makes it a bit more bearable.

Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and the media narrative

The Daily Show had an excellent piece on the extreme lengths that the media have gone to in ignoring Ron Paul's candidacy for the Republican nomination, that reached comical levels following his near tie with Michele Bachmann in the Ames straw poll.

Glenn Greenwald points out that both Paul and former two-term New Mexico governor Gary Johnson have been effectively declared non-persons and makes the persuasive case that this is because neither of them fit into the pre-ordained media narrative because of their stances on war and civil liberties.

[W]hat makes the media most eager to disappear Paul is that he destroys the easy, conventional narrative -- for slothful media figures and for Democratic loyalists alike. Aside from the truly disappeared former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (more on him in a moment), Ron Paul is far and away the most anti-war, anti-Surveillance-State, anti-crony-capitalism, and anti-drug-war presidential candidate in either party. How can the conventional narrative of extremist/nationalistic/corporatist/racist/warmongering GOP v. the progressive/peaceful/anti-corporate/poor-and-minority-defending Democratic Party be reconciled with the fact that a candidate with those positions just virtually tied for first place among GOP base voters in Iowa? Not easily, and Paul is thus disappeared from existence. That the similarly anti-war, pro-civil-liberties, anti-drug-war Gary Johnson is not even allowed in media debates -- despite being a twice-elected popular governor -- highlights the same dynamic.

GOP primary voters are supporting a committed anti-war, anti-surveillance candidate who wants to stop imprisoning people (disproportionately minorities) for drug usage; Democrats, by contrast, are cheering for a war-escalating, drone-attacking, surveillance-and-secrecy-obsessed drug warrior.

Greenwald also makes the important point is that the media pouring so much resources into covering the trivialities of politics during the interminably long election cycle (now lasting 18 months) means that government can act without much scrutiny during that time.

NPR's Talk of the Nation on the Monday following the straw poll, devoted a large segment of their program to discussing the candidacies of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, showing that they follow the media herd as well. They had to fend off questions from annoyed listeners as to why they were ignoring Paul. The host's weak response was that they were focusing on the 'new' people who were getting the 'buzz' and that Paul did not fit the category.

Justin Raimondo also looks at what the media silence on Paul's candidacy says about their agenda, and how the very brazen way in which they are deliberately ignoring Paul is now becoming a story in itself.

The media's refusal to report Paul's growing support, beyond grudging acknowledgement that he's come in from "the fringe," reflects its institutional bias in favor of the right-left red-blue narrative that has, up until now, dominated American politics, and in which so much of the news industry is heavily invested. This narrative doesn't allow for any significant deviations, and certainly not on the presidential level: all must submit to its tyranny, in spite of its archaic and increasingly obstructionist character. What it obstructs is any meaningful challenge to the functioning of the Welfare-Warfare State. If one party is in power, welfare is given more weight than warfare, if the other takes the throne, then welfare is given the axe. In any case, these two aspects of the modern American state are inextricably intertwined, as "defense" spending in the age of empire becomes just another dollop of pork to be ladled out to corporate and political interests – and welfare becomes a way to keep the disgruntled quiescent in wartime.

Think of the media as the Greek chorus to the two "majors," with different media actors cheerleading one party and razzing the other – but never straying outside the bounds of the red-blue narrative, with its rigid definitions and litmus tests. This mindset is encoded in the two-party system, and institutionalized in our ballot access laws, which privilege the two "major" parties – the very same two parties that have led us down the path to endless war and imminent bankruptcy, and are now running away from their dual responsibility for the present crisis.

Roger Simon also thinks that Paul is getting shafted and finds some telling clues about how political narratives are structured.

There was a deliciously intriguing line in The Washington Post's fine recap of Ames on Sunday. It said had Paul edged out Bachmann, "it would have hurt the credibility and future of the straw poll, a number of Republicans said."

So don't blame the media. Here are Republicans, presumably Republican operatives, who said if one candidate wins, the contest is significant, but if another wins the contest is not credible.

I myself have mixed feelings about Ron Paul. I like the fact that he opposes all these wars that the US is waging and the militarization of foreign policy and his civil libertarian and anti-Wall Street stances. I dislike his positions on some social issues, find his desire to eliminate almost all of government too extreme, and do not understand economics well enough to confidently judge his desire to return the US to the gold standard. But there is no doubt that he is far and away the candidate who discusses the issues most substantively and not in clichés and sound bites aimed at pandering to the base. He undoubtedly elevates the level of political debate. But that is another reason for the media to ignore him. It would require them to actually talk about monetary and foreign policy and other boring stuff. It is much easier and way more fun to talk about Michele Bachmann's husband or Sarah Palin's latest publicity-seeking stunt or Rick Perry's swagger.

I hope that Paul does well if for no other reason than to have the smug condescending looks of the media establishment wiped off their faces.

August 17, 2011

The secret life of L. Ron Hubbard

British television had a series in 1997 called Secret Lives and one program was about L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. It is quite fascinating.

Some supporters of religion argue that the very fact that their religion has lasted so long and spread so widely must mean that there must be something to it. But if people now, with all the information at their disposal, can be suckered by an obvious conman like Hubbard into following his religion, it should not be surprising that people a couple of thousand years ago fell for it too. Joseph Smith and the Mormons is another good example of how modernity does not inoculate the gullible against hucksters.

(Thanks to Norm)

Obama worshippers

I recently had a conversation with a liberal friend and pointed out how shocking it was that Obama had asserted the right to summarily order the killing of American citizens abroad. My friend was not aware of this until I told him. I expected him to be appalled but instead he said that he trusted Obama to do the right thing and that if he ordered such a killing, the person probably deserved to die. When I continued to criticize Obama for his assertion of autocratic powers, he asked me whether I would vote for Obama or Michele Bachmann in the next election. He seemed to think that this argument clinched his case.

I find such attitudes truly incredible. Even if people think that Obama is a good guy looking out for the interests of ordinary folks (a doubtful proposition at best), it is astonishing that they are unconcerned that whatever dictatorial powers they give to him will also be available for use by any future president, including a Bachmann.

The protection of freedoms and civil liberties has to lie in the hands of laws and constitutional protections that are vigilantly guarded, not in assuming the good intentions of individuals.

The logic of science-13: How 'good sense' emerges in science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The philosopher of science Pierre Duhem said in his book The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906, translated by Philip P. Wiener, 1954) that despite the fact that there is no way to isolate any given theory from all other theories, scientists are saved from sterile discussions about which theory is best because the collective 'good sense' of the scientific community can arrive at verdicts based on the evidence, and these verdicts are widely accepted. In adjudicating the truth or falsity of theories this way, the community of scientists are like a panel of judges in a court case (or a panel of doctors dealing with a particularly baffling set of symptoms), weighing the evidence for and against before pronouncing a verdict, once again showing the similarities of scientific conclusions to legal verdicts. And like judges, we have to try to leave our personal preferences at the door, which, as Duhem pointed out, is not always easy to do.

Now nothing contributes more to entangle good sense and to disturb its insight than passions and interests. Therefore, nothing will delay the decision which should determine a fortunate reform in a physical theory more than the vanity which makes a physicist too indulgent towards his own system and too severe towards the system of another. We are thus led to the conclusion so clearly expressed by Claude Bernard: The sound experimental criticism of a hypothesis is subordinated to certain moral conditions; in order to estimate correctly the agreement of a physical theory with the facts, it is not enough to be a good mathematician and skillful experimenter; one must also be an impartial and faithful judge. (p. 218)

This is why the collective judgment of the community, in which individual biases get diluted, carries more weight than the judgment of a single member, like the way that major legal decisions are made by a jury or a panel of judges rather than a single person.

Duhem's idea that we are ultimately dependent on the somewhat vague collective 'good sense' of the scientific community to tell us what is true and what is false may be disturbing to some as it seems to demote scientific 'truth', reducing it from being objectively determined by data to an act of collective judgment, however competent the community making that judgment is. Surely there must be more to it than that? After all, science has achieved amazing things. Our entire modern lives are made possible because of the power of scientific theories that form the foundation of technology. In short, science works exceedingly well. How can it work so well if the theories we have developed were not true in some objective sense?

Such feelings are so strong that people continue to try and find ways to show that scientific theories, if not absolutely true now, are at least progressing along the road to truth. Popper's idea of falsification seemed, at least initially, to provide a mechanism to understand how this steady progress might be occurring.

It was Thomas Kuhn who delivered the most devastating critique of Karl Popper's idea that scientific theories can be falsified if a key prediction of the theory turns out to be contradicted by experiment. In Kuhn's landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1969), he pointed out that falsification fails in two ways. One way is an extension of Duhem's argument, that it is never the case that a pure theoretical prediction based on a single theory is compared with a piece of empirical data. In the event of disagreement, there are always other linked theories that can be blamed. Secondly, even if we accept the idea of falsification at face value, it would not describe actual scientific practice. Kuhn's book contains a wealth of examples that show how scientists live and work quite comfortably, for decades and sometimes even for centuries, with a theory that has been contradicted by data in a few instances, until finally discarding the theory or resolving the contradictions. As long as a theory seems to be generally working well, scientists are not too perturbed by the occasional disagreement, seeing them as merely unsolved problems and not as falsifying events. In fact, he points out that new theories almost always have very little evidence in support of them and disagree with a lot of data. If Popper's model were applied rigorously, every theory would be falsified almost from the get-go.

So how do old theories get rejected and replaced by new ones? Kuhn says that during the period of 'normal science', most scientists work within a given scientific 'paradigm' (which consists of a basic theory plus the rules of operation), picking problems that promise to elucidate the workings of the paradigm. They are not looking to overthrow the paradigm but to stretch its boundaries. In the process, they sometimes encounter problems that resist solutions. If these discrepancies multiply and if a few key ones turn out to be highly resistant to attack by even the best practitioners in the field, science enters a period of crisis in which people start seriously investigating alternative theories. At some point, individual scientists start switching allegiance to a promising new theory that seems to solve some outstanding and vexing problems that the old one failed to solve and this process can begin to snowball. Kuhn suggests that the switch from seeing the old theory as true to seeing it as false and needing to be replaced by the new one is similar to a gestalt switch, a sudden realization of a new truth that is not driven purely by logic.

Kuhn's views aroused considerable passions. Some anti-science people (religious and non-religious alike) have seized on his idea that scientific revolutions are not driven purely by objective facts to extend his views well beyond what he envisaged and claim that science is an irrational activity and that scientific knowledge is just another form of opinion and has no claim to privileged status. Kuhn spent a good part of the rest of his life arguing that this was a distortion of his views and that scientific knowledge had justifiable claims to being more reliable because of the ways that science operated.

Next: The rational progress of science

August 16, 2011

Marginal tax rates

I came across this interesting chart from Visualizing Economics that shows how marginal tax rates have varied over the last 100 years or so.


What to do about the salvation of non-Christians?

Jerry Coyne discusses some recent attempts to address a troubling problem for Christians: How do you treat those believers in other faiths who seem to be perfectly nice people or who existed in times and places that your brand of religion did not reach?

Consigning them to the fires of everlasting hell seems a tad unfair, no? But saying that all good people go to heaven removes the sense of being special in god's eyes which is, after all, the main recruiting tool that religions have.

Coyne makes the point that all 'solutions' to this problem that tend to universalize salvation will appeal only to theologians and academics. Most religious believers will prefer to think that they are fortunate enough to believe in the one true god, and the rest will simply have to hope that their eventual fate is not too horrendous.

The idiotic Ames straw poll

I watched with some amazement the Ames straw poll. The process is truly bizarre and yet for some reason it was treated as some kind of major political event. A straw poll, as the name implies, is a quick way to see which way the wind is blowing at one particular instant, and it is absurd to use it for anything more. And yet, such a poll resulted in the elimination of Tim Pawlenty from the Republican race.

Just think about it. Less than 17,000 votes were cast. As of 2008, there were 206 million voting age citizens. So 0.008% of the voting age population, all located in a small part of the country and representing very narrow interests, denied the rest of the country the chance to decide if they thought Pawlenty would make a good president.

Let me make it clear that I am not holding a brief for Pawlenty. I did not like his politics and he showed that he was willing to pander to the nutty base of the party as enthusiastically as the rest. For all I know, he may have run an awful campaign in Ames. But he did not seem to be obviously insane and did serve as a governor of a major state for two terms and this should at least count for something. The point I want to make is that it is crazy to allow such a narrow segment of the population to have such a major voice in determining who should or should not be the president and allow them to summarily eliminate candidates who, at least on the basis of their resumes, deserve to be taken seriously.

In his fine book Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2010), constitutional scholar Richard Beeman describes the extended discussions the Founding Fathers had during the summer of 1787 as they tried to figure out the best way to elect a president. The problem they faced was that the president had to represent the nation as a whole but the state of communications was so poor and travel so difficult that, apart from war hero George Washington, they feared that the public scattered across the thirteen states would not have the knowledge to vote for someone who was outside their region or state. They feared that a truly democratic election in which each citizen cast one vote directly for the president would result in each state's voters choosing their 'favorite son' for president, leading to an inconclusive result. They were also somewhat contemptuous of the wisdom, integrity, and intelligence of ordinary citizens and feared that they could be easily manipulated into voting for self-seeking and unscrupulous but charismatic politicians.

Hence the Founding Fathers developed the complicated indirect voting system that we call the Electoral College, whereby the voters in each state would vote for Electors who would in turn vote for the president. The hope was that these Electors would be from among the best and the brightest people in the state and most knowledgeable about national affairs and thus would cast an informed vote. But even this safeguard was considered insufficient since they feared that the numbers of Electors from each state was so small (varying from three each from Rhode Island and Delaware to twelve from Virginia) that they could be too strongly influenced or manipulated or even bribed by ambitious state politicians to vote for them. Hence they put in an additional requirement that each Elector had to cast two votes, at least one of which should be for someone from outside their own state. The hope was that it was from the votes cast for an out-of-state candidate that a truly national figure would emerge.

But they added even more precautions. If as a result of this process, no single candidate emerged with a majority of votes in the Electoral College, then the House of Representatives would vote from among the top five candidates. In this final election, each state's delegation would have just one vote. They hoped that this elaborate process would allow for the election of someone who could rise about the parochial interests of his home state and represent the interests of the new nation as a whole.

In April 1789 George Washington was elected the first president under this system, having received every one of the Electoral College votes cast. But of course, the main concern was not about Washington, who was always expected to be a shoo-in for the post, but to ensure that someone close to his stature would be elected once he left office.

But look what we have now. Unlike in 1787, we have rapid travel and almost instantaneous universal communication so that all voters everywhere have access to information about all the candidates. The difficult conditions that the founders designed their system to overcome no longer apply. And yet, rather than having a system that takes advantage of the elimination of those constraints to select a truly national candidate, what the Ames straw poll illustrates is that we have actually gone into reverse, granting a tiny, self-selected, and highly parochial group the right to decide who are the candidates worth considering and whom to eliminate.

The whole process is also profoundly anti-democratic and corrupt. The candidates buy tickets ($30 each) to enable people to participate, with the candidates acting like carnival barkers luring people to their particular sideshow. Michele Bachmann spent $180,000 to buy 6,000 tickets, of which almost 5,000 voted for her.

The media elevated this non-event to something of significance and also skewed the interpretation of the results. Ron Paul essentially tied with Bachmann in the vote (the difference was less than 1%) and yet the media treat her as if she was the sole winner and ignore Paul.

The most important quality that a candidate needs to possess to win the Ames straw poll is the ability to coax and bribe a tiny group of people to vote for them. This is precisely what the Founding Fathers sought to avoid. So why are we giving this non-event so much prominence instead of consigning it to the oblivion it deserves?

August 15, 2011

The problem with some liberal commentators

When I made my own predictions about what would likely happen in the budgetary process with the so-called Super Committee, it was even before the members of the committee had been selected because according to my model of how politics works, when it comes to basic issues of the economy, the decisions are made off-stage behind the scenes by the oligarchy and the political leadership, and the people deliberating these things in public are merely actors giving us the impression that they are deciding things.

It is important to note that the actors themselves may be quite sincere in thinking that they are autonomous agents, freely deciding the issues. But the reality is that by the time they reach those positions, the people who might do something that the oligarchy does not want have long been filtered out, because the system works well in creating the kinds of pressures that result in pre-ordained conclusions. The personal views of politicians become important only in those cases where the oligarchy does not care about the outcome (guns, gays, abortion, pledge of allegiance, burning the flag, compact fluorescent light bulbs, etc.)

This model differs considerably from the standard approach because many liberal commentators tend to still have enormous faith in the good intentions of the politicians who say they have liberal goals. For example, now that the Super Committee has been constituted, there has been considerable analysis of the past record and statements of its members, with a view to getting clues as to how they might decide. Steve Benen runs the liberal Political Animal blog over at the Washington Monthly. He is good source for political news because he scours the wire services for news and aggregates it is a useful way. But a recent post of his illustrates the basic flaw with many liberal commentators who place their faith in the supposedly good intentions of Democratic leaders rather than paying attention to what they actually do.

After listing Nancy Pelosi's nominees to the Super Committee, people whose past records suggest that they may well agree to cuts in entitlements and no increase in taxes on the rich, he says the following:

I suspect the key takeaway from the House Democratic selections is that all three are key, close allies of Pelosi, and they will very likely be representing her interests during the negotiations.

Since I like Pelosi and agree with her expectations for the process, I consider this a positive development.

He is hopeful about the outcome because he 'likes Pelosi' and agrees with her 'expectations' for the process. But let's look at Pelosi's rhetorical trajectory, which is the standard Democratic one of first raising expectations amongst the base of the party and then slowly talking them down. On August 2, this was her position:

At a pre-recess press conference Tuesday afternoon, TPM asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) whether the people she appoints to the committee will make the same stand she made during the debt limit fight -- that entitlement benefits -- as opposed to provider payments, waste and other Medicare spending -- should be off limits.

In short, yes.

"That is a priority for us," Pelosi said. "But let me say it is more than a priority - it is a value... it's an ethic for the American people. It is one that all of the members of our caucus share. So that I know that whoever's at that table will be someone who will fight to protect those benefits."

Then on August 4, she began the familiar backtracking, using the 'trigger' of automatic cuts as the excuse:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says her caucus will be broadly united in a fight to protect Medicare and other successful programs from cuts when the committee convenes to reduce deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. But neither she nor the people she appoints to that committee will publicly draw bright lines.

Far from suggesting that the Democrats she appoints on the committee will keep a wide-open mind to cutting benefits for seniors, she emphasized that her caucus is broadly unified against such measures. But she also said House Democrats on the committee will work toward a solution that's better than allowing an enforcement mechanism -- $500 billion in defense cuts, and domestic spending reductions, including a two percent cut to Medicare providers -- to take effect. (My italics)

Then a little later she appoints people to the Super Committee who might well give in on cuts to Social Security.

That's how it works. In this strip from 2010, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow describes Obama's use of this same strategy during the health care debate.

Benen is a thoughtful person and generally good on issues so I do not want to be too hard on him. But his willingness to trust in the good intentions of democratic politicians symbolizes the weakness of mainstream liberal commentators. He reminds me of Kevin Drum at Mother Jones who said on an earlier occasion:

If it had been my call, I wouldn't have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

These people keep putting their trust in the good intentions of Democratic politicians, however many times their expectations are dashed. I am not sure why.

When the inevitable sellout occurs, watch for the Democratic leadership to proclaim it as a big victory because they supposedly prevented something much worse.

August 14, 2011

Tests of the existence of other universes

When Louis de Broglie first proposed in 1924 that particles had wavelike properties, the technological challenges to investigating the idea were so immense that the prospects for testing it seemed to lie very far into the distant future, if at all. But one of the features of science is that however incredible an idea may seem when it is first proposed, if it gains credibility and acceptance from the scientific community as a whole, it will only be a matter of time before someone finds an ingenious way to try and test it. So it was with de Broglie's idea. It was such so beautiful in the way that it unified waves and particles in a symmetric way in quantum mechanics, that it spurred creative thinking and within just three years C. J. Davisson and L. Germer were able to construct an experiment that confirmed it, resulting in de Broglie receiving the Nobel Prize in 1929, an incredibly rapid pace of advance.

So it is with the multiverse idea, that entire universes can be created spontaneously from the vacuum and thus our own universe may be just one of an enormous number (as many as 10500) of universes, each having their own laws and structure. This idea not only does not violate the laws of science, it is not even a new theory, being in fact a prediction of other theories.

As with de Broglie's hypothesis, when the multiverse idea was initially proposed there seemed to be no way to test it. But now people have come along with suggestions of how to do it, by looking for disk-like patterns in the cosmic microwave background that may be the telltale relics of collisions of other universes with our own.

Science is such fun.

The coming godless generations

Adam Lee points to data that show the rapid rise of nonbelief among young people, and points to stories of young people challenging the religious privilege that their elders took for granted.

Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones.

But what's different now is that young people who speak out aren't left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there's a thriving, growing secular community that's becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.

The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it's much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I've mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they're the leading edge of a wave.

All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation.

[T]he more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that's been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.

This is why it is important for atheists to not rest on our laurels just because we have won the argument. We have to continue to be a very visible and vocal presence in public life, so that those who are hesitant to speak realize that atheists are everywhere and that they have a support network.

I myself have been heartened by the number of people in my own institution who tell me that my atheist presence via this blog has helped them.

August 13, 2011

Victory for atheists in Little Rock

I wrote earlier about how a bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively high insurance for an atheist group to place the message "Are you good without God? Millions are" on its buses, claiming that they feared vandalism by religious people, providing an unintended ironic commentary on religion.

Now a federal judge has ruled in favor of the atheists saying that the bus company's policy violated the free speech rights of atheists.

Radioactive heating of the Earth

Recent measurements show that about half of the 40 trillion watts of heat radiated continuously by the Earth comes from radioactivity taking place in its mantle and crust, while the remainder is due to the primordial heat that was created at the formation of the Earth and is located mainly in the core.

Historians of science are aware of the importance of the discovery of the radioactivity as an ongoing source of the heating of the Earth. Before the immense amount of heat associated with radioactive decay was discovered around 1903, physicists like Lord Kelvin had calculated the age of the Earth by treating it as an initially hot body that was steadily cooling. They concluded that it could not be older than 100 million years and could be as low as 20 million years. This made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the theory of evolution by natural selection, because it was a slow process that required long time scales. This was seized upon by religious people to argue against the evolution and in favor of the special creation of species by god. (See my series on the age of the Earth for a more detailed discussion of this.)

The discovery of radioactivity had two revolutionary impacts. It created an awareness that radioactivity was an ongoing source of the heating of the Earth that undermined all the earlier calculations of Kelvin and others, and it provided an important new tool for measuring time that opened the gates to new discoveries that rapidly pushed the age of the Earth to more than four billion years, giving plenty of time for evolution to take place.

August 12, 2011

Do atheists reject god?

From reader John, I received a link to this interesting video combating the notion that atheists are 'rejecting' god.

Mournapalooza 2011

Political cartoonist Ted Rall warns us what expects on September 11 as the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the World Trade Center comes around.

I have written before about this weird obsession with public grief in which the media and politicians try to suggest that all of us are, or should be, overcome with grief and emotion by simply remembering a past event. This may be true for those who actually lost loved ones but I suspect that for the rest of us it is just another day that would have passed normally if it were not thrust in our faces by a massive media blitz that wallows in cheesy sentiment.

I myself will ignore all coverage of this staged event.

The GOP debate

I of course did not watch the Republican candidates debate last night. Why waste two hours of my life? But this minute-by-minute report on the proceedings by Michael Scherer was fun to read and tells me what I missed.

Escaping the suffocating embrace of religion

NPR had a couple of interesting religious stories recently.

One of them was about how more and more evangelicals are deciding that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve simply cannot be true in the light of modern science and how this is tearing the community apart.

Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University and a senior fellow at the BioLogos Foundation, and John Schneider who taught theology at Calvin College are just two evangelical Christians who say that "it's time to face facts: There was no historical Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence."

This is viewed as heresy by the traditionalists who insist that those beliefs form an indispensable part of being Christian.

"From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith," says Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution. Rana, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Ohio University, readily admits that small details of Scripture could be wrong.

"But if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you've got a problem," Rana says.

Rana and others believe in a literal, historical Adam and Eve for many reasons. One is that the Genesis account makes man unique, created in the image of God — not a descendant of lower primates. Second, it tells a story of how evil came into the world, and it's not a story in which God introduced evil through the process of evolution, but one in which Adam and Eve decided to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, says that rebellious choice infected all of humankind.

"When Adam sinned, he sinned for us," Mohler says. "And it's that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior.

Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam's original sin.

"Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul's description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament," Mohler says.

The other story is a more poignant personal one from a very different religious world, that of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Sam Katz was a member of such a community in New York who discovered science and lost his faith. What started the slide was when he started going to the library that was next door to his house and started reading secular books for the first time, beginning with Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And then he went to a Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and pondered the implications of the story of evolution, saying "I studied God's law all my life. And you're a Jewish male. I mean, you're the pinnacle of creation. And suddenly, you're not the pinnacle of creation. You're the endpoint at this moment in time, and something else will happen soon. It's hard to explain what that was like, but it was beautiful."

At the age of 16, Katz was sent to a prestigious religious school in Israel where he confided his interest in these secular matters to the dean, who was a respected scholar. Rather than engage with him, the dean responded by trying to isolate him so that he would not corrupt the other students. So Katz left and returned to New York where, with the aid of an organization known as Footsteps, he has managed to break free of the tight embrace of his community and is now a junior in college studying science.

These stories shed an interesting light on the relationship of religious beliefs to knowledge. For example, note that the only things that Rana is willing to give up in the Bible are those things that do not contradict fundamental doctrines. So he is admitting that he first decides what his beliefs should be, and then accepts only the evidence that conforms to it. This is the typical mode of thinking of religious people.

Mohler is right. Without the story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace, the whole premise of Christianity that Christ died for us as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin falls apart. The original sin doctrine is incoherent anyway but eliminating it makes Christianity inconsistent is a way that even its own tortured logic cannot repair. Mainstream Christians who do not take the Genesis story literally have a real problem explaining why Jesus had to die, because the idea that we are born sinful is central to Christian dogma. If you accept that humans evolved, when did the fall from grace occur that created the evil that Jesus had to atone for? If humans are part of the tree of life, then why is original sin only an issue for humans? Most liberal Christians tend to ignore the question, leaving it as an exercise for theologians.

Mohler and others realize, quite correctly, that once you start accepting the theories of science in your worldview, you are on the road to disbelief. They are holding firmly onto Genesis and feel that "if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn't be surprised if their faith unravels", because religion and science are ultimately incompatible.

Sam Katz's dean who tried to isolate him must have also realized that religious views will always lose when confronted with scientific ones. Otherwise why would he fear that one student would corrupt the many others, and not the other way around?

August 11, 2011

Coming soon: John Oliver stars as The Forecloser

The avenger who gives banks a taste of their own medicine.

Such people are scum

One of the most sickening cases of recent times was that of a Pennsylvania judge getting bribes from a builder of juvenile prisons, in exchange for which the judge sent thousands of children, many of them first-time offenders convicted of minor crimes and some as young as 10, to the private jails.

About 4,000 of those convictions have now been tossed aside because he violated the constitutional rights of the accused, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea. The judge was portrayed as not only corrupt but as "vicious and mean-spirited" who "verbally abused and cruelly mocked" the children whom he sent to jail.

His trial has ended with the judge being sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Another judge accused of a similar crime has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

The 'Internet Explorer users are stupid' hoax

Some of you may have read about a study that supposedly showed that people who used Internet Explore had lower IQs than those who use other web browsers. The hoax fooled many major news outlets like the BBC, which picked up and reported on it.

The hoax's perpetrators explain why they did it and their surprise that so many people did not seem to question the results, as if it were fairly common knowledge that IE users were stupid. They listed eight things that should have quickly indicated to people, especially reporters, that the story was fake.

Christopher Budd explores what the widespread and uncritical acceptance of this hoax story might tell us about ourselves and the media.

The emerging dark side of flash mobs

Flash mobs started out innocuously enough. Groups of people would pre-arrange to meet at a particular location and engage in what was essentially a form of street theater, 'spontaneously' breaking into opera arias in department stores or Handel's Messiah in shopping mall food courts at Christmastime, or performing some sketch and the like, with the bystanders initially taken by surprise but enjoying the performance once they caught on. It was fun and meant to entertain and educate and enlighten.

The advent of social media has enabled people to arrange for flash mobs to appear with very little notice and no prior organization and this has led to new forms of flash mob behavior. This has been of considerable value for organizing protest demonstrations in repressive countries, as we saw with the Arab spring. These were not for fun but had a serious social purpose.

But a darker side to flash mobs is now emerging and Cleveland has seen its share of them. Large numbers of young people are being notified at short notice by social media to gather at a location purely for the sake of disrupting the lives of people in that area. Recently we had a case where a street fair in the suburb of Cleveland Heights was suddenly invaded by a large number of young people who are reported to have rampaged through the crowds attending the fair, knocking over people and stalls, stomping over people's property in the surrounding neighborhoods, and seemingly bent on just destroying the enjoyment of the people attending a local community event. As a result, that city has imposed a curfew that prohibits young people being on the streets in the evening unless accompanied by an adult.

Soon after, the Fourth of July fireworks display that is put on in my town also suddenly saw the arrival of about 500 youths who again tried to rampage through the large crowd assembled to see the show, but apparently the police were ready for them and managed to control to situation before it got out of hand.

What complicates the situation is that the young people in these mobs are almost all black and not from the small communities where the disruptions occurred (which are both racially integrated) but from the neighboring large city of Cleveland, so this has raised racial tensions. There are concerns that the curfew policy is racially motivated and will only be enforced against unaccompanied black youth. It seems that the city of Philadelphia has adopted a similar curfew policy to deal with flash mobs there.

In one of the community meetings that followed one of these incidents, a young man tried to explain the actions by saying that young people had nothing to do because the community did not provide adequate outlets for them, and that this kind of behavior was a backlash to that state of affairs. I must say that I have very little sympathy for this point of view. I do not think that it is the obligation of the community to provide amusements for young people and am baffled that they feel entitled to it. When and why and how did this feeling originate? Is it because young people today grow up with their parents taking them hither and yon to organized events so that they have not developed the ability to amuse themselves?

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man (which I am but that is neither here nor there), when we were young the thought that our parents or the community had to provide avenues for our entertainment never occurred to us. When we had free time, we young people would get together and organize our own amusements, which often just consisted of hanging around talking or organizing pickup games on vacant lots or going to see films, and the like. We were pretty much left to ourselves and yet I do not recall being particularly bored.

Frankly I simply cannot understand the mentality of the young people who are taking part in these destructive flash mobs. There seems to be no motive other than to spoil the enjoyment of ordinary people taking part in a community event. What enjoyment does one get disturbing the peace and frightening and even injuring total strangers? After all, the events that were disrupted were free and open to everyone so it is not as if they were being excluded.

Now there are reported cases where flash mobs are being created for the purpose of looting, taking advantage of the fact that they can send out the call to the mob, gather, loot, and disperse before the police can arrive.

In some ways, the phenomenon of flash mobs that form purely for the purpose of disrupting events and attacking people is more disturbing than those which either have theft as their explicit goal or where some people use demonstrations and other forms of social protest as an opportunity to create chaos and then steal, as seems to be what is happening in England right now. These are disturbing but at least they seem to have some rational basis, however slight.

My sense of bafflement as to what is gained by these purely disruptive flash mobs is similar to my reaction to vandalism. What does one gain by simply defacing and destroying things? It does not benefit you in any way. It merely degrades the very community and the environment that the young people themselves live in, making their situations even worse. Destroying things and creating trouble and fear among ordinary people just because you think you can and want to, with no other purpose in mind, bespeaks a seriously antisocial mindset. It reminds me of the disturbing dystopian futuristic Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange (later made by Stanley Kubrick into a film), where the young toughs terrorize people just for the fun of it.

It is a bad sign when young people start destroying their own communities and daring the authorities to come after them for no apparent reason but seemingly just to show that they can.

August 10, 2011

Al Jazeera on income disparity in the US

A nice summary of the current state of affairs.

(Via reader Richard)

When did the American empire start to decline?

Stephen Walt traces the beginning of the end to 1990 and the first Gulf war, which ushered in an era of American hubris about its ability to direct events in the Middle East to its and Israel's liking.

It is noteworthy that he does not ask if the American empire is in a state of decline. He takes that as a given. The question is what has caused it.

It seems pretty obvious to me too that the US is heading for a major crash because of its unsustainable policies, a combination of oligarchical looting at home and disastrous wars overseas. What puzzles me is why more people, especially those in the upper levels of government, don't see this and take the necessary steps to avert the catastrophe.

Maybe Tom Tomorrow's cartoon from 2010 is right.

The logic of science-12: The reasoned consensus judgment of science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The previous post illustrated a crucial difference between science and religion that explains why scientists can resolve disagreements amongst themselves as to which theory should be considered true but religious people cannot agree as to which god is the one true god. In competition between scientific theories, after some time the weight of evidence is such that one side concedes that their theory should be rejected, resulting in a consensus verdict. In religion, since evidence plays no role, and reason and logic are invoked only when they support your own case and discarded by appealing to faith when reason goes against you, there is no basis for arriving at agreement. It would be unthinkable for a scientist to argue in favor of his or her theory by denying evidence and logic and telling people that they must have faith in the theory for it to work.

Science can come to a consensus not because all individual scientists on the losing side change their minds. Some of them can be as dogged as the most fervent believer in god in holding on to their beliefs, and as inventive in finding new reasons for belief, though they will never resort to appealing to supernatural forces or faith. The key difference is that over time, the advocates of a failing theory become less influential, more marginalized, and eventually die out. The next generation of research students chooses their areas of study when they are older and more aware of the field and tend to avoid signing on to failing theories, so that those declining theories eventually fade from the scene, to be found only in historical archives. Unlike in the case of religion, there is no institutional structure dedicated to perpetuating old theories, nor is there a sacred text that must be adhered to. As much as scientists admire the works of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, they do not treat them as divinely inspired. Science has moved on since they were written and their original theories have been modified and elaborated on, even if they still bear their names. Every generation of students is taught the current version of accepted theories, not the original ones.

In the case of religions, however, they are forced to conform to ancient texts. Furthermore, children are not allowed to choose their religious beliefs when they are of more mature age, the way that research scientists choose which theories they want to work with. Religions indoctrinate the next generation of impressionable children with those ancient beliefs when they are very young, thus ensuring that those beliefs persist. Furthermore, there is a vast industry (churches, priests, theologians, etc.) whose very livelihood depends on those ancient religious ideas being perpetuated. Scientists can shift their allegiance from one theory to another without losing their jobs. A theologian or priest cannot. Can you imagine a pope saying that after some thought he has come to the conclusion that there is no god or that Buddhism is the true religion? Hence even though the evidence against the existence of god is far more overwhelming than that against old and rejected scientific theories, theologians will cling on to their old ideas, never conceding that they are wrong, invoking more and more ad hoc hypotheses to justify their beliefs.

This is why science progresses but religions are stuck in a rut, the only progress in the latter being the new excuses that need to be invented to explain why there is no evidence for god, as science makes god increasingly unnecessary as an explanatory concept. In fact, the field of theology largely consists of explaining why there is no evidence for god. Religious believers have the wiggle room to do this because pure logic is never sufficient to eliminate a theory. This is why believers in god who claim that since logical or evidentiary arguments cannot disprove the existence of god, therefore it is reasonable to believe that god exists, are saying something meaningless.

In science too we cannot eliminate the phlogiston theory of combustion or the ether or the geocentric model of the solar system by logic or evidence. So how are scientists able to say with such confidence that some theories (like gravity) are true and that others (like ether or phlogiston) are false? Pierre Duhem (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Pierre Duhem, 1906, translated by Philip P. Wiener, 1954) said that we have to appeal to the collective 'good sense' of the scientific community as a whole to arrive at a judgment of which theory is better. It is the community of professionals working in a given scientific area that is the best judge of how to weigh the evidence and decide whether a theory is right or wrong, true or false, rather than any individual member of that community, since scientists are like any other people and prone to personal failings that can cloud their judgment, unless they exercise great vigilance over themselves.

Next: How 'good sense' emerges in science

August 09, 2011

And now for something completely different

This blog has had as one focus showing why belief in god makes no sense. In the interests of fairness, here is a video clip of twenty intellectuals (academics and theologians) explaining their beliefs. The contortions some of them get into are quite hilarious.

Via Jerry Coyne, who provides some commentary on each person's arguments.

Crazy eyes

I fully expect the Tea Party to go on the war path over this Newsweek cover photo of their icon.


When the same magazine published a cover photo of Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign that I thought was quite nice, I was taken aback at the protests that her wrinkles, pores, and facial hair had not been airbrushed away.

In the case of Michele Bachmann, not only do we see manic eyes, but also wrinkles, and who knows what else that I did not notice but I am sure will be highlighted by those who pay close attention to these things.

Now that's a worthy ring bearer

People will do the weirdest things for reality TV.

A new budget kabuki begins

The actual law that was passed in the wake of the debt ceiling deal is a very detailed and complicated 28-page document. Given that the deal was supposedly agreed upon on Sunday, July 31 and was passed by both chambers and signed into law just two days later, I am amazed at how such a complex legal document could have been prepared in such a short time, even allowing for the massive resources the government has at its disposal. Now that the dust seems to have settled on the debt ceiling deal, let's see what it says and what is likely to happen. As I said, it is quite complicated and I am not certain that I have all the details right.

It calls for immediate spending caps to be shared equally between defense and non-defense spending to reduce the deficit by $1 trillion over a ten-year period. The novel feature is that a new 12-person Joint Select Committee (popularly referred to as a 'Super Committee') has been charged with creating a plan to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.5 trillion over the decade covering fiscal years 2012 through 2021. The new committee will be made up of three Republican senators (appointed by the Senate Minority leader), three Democratic senators (appointed by the Senate Majority leader), three Republican members of the House of Representatives (appointed by the Speaker) and three Democratic House members (appointed by the House minority leader).

These 12 members are expected by November 23 to approve a plan by a simple majority vote. The two chambers of Congress and their committees can then debate this plan but cannot amend it or delay it. All they can do is vote to approve or reject the entire package, which they must do by December 23, just in time for Christmas, because nothing creates an air of holiday cheer more than enacting hardship on poor people. If a plan that cuts at least $1.2 trillion is not signed into law by the deadline, automatic cuts ('sequestration') of whatever amount is needed to reach $1.2 trillion goes into effect. According to the White House, the cuts would be such that "the sequester would be divided equally between defense and non-defense program, and it would exempt Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, programs for low-income families, and civilian and military retirement. Likewise, any cuts to Medicare would be capped and limited to the provider side."

This report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains in some detail what is involved in sequestration. The Center's head Robert Greenstein warns of the serious implications of this deal.

This plan sets up an interesting dynamic, so let's see how this might play out. I will follow my usual practice of predicting that the most cynical option, the one that benefits the oligarchy the most, will end up as the winner.

I think it is highly unlikely that the trigger of automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion will be allowed to go into effect, simply because the defense industry, an integral part of the oligarchy, will not allow cuts in those areas that can really save money, which are the enormously expensive weapons programs that are essentially a government subsidy to the defense industry. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already gone on board against any suggestion of this sort, calling it a 'doomsday mechanism' and he will fight it tooth and nail. When the time comes near, if the many wars that the US is involved in are going well (whatever that means), he will argue that it would be madness to cut military spending when we are so close to winning. If the wars are stalemated or going badly, he will argue that he needs more resources to turn things around. So I predict that the automatic cuts will not occur.

This means that the Super Committee has to come up with a plan that will reduce the deficit. They can do this by a mixture of raising revenues (mostly taxing the rich) or cutting expenses. Since the oligarchy wants their taxes further reduced, you can be sure that the Republicans will oppose any tax increases on the rich so that means that the $1.2 trillion deficit reduction will have to be reached using spending cuts, and this is where the assault on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and other programs to protect the elderly and the poor will occur. All it takes is for one Democratic member out of the six to vote with the Republicans for the plan to get out of committee, and it is not hard to see that happening, with that person saying it was for the sake of 'bipartisanship' and to 'save the country'.

The rest of Congress with then be placed in the position of having to approve the entire plan or rejecting it and seeing the automatic cuts go into effect. Since cutting defense spending would go against the interests of the oligarchy, the Democratic party leadership will say they have no choice but to vote in favor of the plan, even though they dislike it. (In fact, this is why I think that the automatic cuts plan called for half to come from defense. It is there as a poison pill, so that it will never happen.) At the moment Nancy Pelosi says that her party will fight all cuts to entitlement benefits but her promises mean nothing. She and Harry Reid will agree to go along with the plan.

And while the White House says that the president "will insist on shared sacrifice from the most well-off and those with the most indefensible tax breaks", we already know what Obama's promises are worth on this score. After all, Panetta has already said that instead of defense, the cuts should come from Medicare and Social Security. He has made it clear that he is speaking not just on his own behalf but that Obama supports his views.

When it comes time to sign the final bill, Obama will once again do his patented regretful sighing act and say that while he would have liked to see taxes raised on the rich, for the sake of the country he will sign the bill.

So that is my prediction for the script for the latest kabuki drama that will unfold in the next six months. Of course, there are many other scenarios that can play out. I have picked the most cynical because that is usually the most accurate predictor of events.

As always, I would be delighted to be wrong.

August 08, 2011

How geography shapes religion

The short book Why we Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thomson with Clare Aukofer (2011) marshals the evidence that god is a creation of human beings.

In the book, the authors discuss the work of Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, who has "extracted information showing that religious ideas actually can be shaped by geography and ecology. Historically, rain forest dwellers, with nature's abundance all around, tended to be polytheists, believing in spirits based on nature and less likely to assume that gods intervene in their lives. Desert dwellers, living in a monotonous, harsh, and unforgiving environment, were more likely to believe in a single, sometimes harsh, misogynistic, interventionist god." (p. 137)

Just our luck that the unpleasant desert version of god has become dominant.

This work supports the ideas of primatologist Frans de Waal that I discussed earlier.

A Secret Patriot Act?

One of the worst pieces of legislation was the USA PATRIOT Act that was rushed through in the wake of 9/11 and enabled some of the worst abuses of civil liberties.

The original act was bad enough. But now two US senators have charged that "the government has a secret legal interpretation of the Patriot Act so broad that it amounts to an entirely different law — one that gives the feds massive domestic surveillance powers, and keeps the rest of us in the dark about the snooping."

The two senators have called for an investigation but the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by the awful Diane Feinstein of California, has refused to allow this information to be revealed. Feinstein has been one of the most ardent supporters of the national security state apparatus, more concerned about protecting the powers of the government than the rights of people.

Natural experiments and Medicaid

In research, the gold standard is to do a double-blind study in which you compare the effect of some intervention on a test group with that of a perfectly matched control group. But sometimes this is not possible, say if one is doing historical research or the conditions of the research are not amenable to being controlled by the researcher. Ethics considerations limit what one can do with animal and human subjects and if the trial might result in either group being denied a valuable benefit, such studies will be disallowed. For example, it might be valuable to know what the effect of some chemical is on infant development but it would be unthinkable to try out the experiment on test groups of infants if there is the risk of harm.

In cases such as this, researchers look for 'natural' experiments in which the desired experimental conditions occur naturally. Natural experiments are particularly valuable when it comes to medical research where the double-blind randomized trial is the ideal.

Such a natural experiment overcame the problem of determining definitively if Medicaid produced benefits for poor people or not. It would not have been ethical to divide the population randomly into two groups and give Medicaid benefits to one and deliberately deprive the other of them, as would have been necessary to create the appropriate protocols. As a result of this restriction, no definitive studies could be done to prove the benefits of Medicaid and thus opponents of Medicaid were able to argue that Medicaid was of no use and should be eliminated.

But in Oregon, budget woes resulted in a natural experiment occurring. Since the Oregon government had money to cover only 10,000 of the 90,000 eligible Medicaid patients, it created a lottery system in which only the winners obtained benefits, thus effectively creating a database of a large pool of subjects who could be randomized and matched in terms of other variables. Researchers seized upon this opportunity to study the effects of this difference.

Health economists and other researchers said the study was historic and would be cited for years to come, shaping health care debates.

"It's obviously a really important paper," said James Smith, an economist at the RAND Corporation. "It is going to be a classic."

Richard M. Suzman, director of the behavioral and social research program at the National Institute on Aging, a major source of financing for the research, said it was "one of the most important studies that our division has funded since I've been at the N.I.A.," a period of more than a quarter-century.

Researchers who used the resulting data to study the issue found in the first phase that people on Medicaid had better health outcomes than those not on it.

Those with Medicaid were 35 percent more likely to go to a clinic or see a doctor, 15 percent more likely to use prescription drugs and 30 percent more likely to be admitted to a hospital. Researchers were unable to detect a change in emergency room use.

Women with insurance were 60 percent more likely to have mammograms, and those with insurance were 20 percent more likely to have their cholesterol checked. They were 70 percent more likely to have a particular clinic or office for medical care and 55 percent more likely to have a doctor whom they usually saw.

The insured also felt better: the likelihood that they said their health was good or excellent increased by 25 percent, and they were 40 percent less likely to say that their health had worsened in the past year than those without insurance.

They benefitted in non-medical ways too.

The study found that those with insurance were 25 percent less likely to have an unpaid bill sent to a collection agency and were 40 percent less likely to borrow money or fail to pay other bills because they had to pay medical bills.

Thus being on Medicaid made people's lives a lot less stressful.

Those who seek to deny poor people benefits in order to increase the wealth of the rich will try their best to find other reasons to do so. But this research is so definitive that it should end this particular argument.

August 07, 2011

Judge rules Rumsfeld can be sued over torture

Despite the strenuous efforts of the Obama administration to cover up torture by getting the lawsuit dismissed, a federal judge has allowed a torture suit against Donald Rumsfeld to proceed.

This is the second time a judge has allowed such a suit. Rumsfeld appealed the previous one and no doubt this will be appealed too but anything that causes these torture authorizers to sweat over the possibility of going to prison is a good thing.

Happy birthday, World Wide Web!

Yesterday, August 6th was the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, which was built on the foundation of the much older internet. The internet was the name given to the network of linked computers around the globe that was used in the early days primarily by research institutions to transfer data and send email.

The World Wide Web was a radical advance created by Tim Berners-Lee when he standardized the three protocols that now enable users to easily put up information on servers in a manner (using HTML) that other users can use their web browsers to find because of its unique address (the familiar URL), and then transfer that information from the remote servers to their own computers (using HTTP).

The internet and the World Wide Web certainly are the biggest revolutions in my lifetime, the one thing that I simply cannot imagine life without.

It's a miracle!

It looks like Rick Perry was able to rustle up a decent crowd of 20,000-30,000 people for his prayerfest in Texas, though still well below the 71,000 stadium capacity. One other governor, Sam Brownback of Kansas, also showed up. The event "was Perry's idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss., group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians."

No doubt Perry will look for signs from god whether he should run for president. The fact that the crowd beat early expectations could be taken as a sign that god wants him to run. Or the less-than-capacity crowd might be a sign that god wants him to merely stick to praying. Religious people are good at finding signs from god that tell them to do what they had decided to do anyway.

August 06, 2011

Atheist clergy

I have speculated before that a lot of clergy may be closet atheists and that over time more and more will emerge. This article says that, "A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist."

The pastor of a mainstream Protestant church in the Netherlands is one such clergyman. (See the interesting short interview with him in the link. The BBC interviewer sounds incredulous at what he is hearing.) The Rev. Klaas Hendrikse's view on life after death is, "Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get".

He does not view god exists as a supernatural being: "God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."

As for the life of Jesus, he thinks that it is "a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life" and "You don't have to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected".

It seems that some churches are beginning to recognize that many of their clergy simply don't believe. Although Hendrikse has written a book Believing in a Non-Existent God that led traditionalist Christians to call for him to be removed from the church, "a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out." (My italics)

The times they are a changing, alright.

Rick Perry's day of prayer

So today is Texas governor and putative Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's big day of prayer and fasting where he and a motley collection of evangelical religious bigots get together to pray for Jesus to save the nation. One of his key allies in this event is IHOP (no, not that one, this is the International House of Prayer) whose theology is based on the Book of Revelation, the nuttiest book of the Bible which is highly popular with the rapturites.

The signs so far are that the response has been less that overwhelming with only about 8,000 reservations (as of Thursday) for a stadium that can accommodate 71,000. What is worse for Perry, he invited all his fellow governors to attend and it looks like none will, since even the most bigoted politician has enough sense to not want to be associated with what promises to be a hate-fest.

In addition to the evangelicals' open hatred of homosexuality, one of the interesting features is what lurks beneath the surface, a dislike of everyone who is not 'born again'. And that includes Catholics and Jews. For example, the church that Michele Bachmann attended was vehemently anti-Catholic. She formally left it this summer and says that she has not attended for two years though it is not clear what church she has been going to, since she refuses to answer.

August 05, 2011

The oddest things are considered offensive

It is odd how society decides that some things are offensive. For example, raising your index finger is fine. Athletes often point to the heavens after a good play to thank their god for taking time out from his busy schedule to help them out. But the third finger pointing to the heavens is considered such a dire insult that it can result in murderous fury.

We know that certain words are not allowed on broadcast television. But when I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, they bleep out these words too, even though those shows are on cable and I watch them online.

But what surprised me is that when the people on these shows raise the third finger, it is pixelated. Despite the fact that many of the comedic segments on the show involve gestures that have obvious similarities to sexual acts and are not pixelated, 'giving the finger' is seen as so toxic that it gets special treatment.

Sara Palin fan biopic update

I am sure that everyone is curious as to how The Undefeated is doing. On its third weekend, the number of theaters showing the film dropped from 14 to 4, resulting in gross receipts of $5,080, which I estimate works out to about an average 13 people showing up for each screening.

The total gross for the film so far is $112,078 which means that the producers are taking a financial bath but I fully expect them to recoup their investments (and more) when they release the film globally. I hear that Palin is really big in Kazakhstan because they can also see Russia from their houses.

Construction worker karaoke

I love it when regular people do this kind of unexpected stuff, bringing some fun into the daily routine.

Is there anything that makes humans special?

Primatologist Frans de Waal's latest book The Age of Empathy (2009) argues against the idea that we humans have some special quality that separates us from all the other animals. Some people, especially those who are religious, seem to be very reluctant to accept that idea that other animal species share pretty much all the same basic physical and emotional characteristics that we humans have.

There is an interesting passage in the book (p. 206-208) where he says that this wrong idea in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam originated because the part of the world in which those religions originated were those that did not contain our closest non-human relatives.

For the Darwinist, there is nothing more logical than the assumption of emotional continuity. Ultimately, I believe that the reluctance to talk about animal emotions has less to do with science than religion. And not just any, religion, but particularly religions that arose in isolation from animals that look like us. With monkeys and apes around every corner, no rain forest culture has ever produced a religion that places humans outside of nature. Similarly, in the East-surrounded by native primates in India, China, and Japan-religions don't draw a sharp line between humans and other animals. Reincarnation occurs in many shapes and forms: A man may become a fish and a fish may become God. Monkey gods, such as Hanuman, are common. Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul. It's not hard to see how desert nomads might have arrived at this view. Without animals to hold up a mirror to them, the notion that we're alone came naturally to them. They saw themselves as created in God's image and as the only intelligent life on earth. Even today, we're so convinced of this that we search for other such life by training powerful telescopes on distant galaxies.

It's extremely telling how Westerners reacted when they finally did get to see animals capable of challenging these notions. When the first live apes went on display, people couldn't believe their eyes. In 1835, a male chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo, clothed in a sailor's suit. He was followed by a female orangutan, who was put in a dress. Queen Victoria went to see the exhibit, and was appalled. She called the apes "frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human." This was a widespread sentiment, and even nowadays I occasionally meet people who call apes "disgusting." How can they feel like this unless apes are telling them something about themselves that they don't want to hear? When the same apes at the London Zoo were studied by the young Charles Darwin, he shared the queen's conclusion but without her revulsion. Darwin felt that anyone convinced of man's superiority ought to go take a look at these apes.

All of this occurred in the not too distant past, long after Western religion had spread its creed of human exceptionalism to all corners of knowledge. Philosophy inherited the creed when it blended with theology, and the social sciences inherited it when they emerged out of philosophy. After all, psychology was named after Psykhe, the Greek goddess of the soul. These religious roots are reflected in continued resistance to the second message of evolutionary theory. The first is that all plants and animals, including ourselves, are the product of a single process. This is now widely accepted: also outside biology. But the second message is that we are continuous with all other life forms, not only in body but also in mind. This remains hard to swallow. Even those who recognize humans as a product of evolution keep searching for that one divine spark, that one "huge anomaly" that sets us apart. The religious connection has long been pushed to the subconscious, yet science keeps looking for something special that we as a species can be proud of.

When it comes to characteristics that we don't like about ourselves, continuity is rarely an issue. As soon as people kill, abandon, rape, or otherwise mistreat one another we are quick to blame it on our genes. Warfare and aggression are widely recognized as biological traits, and no one thinks twice about pointing at ants or chimps for parallels. It's only with regard to noble characteristics that continuity is an issue, and empathy is a case in point. Toward the end of a long career, many a scientist cannot resist producing a synopsis of what distinguishes us from the brutes. American psychologist David Premack focused on causal reasoning, culture, and the taking of another's perspective, while his colleague Jerome Kagan mentioned language, morality, and yes, empathy. Kagan included consolation behavior, such as a child embracing his mother, who has hurt herself. This is indeed a great example, but of course hardly restricted to our species. My main point, however, is not whether the proposed distinctions are real or imagined, but why all of them need to be in our favor. Aren't humans at least equally special with respect to torture, genocide, deception, exploitation, indoctrination, and environmental destruction? Why does every list of human distinctiveness need to have the flavor of a feel-good note?

This is one of the fundamental reasons that the Abrahamic religions find it so hard to reconcile their beliefs with science. They have locked themselves into a dogma that human beings are special in some discontinuous way from all other animals, when science is increasingly revealing that all species lie on a continuum with no sharp boundaries. These religions simply cannot live with the idea that what makes us human is just that we have different amounts of same things that are possessed by other animal species.

Religious people keep searching for that one spark of divine fire that reassures them that they are unique and that their god really does care for them in a special way. But they keep repeatedly failing in their quest because the 'soul' (for want of a better term) is like the rainbow, an illusion that keeps receding. It is kind of sad that they never seem to be able to come to terms with their true place in the universe.

I myself find it enormously uplifting to think that I am part of all of life, that I can connect myself to every single thing that lives and has ever lived by tracing a path through the great tree of life. What could be more magnificent than that?

August 04, 2011

The debt deal 'compromise'

The Onion gets it right again.

How a smoothly run oligarchy works

One sign of a smoothly functioning oligarchy is when everyone is so in agreement with what needs to be done that they don't even have to discuss things.

David Corn writes about how this manifested itself in the debt ceiling vote. Despite all her public talk about how she disliked the deal, Nancy Pelosi came through for the oligarchy.

The usual debate

The logic of science-11: The problem with falsification

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I discussed Karl Popper's idea of using falsification as a demarcation criterion to distinguish science from non-science. The basic idea is that for a theory to be considered scientific, it has to make risky predictions that have the potential that a negative result would require us to abandon the theory. i.e., declare it to be false. If you cannot specify a test with the potential that a negative result would be fatal to your theory, then according to Popper's criterion, that theory is not scientific.

Of course, I showed that falsification cannot be used to identify true theories by eliminating all false alternatives, because there is no limit to the theories can be invented to explain any set of phenomena. But steadily eliminating more and more false theories surely has to be a good thing in its own right. This is why falsificationism is highly popular among working scientists because it enables them to claim that science progresses by closing down blind alleys.

But there is a deeper problem with the whole methodology of falsificationism and that it is that even if prediction and data disagree, we cannot infer with absolute certainty that the theory is false because of the interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. Pierre Duhem pointed out over a century ago that in science one is never comparing the predictions of a single theory with experimental data, because the theories of science are all inextricably tangled up with one another. As Duhem said (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Pierre Duhem, 1906, translated by Philip P. Wiener, 1954, p. 199, italics in original):

To seek to separate each of the hypotheses of theoretical physics from the other assumptions on which this science rests is to pursue a chimera; for the realization and interpretation of no matter what experiment in physics imply adherence to a whole set of theoretical propositions.

The only experimental check on a physical theory which is not illogical consists in comparing the entire system of the physical theory with the whole group of experimental laws, and in judging whether the latter is represented by the former in a satisfactory manner.

In other words, since every scientific theory is always part of an interconnected web of theories, when something goes wrong and data does not agree with the prediction, one can never pinpoint with certainty exactly which theory is the culprit. Is it the one that is ostensibly being tested or another one that is indirectly connected to the prediction? One cannot say definitively. All one knows is that something has gone wrong somewhere. Duhem provides an illuminating analogy of the difficulty facing a scientist by saying that the work of a scientist is more similar to that of a physician than a watchmaker.

People generally think that each one of the hypotheses employed in physics can be taken in isolation, checked by experiment, and then, when many varied tests have established its validity, given a definitive place in the system of physics. In reality, this is not the case. Physics is not a machine which lets itself be taken apart; we cannot try each piece in isolation and, in order to adjust it, wait until its solidity has been carefully checked. Physical science is a system that must be taken as a whole; it is an organism in which one part cannot be made to function except when the parts that are most remote from it are called into play, some more so than others, but all to some degree. If something goes wrong, if some discomfort is felt in the functioning of the organism, the physicist will have to ferret out through its effect on the entire system which organ needs to be remedied or modified without the possibility of isolating this organ and examining it apart. The watchmaker to whom you give a watch that has stopped separates all the wheelworks and examines them one by one until he finds the part that is defective or broken. The doctor to whom a patient appears cannot dissect him in order to establish his diagnosis; he has to guess the seat and cause of the ailment solely by inspecting disorders affecting the whole body. Now, the physicist concerned with remedying a limping theory resembles the doctor and not the watchmaker. (p. 187)

Duhem is arguing that one can never deduce whether any individual scientific theory is false, even in principle. This seems to be fly in the face of direct human experience. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of scientific history knows that individual scientific theories have routinely been pronounced wrong and been replaced by new ones. How could this happen if we cannot isolate a single theory for comparison with data? How can scientists decide which of two competing theories is better at explaining data if a whole slew of other theories are also involved in the process? Is Duhem saying that we can never arrive at any conclusion about the truth or falsity of any scientific theory?

Not quite. What he goes on to say is that, like a physician, a scientist has to exercise a certain amount of discerning judgment in identifying the source of the problem, all the while being aware that one does not know for certain. Duhem argues that this is where the reasoned judgment of the scientific community as a whole plays a role in determining the outcome, overcoming the limitations imposed by strict logic. While there may be a temporary period in which scientists argue over the merits of competing theories,

In any event this state of indecision does not last forever. The day arrives when good sense comes out so clearly in favor of one of the two sides that the other side gives up the struggle even though pure logic would not forbid its continuation… Since logic does not determine with strict precision the time when an inadequate hypothesis should give way to a more fruitful assumption, and since recognizing this moment belongs to good sense, physicists may hasten this judgment and increase the rapidity of scientific progress by trying consciously to make good sense within themselves more lucid and more vigilant. (Duhem, p. 218, my italics.)

In the next post, I will discuss the importance that the consensus judgment of expert communities plays in science.

August 03, 2011

Short cut to salvation

One of the selling points that evangelical proselytizers use to win converts amongst those who are wracked with guilt for past transgressions is to tell them that if only they would accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, their past sins will be forgiven and that no other religion can promise them such quick absolution. It is a strategy that seems to be somewhat effective (as one might expect) in prisons with some hardened criminals.

The Onion had an article by a mass murderer on how he found this feature of Christianity quite appealing.

It was a stroke of unbelievable luck. Here I thought I'd spend the rest of my life agonizing over that night I broke into a random house and methodically tortured all five of its residents, but Jesus was like, "Nah, you're good." He took all those years I expected to wallow in suffocating guilt for having forced a mother to choose the order in which I strangled her children and wiped them away in a jiff.

Which is ironic because the family I murdered in cold blood was praying to Jesus like crazy the whole time.

If it weren't for the Savior, I'd still be living with a horribly tormented conscience like some chump. I used to think that maybe, just maybe, I could ease some of the unrelenting pain after a lifetime of good works and contrition. But once God's grace washed over me—and that took, what, maybe 15 minutes at most?—I knew I was in the clear.

Bing, bang, boom. Salvation.

I mean, it's too bad I'll never get back those days I squandered on unbearable guilt, but Jesus bailed me out big time, so I'm not going to complain. No sense in living in the past. The man who took five innocent lives in brutal fashion and made himself a glass of chocolate milk afterward might as well be a totally different person. I walk in the Lord now.

Of course, the laws of man will keep me physically behind bars for the rest of my life. But my soul has been set free by the Lord and by the sacrifice of His only son. Despite all my earthly sins, He has redeemed me. He always does.

Had I known that sooner, I would've killed way more people.

It would not surprise me in the least if Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, claims after a few years to have seen the light and found Jesus. He may even become an evangelical preacher, using his own life as an example of how Jesus saves.

Incidentally, via reader Jeff, I received this interesting article by neuroscientist David Eagleman speculating on what might motivate killers like Breivik and how our increasing understanding of how brains work might affect legal proceedings involving such people.

More on the debt ceiling deal

The Daily Show brutally captures Obama's familiar trajectory. He dangles some feature that is popular with his base as an important, even essential, part of a deal that also gives huge benefits to the oligarchs, and then at the last moment gives it up in return for some window dressing. We saw that before with the single payer and public options in the health care reform debate.

Yes, nobody could have seen it coming.

Keith Olbermann also weighs in on the deal, in his usual shrill way, essentially calling on people to revolt. (Thanks to Chris.)

What it takes to be a Christian

The attempt by some Christians to distance their religion from Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, is laughable since he proudly proclaimed his religion in his writings, but it does raise the interesting question of what it takes to be considered a Christian.

For mainstream Christians, if one is baptized, usually as a newborn infant, you are considered a Christian. As far as evangelical Christians are concerned, all you have to do is say that you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, and you are home free, with a direct non-stop ticket to heaven when you die.

What is noticeable is that there is no real intellectual effort needed to become a Christian. During religious services, worshippers proclaim belief in all manner of extraordinary things in the creeds they recite but few pay any attention to the words and would be surprised if the enormity of what they affirm is pointed out to them, let alone be asked to explain why they believe what they say they believe.

But is it that simple to be a Christian? Not everyone thinks so. Via Jason Rosenhouse, I stumbled across a blog by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who seems to be a Roman Catholic because in his profile, he describes himself thusly: "I am a writer and philosopher living in Los Angeles. I teach philosophy at Pasadena City College. My primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. I also write on politics, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective."

In the course of a discussion about the cosmological argument, he posted a comment to his own post (scroll down) where he outlined what would be needed to believe in Christianity. (All italics are in the original.)

For starters, he says:

I would say that as a preliminary to arguing for Christianity, one has to establish first, through independent and purely philosophical arguments: 

1. The existence of God

2. Such attributes as the unity, simplicity, power, intellect, and will of God

3. God's conservation of the world in being and providence

4. The immortality of the soul

5. The possibility of miracles

That's pretty heavy duty stuff. I would have thought that would have been formidable enough to cause any rational Christian to immediately throw in the towel. Note also that you are expected to show all these through independent and purely philosophical arguments. You don't need no stinking evidence, which is probably just as well since there isn’t any for any of those claims.

But wait, there's more! He then says that to be a Christian, you also have to be able to show why all the other religions are false. This is actually an important point that a lot of religious people ignore because all the reasons they give for why other religions are false can be used against their own too. Feser helps them out, starting first with how to eliminate all polytheistic religions, though I am not sure why he includes a nontheistic religion like Buddhism in the mix.

These are just the sorts of topics one finds treated in old-fashioned manuals of natural theology written in the Scholastic tradition. And once one has established this much, religions like Buddhism, Taoism, most forms of Hinduism, etc. are ruled out already. Only some form of monotheism can be true IF any form is true at all.

With those out of the way, he turns to competing major monotheistic religions, though he seems to deal only with Islam, ignoring Judaism altogether. That is typical. Christians in the US tend to tread gingerly around Judaism, believing it to be a false religion but rarely coming out and saying so.

The next step is to show that IF any allegedly revealed religion is true, it has to be backed by miracles in the strict sense -- events that could not in principle happen naturally and that could only have had a divine cause. There is no other way one could have rational grounds for confirming the claim that some message really came from God.

That much pretty much rules out Islam. Muhammad never even claimed any miracle other than the Koran itself. But the Koran is clearly not miraculous in principle even if one believed that it was so extraordinary that Muhammad could not have written it. By contrast, everyone agrees that Christ's resurrection would be impossible by purely natural causes, IF it really occurred.

The next step is to defend the historicity of Christ's resurrection itself. In my view, it is foolish to do this until one has already independently established points 1-5 above. For only in light of 1-5 is the evidence for the resurrection going to have its full power. Apart from 1-5 a skeptic could always say "Who knows what really happened, but we know it couldn't have been a miracle" etc. That won't wash if one has already established 1-5, though.

If one establishes that too, though, and if one grants (what I think there is no reasonable doubt about) that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be divine, then the fact that He was resurrected, that only God could have resurrected Him, and that this happened despite His saying something which would (if false) be blasphemous in the extreme, all would confirm that it was not false. In other words, it would show that there is a divine "seal of approval" on what He said and that what He said is therefore true. But if He is divine, and yet He is a different Person from the Father and Holy Spirit, etc., then we've got the essence of the doctrine of the Trinity. And then from there a Thomistic theologian works out the rest by inferring from what natural theology tells us together with what Christ's revelation tells us. And that takes us beyond natural or philosophical theology and into sacred theology.

That's nothing more than a sketch, but that's the framework that a sound Christian theology would begin by fleshing out. It's the sort of thing Aquinas and other Scholastics do, and the sort of thing that has to be done before the more detailed stuff (law and grace, sin and salvation, Eucharistic theology, etc. etc.) can properly be treated.

So there you go, Christians. None of that wishy-washy "If you accept Jesus as your savior, you are a Christian" short cut. That's for slackers. Get to work meeting all of Feser's requirements before calling yourself a Christian.

August 02, 2011

If the Founding Fathers had been like today's politicians…

From Tom the Dancing Bug.

Matt Damon interviewed about teachers

The interviewers have this weird idea that if people are really insecure about their jobs, they will work better. Damon lets them have it, but nicely. Listen to his very last words.

Matt Stoller also becomes shrill

Matt Taibbi continues to tell it like it is about the latest deal.

The Democrats aren't failing to stand up to Republicans and failing to enact sensible reforms that benefit the middle class because they genuinely believe there's political hay to be made moving to the right. They're doing it because they do not represent any actual voters. I know I've said this before, but they are not a progressive political party, not even secretly, deep inside. They just play one on television.

The Democrats, despite sitting in the White House, the most awesome repository of political power on the planet, didn't fight at all. They made a show of a tussle for a good long time -- as fixed fights go, you don't see many that last into the 11th and 12th rounds, like this one did -- but at the final hour, they let out a whimper and took a dive.

We probably need to start wondering why this keeps happening. Also, this: if the Democrats suck so bad at political combat, then how come they continue to be rewarded with such massive quantities of campaign contributions?

It strains the imagination to think that the country's smartest businessmen keep paying top dollar for such lousy performance. Is it possible that by "surrendering" at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?

Thanks to reader Vincenzo for pointing me to this post by Matt Stoller. Stoller, a Democratic party insider, even uses the term oligarchy, saying, "When you look at Obama’s governing role, he is clearly a servant of American oligarchs."

If enough people start talking like this, Obama and the Democratic party leadership could be in real danger of their supporters seeing through their act as being people who want to do the right thing but being continually thwarted by the mean old Republicans.

In order to try and repair relations with their base, watch for them to throw them some goodies in the form of policies on social issues that the oligarchy does not care about. The recent decision by the Department of Health and Human Services, starting August 1, 2012, to "require health insurance plans to cover all government-approved contraceptives for women, without co-payments or other charges" is one such step. The repeal of the absurd "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military is another. We may even see efforts to repeal of the awful Defense of Marriage Act.

All these are very good things that should have been done long ago. But we should see them for what they are, attempts to buy the allegiance of their base while they continue to be subservient to the oligarchy.

The logic of science-10: Can scientific theories be proven false?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I wrote about the fact that however much data may support a theory, we are not in a position to unequivocally state that we have proven the theory to be true. But what if the prediction disagrees with the data? Surely then we can say something definite, that the theory is false?

The philosopher of science Karl Popper, who was deeply interested in the question of how to distinguish science from non-science, used this idea to develop his notion of falsifiability. He suggested that what makes a theory scientific was that it should make predictions that can be tested, saying that "the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability." (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963, p. 48)

Popper's motivation for doing this was his opposition to the claims of the supporters of Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Jungian psychology that their respective theories were scientific. He said that those theories seemed to be so flexible that almost anything that happened could be claimed to be in support of the theory. While supporters of these theories used these alleged successes as demonstrating the strength of their theories, Popper argued the converse: that a theory that could never be proven wrong was not scientific. A scientific theory was one that made risky predictions that laid bare the possibility that a negative result would require the discarding of the theory. A theory whose predictions could never be contradicted by any conceivable data was not a scientific theory.

Popper also said that humans were born with a innate tendency to make conjectures, to construct a universal theory based on whatever data was at hand, and that we held on to that theory until it was refuted (or falsified) by new data, whereupon we replaced it with a new universal theory. This process of conjectures and refutations went on all the time and was how science functioned. He claimed that this model also solved the problem of induction, why we expected that things that had always happened in the past would continue to happen in the future, when logically there was no reason to infer that.

Although Popper's main goal was to solve what was known as the demarcation problem, i.e., the ability to distinguish science from non-science, his idea of falsifiability seemed to also advance us along the goal of distinguishing truth from falsehood, because if a prediction disagrees with the data, then we can conclude that the theory is false. This feature seems to give us some hope that we can arrive at a true theory by a back door mechanism. If we can enumerate all the possible alternatives to a theory and prove that all but one are false, then the one remaining theory must be true. To quote Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

But that option also proves to be illusory, for a purely practical reason. In science, one can never be sure that one has exhausted all the alternatives. There is no limit to the number of theories that can be postulated to explain any given set of phenomena and so showing one or any number of them to be false does not prove that any of the remaining alternatives are true.

This is the fatal flaw of the arguments of almost all religious believers, especially the creationists and the intelligent designers. Their strategy is to argue that there are only two possible explanations for some phenomenon, an intervention by god or an explanation based on naturalistic science. For example, in explaining the diversity of life, the competing theories are said to be evolution by natural selection or a designer/god. They would then seek some phenomenon that had not been convincingly explained by the scientific theory that encompasses it, declare that the scientific theory had thus been falsified, and triumphantly conclude that the phenomenon must be the work of a god. But that is a false dichotomy. Even in the highly unlikely event that some day in the future the theory of evolution by natural selection experiences a serious enough crisis that scientists suspect it to be false, this would not imply that 'god did it' would be accepted as the true explanation. There will be no shortage of other scientific theories competing to replace the theory of evolution, all of them having at least some supporting evidence.

This kind of flawed argument is what religious believers advance even now, with the current candidates for god's intervention being the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the mind, consciousness, intelligence, morality, etc. They have no choice but to pursue this fundamentally flawed strategy because they have no positive evidence for god.

Next: Are theories falsifiable?

August 01, 2011

Morality without god

Jerry Coyne has a nice opinion piece in USA TODAY on the above topic.

Countering Obama's apologists

In a post titled The myth of Obama's "blunders" and "weakness" Glenn Greenwald tries to put to rest the excuses put forward by Obama apologists that he was forced against his will into this deal. In particular, read his email to one such apologist John Cole laying out the case

Meanwhile economist Jared Bernstein explains what is actually in the proposed deal and what is likely to happen down the road if it passes.

And so it goes

The political theater that is US politics is unfolding in ways that should be drearily familiar by now.

Once again, Obama and the Democratic leadership have 'reluctantly' and with 'great regret' been 'forced' to give up every thing they say they value because those nasty Republicans and their Tea Party caucus threatened to bring the country to ruin. They had to 'compromise' on what they really, really wanted to do (raise taxes on the rich and close tax loopholes) in order to 'save the nation'.


The next phase of the drama is for the Villagers and the Very Serious People to hail this 'bipartisan compromise' deal that averted a supposed catastrophe. Those liberals and other Democratic supporters who are critical of the terms of the deal will either express amazement that their party's leaders are such rotten negotiators (see Robert Reich and Paul Krugman) or urge everyone to rally round the party because the alternatives are so much worse. All the Democratic party needs to do is to raise the specter of Michele Bachmann in order to get their frightened base to fall in line and support whatever sellout plan the party proposes.

Matt Taibbi warns about another huge gift to the oligarchy, the corporate tax holiday (also known as the 'tax repatriation holiday), that is going to be snuck into the deal somewhere along the line. Also watch for the other shoe to drop in this deal as it seems as if the 'bipartisan commission' that is part of the deal has been given triggers that will lead to cuts in the social welfare net in the coming year.

Oddly enough, although the Democratic party's base should be the ones demanding that this deal be scuttled, in reality it is only the Tea Party which has the gumption to defy its party's leadership. Of course, if they do and the deal goes down in flames, the Democratic party leadership will only use the subsequent 'crisis' as an opportunity to be 'forced' give the oligarchy even more goodies.

I am not by nature a cynical person. But when it comes to predicting how politics in the US will play out, I have found that you can’t go far wrong in picking the most cynical view to be the right one.

The danger of manufactured crises

The debt ceiling brinkmanship is a manufactured crisis where none needs to exist. It is becoming clear that for a small but determined group within the Republican party led by the Tea Partiers, the national debt and deficit financing, rather than being simply another option in a nation's fiscal policy, has become an obsession, a dangerous ogre that must be slain now. They are adamant about not raising the debt ceiling, and seem to think that forcing the US to default could be a good thing, because it would create chaotic conditions that could lay the groundwork for their ultimate dream, a balanced budget constitutional amendment.

But what should not be forgotten is that despite the Tea Partiers, it was always clear to me that the debt ceiling would be increased because the oligarchy wanted it and the fact that there was until yesterday still no public agreement between the two parties' leaderships and the White House suggested to me that this so-called crisis was a purely artificial one, manufactured to advance other goals.

Assuming that August 2 is a hard deadline for raising the debt ceiling, that placed some limits on what could be done by then. While raising the debt ceiling by itself would be a simple piece of routine legislation, tying it to complicated plans that involve a lot of major changes in budgetary policy (let alone the absurd idea of a constitutional amendment) would require elaborate legislation that would require quite a bit of time to work out. I simply could not see how it could be done in a few days, although this article discusses how Congress can work very fast if it has to.

What worried me is that crises are useful for the oligarchy because it can use them to rush through changes that, if there were time for the public to digest them, would cause an outcry. I suspected that plans (and the accompanying legislation) had already been prepared and were going to be sprung on us at the last minute as an emergency 'must pass' option to 'prevent a catastrophe', similar to the way that the bailouts of the Wall Street banksters was forced on the country in 2008. The Tea Party caucus that is determined to block any deal that raises the debt ceiling was playing right into the hands of the oligarchy by allowing the leadership of both parties and the White House cover to claim that we were headed for a crisis that required dramatic action.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, seems to share my concerns:

In this respect, the crisis over the debt ceiling is the answer to the prayers of many people in the business community. They desperately want to roll back the size of the country's welfare state, but they know that there is almost no political support for this position. The crisis over the debt ceiling gives them an opportunity to impose cutbacks in the welfare state by getting the leadership of both political parties to sign on to the deal, leaving the opponents of cuts with no plausible political options.

To advance this agenda they will do everything in their power to advance the perception of crisis. This includes having the bond-rating agencies threaten to downgrade U.S. debt if there is not an agreement on major cuts to the welfare state.

This means that the battle over the debt ceiling is an elaborate charade that is threatening the country's most important social welfare programs. There is no real issue of the country's creditworthiness of its ability to finance its debt and deficits any time in the foreseeable future. Rather, this is about the business community in general, and the finance sector in particular, taking advantage of a crisis that they themselves created to scale back the country's social welfare system. They may well succeed.

It looks like Baker is another economist joining Paul Craig Roberts and Jeffrey Sachs in the ranks of the shrill. The always shrill Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi also see right through the Obama and the Democratic leadership's game.

While preparing the first draft of this post yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, I wrote the following: "We need to watch out for a 'grand compromise' that emerges at the last minute in a 'spirit of bipartisanship' that 'must pass' for 'the good of the country' and will be immediately hailed by the Villagers and the Very Serious People as being a 'courageous' move that shows 'statesmanship', because such a deal will undoubtedly further enrich the oligarchy and undermine the social welfare system even more."

I didn't have to wait long. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Harry Reid used almost those exact words in announcing the deal that Obama and the Democratic and Republican leadership have agreed on: "I am relieved to say that leaders from both parties have come together for the sake of our economy to reach a historic, bipartisan compromise that ends this dangerous standoff."

While details have yet to emerge, what seems to have been agreed upon is no new revenue increases (so much for Obama's promise that he wanted a 'balanced' approach that included tax increases on the rich or the closing of loopholes that they benefit from) and immediate cuts in spending that will hurt ordinary people even more, followed by more such cuts in the coming year.

Oligarchic politics is so depressingly predictable because they make up the rules of the game and control the key players. Once you have figured that out, you see right through the fake crises and the phony drama.