On Science

April 23rd, 2017

Today’s words are epistemology and positivism. Today’s march is “For Science”.  Allow me to comment on all these.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Let us ignore the conundrum of studying how we know things if we implicitly accept that knowing things is not immediately obvious (i.e. is this something that’s impossible to study? That would be a different philosophical topic). Positivism is the theory that we can only know things that can be demonstrated scientifically. It is the rejection of metaphysics and many religious tenets. Positivism is an answer to the fundamental question of epistemology.

While there is nuance in positivism, represented by “neopositivism”, “post positivism”, “contemporary positivism”, and many other flavors, I think it’s reasonable to state that today’s marchers for science could generally be described as positivists.  Climate change is undeniable because the data tell us it’s happening. Evolution is real because the fossils, carbon-14 dating, and genetic studies provide compelling evidence of its veracity. Homosexuality and self-identification of gender are based on genetics and chemistry, not on perversity and choice. Abortion is not murder because an undeveloped fetus is, demonstrably, not “human”, at least during the first two trimesters of gestation.

These things should not be subject to religious debate, economic argument or political machinations.  We believe in science.

Given a presumed liberal/conservative divide between those who believe in science and those accused of not believing in science, how do you think today’s marchers would respond to opinions on the following topics?:

  • The safety of pesticides and GMO foods
  • The feasibility of safe nuclear power
  • The deleterious effects of unequal distribution of wealth

I won’t go into each of these in detail, instead, I’ll refer you this excellent study by the Pew Research group and this article by Real Clear Science. The TL;DR version is “both liberals and conservatives ignore science at times”.  On the first two topics above, the Pew survey shows that liberals are generally on the “unsafe” side of the aisle, in spite of the scientific consensus.  I’ll go into the last topic later in this post as this is one that hasn’t received much attention.

“But wait!”, you say, “My source tells me that GMOs are bad and look at how terrible Fukushima was!”. Those who deny climate change or oppose abortion say exactly the same things about their sources and their observations. How can we tell what is True when there are scientists who claim A and others who claim Not A? This is where a refresher course on positivism comes in.

Neither positivism nor, more specifically, the scientific method, asserts that science is easy. The scientific method includes, not only the formulation of hypotheses, the design of experiments, and the interpretation of results – it also includes the publishing of results, duplication by others and the development of consensus.  Science is not an exact process. Many scientists are sloppy; others fail to reproduce their results. Some scientists have been found to have falsified or doctored their data. Sometimes, even after duplication and the achievement of consensus, more experiments and more data come along that completely disprove accepted theory. Consider Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Newton. Each developed an accepted theory of planetary/cosmic motion only to be later proven wrong. The message for today’s marchers should not be “trust science”, it should be “trust the scientific community’s ability to eventually arrive at accepted theories which work pretty well.”

What’s marvelous about science, especially when practiced in an open, competitive environment is that it’s extremely difficult to corrupt. Yes, Monsanto can fund a study that supports their economic interests.  It can’t corrupt all scientists, however. Remember that many scientists are graduate students and assistant professors who are trying to get tenured jobs. They get these jobs by discovering new things.  It is much more valuable to find a conclusion that challenges the status quo than it is to produce yet another study that confirms it. In this fashion, it is similar to the art world. Why aren’t all artists painting water lilies? If science is “rigged”, it is rigged to disagree. This is a good thing.

So, read everything you can about Roundup and GMOs. Ignore everything from “monsanto-stooge.com” and from “organic-agrabusiness.com”. You’ll find a consensus that GMOs (especially, non-transgenic ones) are safe. Read about Fukushima, the worst atomic reactor disaster and you’ll find that the expected deaths due to radiation (over the lifetime of the affected folk) range from zero to “a few hundred” (the most likely number is around 100-200). Do you know that coal-fired power plants are estimated to kill about 100,000/year due to air pollution? Atomic power is the most feasible way to significantly reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Fortunately, the Chinese have taken the lead in the development of smaller, safer, nuclear power plants (as they have, too, with solar power production).

So, when I read things such as “We can state unequivocally, and without fear of contradiction, that no one has ever produced evidence that any specific amount of radiation will be without harm”, I cringe. While arguably “true” in the sense that even one radiated proton can damage a strand of DNA, the implication is that we should live in fear of all radiation. Consider, however, what the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reports: “The highest levels of cesium (10 Bq/m3) attributable to Fukushima that we have measured were found 1,500 miles north of Hawaii.  Swimming every day in the ocean there would still result in a dose 1,000 time smaller than the radiation we receive with a single dental x-ray. Not zero, but still very low.” As per this chart,  eating a single banana exposes you to as much radiation as does living next to an atomic power plant for a year. The same chart shows that taking a single (long) airplane flight exposes you to 120 times as much radiation as living near a nuclear plant.

Ok, so now, let’s consider the distribution of wealth in the US. Our middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50% (again, as per Pew Research). This is a bad thing, no? Well, maybe. Do you know that most of the “shrinkage” has been due to middle-class families joining the upper class? Look at this chart:

The data is somewhat old (2010), but I’ve seen newer data that confirms the observation that, while the lower income class has stayed steady (or, more recently, increased by a couple of percentage points), the diminishing middle class is mostly the result of movement into the upper-income class. Is this a bad thing? Actually, I think it might be, especially since wealth tends to be centered around urban population centers and it’s the rural areas that are suffering most. Regardless, given these dynamics, it’s not surprising that wealth distribution is changing, too.  Incidentally, I think the biggest problem here is the definition of “middle-class”: families making between 67% and 200% of the median income.  Since the median family income is about $52,000/year, the upper-class includes all families making more than $104,000/year. In many urban areas (say, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston), this is just enough to rent an apartment and eat out once a week.

So, what’s the moral of this post? Think critically. Examine your sources. Venture out of your reality bubble. If you believe in science, believe in it whether or not it confirms your gut reactions. Understand that it’s not perfect and endeavor to read and judge opposing views. Trust that truth will eventually emerge.

On People

August 6th, 2016

It is a frequent claim of mine that I can be charming, but only for about two hours at a time. After that, I turn surly because, fundamentally, I hate people.  I’m an INT/J, as they say.  On the Asperger’s scale, I probably rate at least a 5 (on a self-styled scale that goes to 10). I find it exhausting to be around people.

Although there is some truth to this, it’s also one of those things that I say because it’s entertaining; people laugh when they hear it.  There’s a certain incongruity to my claiming to hate people when I so often try to converse with them and make them feel at ease. Nevertheless, they cut me some slack when I leave their parties early. Perhaps they don’t want to learn what I mean by “surly”.

I’ve been using this line for many years but, recently, I’ve begun to wonder whether I mean it at all.

What’s caused some doubt is a recent trip to Iceland.  The destination is not the important thing here but, rather, why I went to Iceland.   After all, I’d been to Iceland before.   My last trip caused me to reconsider my notion of “fear”, but that’s the topic of a completely different blog post (back in January of 2011; something to do with motorcycles and crossing rapid-flowing streams). This time, I went to Iceland for a reunion of traveling buddies.  Way back in 1980, I traveled to Europe with two college friends.  We did the Eurail pass thing and spent a truly magical week sleeping on the beach in Corfu (Pelikas).  Although the immediate magic was mostly the result of some French and Swedish gals that we’d met,  it turns out that the real long-term magic was from the dudes that happened to be there, too:  Thomas, Jesper and Martin (two Danes and a Swede).

The following year, some other friends went to Europe and met up with the same folk. Our little circle of traveling friends became a bigger circle of even better friends.

In the years that followed, the Scandinavians visited the US and Americans visited Europe.  Notably,  too, one of the original travelers, Tom, is one of those special people who is good at staying in touch.  I’m always amazed when I get the occasional postcard from Tom sent during one of his travels or I get a long Christmas letter instead of the pre-printed Costco card. I know, too, that I’m not the only one who gets these. Tom is a connector.  He is the glue that binds us together and probably the most frequent traveler between the two continents.  I’m pretty sure that never claims to hate people.

In 2006, the Scandinavians and Americans all decided to meet in Narbonne, France.  Almost all of the 1980 and 1981 travelers brought their families to France (I even brought a couple of spares) and the reunion of 32 people was a blast. So much so that we decided to do it again this year – in Iceland!

So here’s the thing – I really enjoyed being around (my) people in Iceland. Yes, we bopped around the island, checking out the waterfalls, hot springs and wild geography but what I most enjoyed was the people. This time, we had 27 people including the first grandchild (Jesper’s). Whether it was slamming Brennivin, quaffing beers at the “free beer” place or trying puffin (it does not taste like chicken), it was fun to be around each other. I was truly sad when I had to leave them.

I should interject another one of my adages here, travelers like travelers.  It is a premise of mine that there are travelers and non-travelers.  Travelers like to visit new, uncomfortable places and to eat strange food. They don’t mind dealing with language difficulties and crummy showers (fortunately, most countries have figured out toilet paper by now). They enjoy meeting and getting to know people from other places (even if only in 2-hour doses). Non-travelers, well, they don’t like these things.  They stay close to home or travel only to “safe” places where people speak the same languages. They complain when there’s no shower curtain or they stay only in 5-star hotels where everyone speaks English.

There’s nothing special about being a traveler and nothing shameful about not being one but, as a rule, travelers think that non-travelers are nuts. When a traveler meets a traveler, however, there’s an innate kinship there.  By definition, they want to know more about each other, compare toilet stories and drink the local brew. So, this partly explains why I like being around my Scandinavian/American travel buds – they’re all travelers. But there’s more to it than that.

I have (yet) another adage: we are not the same people we used to be. I’m not the first to say this, I’m sure, but I accompany the saying with a thought experiment. If you traveled back in time and talked to yourself over the phone, avoiding any “fact-checking” (“what’s your mother’s name?”), would you recognize yourself? I’m not sure I would.

So what happens when we reconnect with old friends? We recall shared memories and shared emotions. Thus, even if we are different people, we remember who we used to be. The old friends who liked us before (hopefully) see the same traits in our new selves. We see their old traits in their new selves and these memories and emotions serve to bridge our then-selves with our now-selves.  Getting together with old friends is a special form of time travel; it happens neither in the present nor in the past. Reunions occur in a weird then/now time bubble that is tremendously special and rewarding.

Very soon, this October, to be exact, I’m going to Miami to celebrate a high-school reunion. The classes of 1976 and 1977 are having a joint celebration so it’s my 39th reunion. I am wondering whether this event will be as rewarding as Iceland or whether it will be different.  Already, I am hearing from old friends who’ve been long missing from my life. Already I’m experiencing then/now time although it’s too early to tell whether I’ll end up renouncing my avowed hatred of people or whether I’ll write off the Iceland experience as an outlier and go back to my curmudgeonly ways. Stay tuned.


The Seduction of the Other

November 14th, 2015

Quick. Picture:

  • A welfare recipient
  • An immigrant
  • A drug addict
  • A socialist

I bet most of you thought of:

  • A black woman, likely with too many kids
  • An illegal Mexican immigrant (possibly, a rapist if you’re Donald Trump)
  • A black guy shooting up heroin or smoking crack
  • Bernie Sanders

Here’s what you might have pictured instead:

  • A young family living in an Army base
  • An Asian engineer
  • A white man or woman addicted to painkillers
  • Margaret Thatcher

Welfare recipients are about equally likely to be Caucasian or African-Americans.  Many food stamp recipients are poor families living on military bases, working hard, but needing supplemental help. Last year, there were almost one million legal immigrants with Asians being the most common represented race.  There were less than 400,000 illegal aliens (yes, mostly Mexican). Substance abuse is more common among whites than blacks (and much more common among Pacific Islanders and Native Americans). As to Bernie Sanders, his policies, at least as far as health care are concerned, are not that much different from those espoused by leaders of our European allies.

My topic for this post is not welfare, immigration or drug use. It’s not about Bernie Sanders either. It’s about our innate distrust of the Other and how it is our nature to demonize groups. It is also about how politicians exploit this distrust and get us to hate The Other. It is a plea for us to understand these phenomena and to recognize when we are falling into natural traps. It is about avoiding the seductiveness of hating our neighbors.

Humans are social animals.  We like to live in groups. We trace the development of our civilization by digging up evidence of early human tribes. The discovery of ancient villages, burial grounds and structures provide a timeline illustrating our progression from nomadic tribes to farming communities and fortified villages. The timeline shows how early villages evolved into cities and city-states.  Our Medieval history is one of independent principalities being incorporated into nations and, later, into leagues of nations. There is safety and prosperity in large numbers. Today, a city that is growing is prosperous; one that is shrinking is in decay. This timeline of amalgamation, however, is also accompanied by another timeline noting the battles and wars that were involved in achieving our current political boundaries. While humans are social animals, sometimes it requires a sharp stick to get them to socialize, especially when it involves the tribe on the other side of the hill.

There is no paradox here.  A group is defined as much by who is not in it as by who is.  There is no cool-kids table without kids who are not cool. There is safety in a tribe because your tribe members can come to your aid when you are attacked by people from the other side of the hill. There is “us” and there is the “other.”

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, co-starring Frank Gorshin (who was one of my favorite impressionists, but that’s beside the point). In this episode, Kirk and Company visit a war-torn planet where only two inhabitants remain.  The two are mortal enemies who will stop at nothing to kill the other.  The two seem almost identical with distinct racial features that manifest themselves in a two-colored face, black on one side and white on the other.  Upon closer examination of the two enemies, however, we realize that one of the two is white on the left and the other is white on the right.  Thus, the war. A bit heavy-handed, but you get the point.

As our civilization has progressed and our tribes grown, the distinctions between ourselves and the Other have become more nuanced. It is no longer about the tribe over the hill. It might be about religion (Shiite v. Sunni), political philosophy (North Korea v. South Korea) or mineral rights (South China Sea).  It might also be about the role of government (Democrat v. Republican), sports (Real Madrid v. FCB) or cultural integrity (Nicki Minaj v. Miley Cyrus). I posit that the silliness of divisions is directly proportional to the prosperity of a tribe. When things are going well, all you’ve got left to argue about is which side of the face should be white and which should be black.

It is our nature to find divisions and to collect with similar tribe members.  I’m sure we will find a gene that determines our affinity for this practice and that neuroimaging will identify the part of the brain in which it manifests. Accept it; it’s part of human nature.

As with everything else that is natural (hunger, sex, fear, etc.), people will seek to exploit this nature.  If you haven’t read “Bowling for Columbine”, do so. Right now. Its treatise on our climate of fear tells you most everything I’m trying to communicate in this post. There are people profiting by your fear.

One of the most effective ways to get you to fear is to demonize the Other. We need to stop illegal immigration because immigrants are rapists and drug dealers.  Al Qaeda is trying to sneak Ebola-infected patients in with immigrants.  Immigrants will rape your daughters and then take your jobs. Really. There are really people who profit from getting you to believe these things.

The first step that any alcoholic has to take to address the disease is to admit to being an alcoholic. We need to admit our fear of the Other. It’s a natural fear. Once we admit it, however, we can recognize it.  We can hold it in our (figurative) hands and turn it over.  We can analyze it more closely and tell whether it’s a real fear or a manufactured one.

Welfare recipients, by and large, are poor people who honestly need help and are trying the best they can to do better. Immigrants are people who have the courage and ambition to travel to a strange country to better their lives. Gay marriage will not destroy heterosexual unions.  Universal healthcare will not turn us into the Soviet Union.  Real Madrid fans are people, too (even if their team is just a European version of the Yankees).  White/black v. black/white? Get over it.  If you must fear or hate someone, direct your feelings at those trying to manipulate you.  They are much more dangerous than your neighbor.

PS: I wrote this minutes before learning of the terrorist incidents in Paris. I considered whether the post might be poorly timed in the face of such heinous attacks. I considered whether to pull the post, but decided not to.  My post does not suggest that there is never any reason to fear others; clearly, there is.  My point is that we should be wary of attempts to manipulate us into irrational fears.  I suspect that, over the course of the next few days and weeks, that we will see many such attempts as people seek to profit from the tragedy in France.