Friday, April 28, 2006

George Bush is no Christian

I was going to write a post entitled "The Gospel According to Dubya." It was going to go something like this:

"Blessed are the warmakers, for they shall ensure the security of the people. Thou shalt kill and torture and bear false witness as long as you do it in the name of national security. And if a man smite thee on on one cheek, well, you should have launched a pre-emptive strike to disarm him."

But as I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount I was really struck by something. What few supporters Dubya has left among generally say they stick with him because they think he's a good Christian and his actions are guided by God. Well, maybe he's guided by some god, but he certainly isn't guided by Jesus. Here are a few quotes from Matthew:

"But I say unto you that ye resist no evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you." (I wonder if Dubya has ever said a prayer for Osama bin Laden.)

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men... But thou when thou prayest, enter into thy closet.. [and] pray to thy Father... in secret."

"Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink." (Oh, but Jesus didn't say anything about what ye shall put in your fuel tank!)

"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Dubya's version: "This is an impressive crowd - the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base.")

"Blessed are the peacemakers..." (Maybe Dubya thinks that Jesus was referring to the LGM-118 missile.)

If Dubya is guided by God, it must be the god of the Old Testament (e.g. "And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee thou shalt smite them and utterly destroy them. Thou shalt make no convenant with them, nor show mercy unto them." (Deut. 7:2)

Still, one has to wonder...

"And if thy say in thine heart, how shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously..." (Deut. 18:21-22)

WMD's are a slam-dunk. We will be greeted as liberators. Mission accomplished. The war will last weeks, not months.

Are these the words that the Lord hath spoken?

The FDA squanders its credibility

Since the FDA, in a patently absurd and obviously politically motivated move, declared that marijuana has no medical benefits, the news is chock full of stories reviewing all the scientific studies (to say nothing of the anecdotal evidence) that show unequivocally that it does. I'll just note this one since it's very well written and comes from The Economist, which is hardly a bastion of left-wing propaganda.

You know, if one's goal were to get the truth about marijuana's benefits out there for people to see, one could hardly imagine a more effective strategy than to get the FDA to make such a manifestly false claim. Someone in the administration is either very stupid or very clever.

My money is on stupid.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The right way for religion to critique science (and vice versa)

Science and religion waste of a lot of energy talking past each other by arguing about the wrong things, like whether or not God exists. Relgionists go to extreme, sometimes comical lengths to "scientifically" prove the existence of God. Scientists also go to equally extreme and ultimately equally futile lengths to prove his non-existence. It is at once amazing and sad to see all these smart people wasting so much effort on such manifestly useless endeavors.

What is most amazing about it is that it is transparently obvious even by their own standards that both sides are wrong. How can that be? It seems a logical tautology that either God exists or He does not. But it isn't so. P or not P is tautologically true only if the truth value of P is well defined. "Either God exists or He does not" is no more of a tautology than "Either Les Demoiselles D'Avignonis a beautiful painting or it is not."

The futility of the debate ultimately stems from the fact that the two sides are actually arguing about something different than what they think they are arguing about. They think they are arguing about the existence of God, but in fact they are arguing about His nature. What the religionists really are setting out to prove is not that the Universe was Designed, but that the Designer is still around, and He has a plan, and you have a place in it. What (most) scientists/humanists/atheists really want to say is not that the universe is devoid of transcendant meaning, but that we need to seek it in places other than holy scripture.

Even on a question as basic as whether or not we were created in God's image the two sides could find common ground if only they would be honest with themselves about what they really believe. The Bible teaches that we are created in God's image, but what does that mean? It can't mean that we are exact duplicates of God, if for no other reason than that there are six billion of us and only one of Him (to say nothing of the fact that He is almighty and omniscient and we clearly aren't and never were). The only reasonable interpretation is that there is something in our essential nature that mirrors the essential nature of the Creator. But for a scientist, the Creator is simply the Laws of Physics (LP). Framed that way, it becomes self evident that we are created in the image of the Creator/LP. We can even agree on what certain aspects of that essential nature is. For example, we have the capacity to do Good. The story that would be told to explain this is different on both sides, but the fact itself is beyond dispute, as is the fact that it arose from and is a reflection of whatever created us.

This is not to say that we would achieve perfect harmony; we would not. There are legitimate disagreements between science and religion, and productive debates to be had, but we're not having them because neither side is capable of seeing beyond its own prejudices.

One of the most counterproductive prejudices that is shared by both sides is that science is not a religion, that it is the antithesis of religion. That is hogwash. Science is not necessarily a religion, but it certainly can be (and I think it should be). It is clearly Richard Dawkins's religion (and the fact that he would take great umbrage at that suggestion is evidence that it is in fact true). And if Dawkins won't have it, then I'll claim it as my own. I am a scientist. That is my religion. I believe that the Laws of Physics, once they are properly understood, provide an adequate guide to how to live a good, moral, and even transcendant life. But coming to that understanding has not been easy, either for me personally or for mankind as a whole, and I can certainly understand how someone could believe otherwise.

I think a proper understanding of science as a religion would help the debate become more productive all around. We would not achieve perfect agreement, of course, because no two religions can ever be perfectly reconciled. (That's one of the things that makes them religions.) But I do think that reframing the debate as one between two religions rather than between relgion and non-religion would go a long way towards breaking some of the present logjams.

Consider for example the question of the reliability of the Biible on how we should live our lives. The extreme positions are "It is absolutely reliable" (the fundamentalist Christian position) and "it is absolutely unreliable" (the fundamentalist scientist position). Both are, of course, wrong. (Ron's First Law: All extreme positions are wrong.) Even the most extreme fundamentalist would concede that, if nothing else, the meaning of certain passages in the Bible is far from self-evident, and the debate within the religious community about how to address that problem has been raging for thousands of years. And even the most extreme scientist would concede that some parts of the Bible, like "Love thy neighbor as thyself", are probably not bad ideas. And we can go even further: the scientific viewpoint on morality is that it evolved as an evolutionarily stable strategy, so it would make sense that at some point as the human brain evolved that certain aspects of that strategy should be codified in writing. So the Bible can be viewed as a sort of an early draft of a theory of evolutionarily stable (which is to say moral) behavior, just as Beowulf can be viewed as an early draft of a theory of drama.

So how should religion critique science? Well, how about something like this:

There is no dispute that science serves as a reliable guide to a great many things, like how to build cars and computers, and how to make medicine. But science has its limits. Our scientific understanding of the human mind is rudimentary at best, and progress is slow. Those who pursue this work are driven by a faith that the extreme challenges presented by this undertaking will some day be overcome. That faith is laudable, but it is, in fact, faith.

In the meantime, the world is filled will six billion humans who have to figure out what to make of their lives here and now. Many of these people do not have the luxury of being able to invest the very high time and effort that it takes to reach a scientific understanding of one's place in the Universe. Most people's time is consumed with the day-to-day business of survival, of getting crops planted and harvested, of finding clean water, of caring for the livestock (if they are lucky enough to have livestock), of struggling with the passion and pain, the joys and sorrows and the pain that are part and parcel of being human. Some day, perhaps, science will understand all this well enough that we can cure every disease, ease every heartache, and provide everyone with a sense of purpose and transcendant meaning based on science. In the meantime, if someone is in pain, what purpose is served by depriving them of the comfort they might obtain by believing that God loves them and has a Plan?

And how should science critique religion? Well, how about this.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I couldn't have said it better myself

If I am ever able to write even one tenth as well as Douglas Adams I will be a very happy man. Here is a transcript of a speech he gave which starts out shredding religion and then goes on to say why it is indispensable. It's much the same point I've been trying to make, but he does it much better than I could ever hope to. It's very long but well worth the time.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A sober view of global warming

Tom Evslin offers up a sober view of global warming, and a conclusion with which I agree:

What we can't afford to do is make policy based on hysterical observations that the glaciers are continuing their fifteen-thousand year retreat OR a complacent assumption that things will stay the way humans have always seen them.

Here again we would be well served with a little more humility on all sides.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why vs How - a false conflict

The Atheist Spy sent me an email asking me to comment on his blog, and this post in particular. My knee-jerk reaction was that he is taking an awfully long time to say a fairly simple thing, but I think his point (once you get to it) is basically valid: people become religious or not depending on whether they care more about "why" than "how", or vice-versa. And there's no way to justify a concern for one over the other from first principles. Every world view, even atheism (even solipsism or nihlism), requires a leap of faith. (I actually made this point in my very first post here.)

But all that got me to thinking: why (it's a loaded word now!) must these two questions put people at loggerheads? Why can't we care about both? How (!) can we reconcile the conflict that seems to arise between the Whyers and the Howers?

The answer, I think, is very simple. The problem is that the methods that are effective for answering "how?" are not very effective for answering "why?". So if you care about one or the other then you naturally conclude that the methods that are effective for answering the question that you care about are "good" (because they produce the answers that you care about).

Can these positions be reconciled? Of course they can. All it takes is to recognize that there are two questions being asked, that people can be legitimately concerned (or not) with both of them, and that the effective methods for answering them are different.

Of course, this requires a bit of humility and a willingness to admit that what is important to you might legitimately be different from what is important to someone else, and perhaps even a willingness to admit that you might be wrong about some things. Such humility is in short supply at both extremes of the debate. Both religious fundamentalists, who insist that X must be true because it is what they think their holy text says (they are very rarely actually correct about this -- more on that later), and science fundamentalists (like Dawkins), who insist on pretending that anything that does not succumb to reductionism is nothing more than a human foible, will never be convinced. For the rest of us, middle ground is not hard to find.

The problems with fundamentalist religion have been extensively cataloged. Fundamentalists have attempted to make similar catalogs of the failings of "fundamentalists science" (e.g. creationist/ID critiques of Evolution) but these fail because they attempt to critique science using logic, and that can never work because science by definition *is* logic. It is rather like trying to critique faith by saying, "Jesus can't be the Son of God because I don't believe it." It doesn't work.

An effective religious critique of science must be based on the methods of religion, not science. The problem with science is not that it has trouble explaining how we got here, it's that it is utterly uncapable of explaining why we got here. The scientific answer to this is to simply dismiss the question as unimportant, but that's cheating. It's just as much of a cheat as saying, "It's true becuase the Bible says so." If I want to ask "why?" it is not for you to say whether my concern is worthy of consideration. The mere fact that I am a human and I choose to ask makes it worthy of my fellow human's concern. (Likewise for those who choose to ask "how".)

It is a happy circumstance that those who choose to ask "how" have stumbled recently (like in the last few hundred years) upon a method on which they (we) could all mostly agree and which seems to be effective. Those who choose to ask "why" have not yet been so fortunate. But that in and of itself is not license to dismiss the question. It was not that long ago in the grand and glorious scheme of things that the how-askers were trying to convert lead into gold. The arrogance of fundamentalist science is no more well founded than the arrogance of fundamentalist religion. Just because we scientists have found some common ground does not give us license to dismiss as unimportant the concerns of our fellow humans who have not been so fortunate.

I think we would all be well served with a little more humility and compassion all around.


A picture is worth a thousand words.

If abortion is murder redux

Ohio is poised to make it a felony to leave the state to have an abortion.

It makes perfect sense. If the fetus is a person then abortion is murder, no different from infanticide, no different from shooting someone in the head. Abortion is cold-blooded, premeditated murder. Driving someone out of state for an abortion is no different from kidnapping a baby to be executed. Of course it should be a felony.

If abortion is murder. If the fetus is a person.

And what about all those frozen embryos? If life begins at conception then embryos are people too, and so letting an embryo thaw out without being implanted in a woman's uterus is murder. Cold-blooded premeditated murder. Why should not a woman who undergoes in-vitro fertilization not be required by law to carry all of the resulting babies to term? If life begins at conception, isn't the embryo a person? Isn't refusal to implant an embryo tantamount to abortion, tantamount to murder?

Am I the only one feeling a little queasy here?

The answer is that embryos are not people. Fetuses are not people. It takes more than a full complement of human DNA to make a person, more than a beating heart. It takes a functioning brain. That is why we recognize the concept of "brain death" (most of us anyway).

Life may begin at conception, but personhood doesn't start until much later. If we do not recognize that, we are headed towards a very unpleasant future.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The fear-mongering begins

Here is the first of what will no doubt be a long series of lies designed to bolster the case for going to war with Iran:

"April 12 (Bloomberg) -- Iran, which is defying United Nations Security Council demands to cease its nuclear program, may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days if it goes ahead with plans to install thousands of centrifuges at its Natanz plant, a U.S. State Department official said."

That claim is absurd on its face. Iran probably couldn't build a car in sixteen days, let alone a nuclear bomb. Iran's current capacity for enriching uranium is tiny. It will take them months if not years to produce even the raw materials for a nuclear bomb, let alone the bomb itself.

Now, one must wonder: since it has become clear that the invasion of Iraq was based on, at best, willful ignorance, why he is once again resorting to transparent falsehoods to bolster the case for yet another invasion? My theory is this: George Bush is a man of deep convictions. He believes in Right and Wrong, and he would never let a little thing like facts stand in the way of smiting the evil doers. Nor would he let a little thing like democracy stand in the way either.

My guess is that Dubya has his doubts that God will arrange to keep control of the House in Republican hands after November. That means he has to get the war with Iran started in the next six months while he still has a Congress full of lap dogs. After the election he can use the "now that we're there we have to stay" argument to bring the Democrats to heel.

A crazy theory? God, I hope so. But we would all do well to keep a very close eye on Adminstration rhetoric in the next few weeks. The possibility that George Bush actually wants to start World War 3 (perhaps to hasten the return of Jesus) is not entirely out of the question.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Global warming is a myth -- NOT!

Professor Bob Carter claims There IS a problem with global warming... it stopped in 1998:

For many years now, human-caused climate change has been viewed as a large and urgent problem. In truth, however, the biggest part of the problem is neither environmental nor scientific, but a self-created political fiasco. Consider the simple fact, drawn from the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, that for the years 1998-2005 global average temperature did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though not at a rate that differs significantly from zero).

Is he right? Well, take a look at the chart and see for yourself.

Global Air Temperature graph

His raw claim is (more or less) true. The average temperature for the years 1998-2005 were more or less contant. Is this a reason to believe that global warming has stopped? Absolutely not. To see why, ignore the black line and look just at the raw data (the blue and red bars). As you can see, there is a lot of random noise on top of the signal. Some years the temperature goes up and in other years it goes down. (On two occasions in the last 20 years global temperatures went down two years in a row!) But the general trend is pretty clearly up. Can we actually quantify this so that it's not just a gestalt assessment? Yes, we can.

The tool that science uses to pull a signal out of noisy data like global temperatures is called statistics. The math can get pretty hairy, but the fundamental idea is very simple. The method works like this:

1. Pick some assumptions. (These are called the null hypothesis conditions.)
2. Figure out the probability distribution of some property of the data if those assumptions are true.
3. Compute the probability of the data that you actually observed. If the probability is low then there are only two possibilities: either a very unlikely event happened, or your assumptions are false.

Let's see how we can apply this to the global temperature data.

1. Let us assume that the earth is not warming up.
2. If that is true, then the probability distribution of temperatures should be a normal distribution around the average. In particular, we should see more or less the same number of above average temperatures as below-average temperatures. (We should also see more or less the same number of increases and decreases. There are many different properties of the data we could choose.)
3. When we look at the data we see that over the last 25 years the data are not evenly distributed between above and below average. In fact, every one of the last 25 years has been above average. The probability that this would happen merely by chance (on the assumption that there is no global warming) is 1 in 2 to the 25th power, or about one in 33 million.

So there are only two possibilities: either our assumption is wrong, or we've just happened to hit upon an extremely unlikely set of events.

In fact, the evidence is even more compelling than that. If you take as your baseline temperature the average before 1900, then every year since 1940 has been above average. The odds of that happening in the absence of real underlying global warming is about one in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (more or less).

You can do a similar analysis using an assumption that there is global warming and figuring out the probability of hitting an eight-year long spell of more or less constant temperatures. The probability depends on exactly what your assumptions are (mainly the rate of the underlying warming and the magnitude of the noise) and I don't have time to actually do the math at the moment, but it almost certainly will turn out to be a fairly common event. There are actually several multi-year periods in the recent past with no apparent temperature change (e.g. 1975-85, 1988-92).

So Carter's basic observation is correct, but his conclusion is absolutely wrong. In fact, it is so wrong that I wonder how he ever managed to get his Ph.D., let alone a faculty position. His mistake is so fundamental that it is hard to put it in any kind of favorable light. Carter is either disingenuous, or he is ignorant of basic scientific principles. I can't think of any other possibility.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

You've got to fight for your right to be a bigot

The LA Times reports:

Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant.

Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she's a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation.

Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she's demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.

With her lawsuit, the 22-year-old student joins a growing campaign to force public schools, state colleges and private workplaces to eliminate policies protecting gays and lesbians from harassment. The religious right aims to overturn a broad range of common tolerance programs: diversity training that promotes acceptance of gays and lesbians, speech codes that ban harsh words against homosexuality, anti-discrimination policies that require college clubs to open their membership to all.

The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. "Christians," he said, "are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian."
"What if a person felt their religious view was that African Americans shouldn't mingle with Caucasians, or that women shouldn't work?" asked Jon Davidson, legal director of the gay-rights group Lambda Legal.

Christian activist Gregory S. Baylor responds to such criticism angrily. He says he supports policies that protect people from discrimination based on race and gender. But he draws a distinction that infuriates gay-rights activists when he argues that sexual orientation is different — a lifestyle choice, not an inborn trait.

I guess Ruth Malhotra hasn't read Timothy 2:11-12. Or if she has, she seems to be pretty choosy about which bits of her Christian faith are worth fighting for.