So long Mr. Woods

Not too long ago I was welcoming Tiger back from knee surgery and rehab on this blog. Now that he’s gone again as a result of his own actions I feel compelled to comment even though the situation doesn’t concern me at all. As a golfer, and a Tiger fan, I’m disappointed that he’ll be out of competition for some period of time in order to get his affairs straight (pun intended, sorry). I’m not, however, disappointed in his behavior. Not because I don’t think what he did was wrong, but because that’s taking something personally that doesn’t effect me personally. Elin and the rest of their family have the right to be disappointed in him, but the rest of us don’t. I’m disappointed that he may not get any closer to Jack’s record 17 major tournament victories this year, or ever. I’d really like to be able to tell my children about the sheer dominance of Tiger and how none of the golfers of their era could hold a candle to him. All I’m losing if he doesn’t beat Jack’s record is the ability to needle my progeny about the inadequacy of golfers their own age on some far future date. Hmmm, doesn’t sound so important when I put it that way, huh?

As a husband and father myself I think that what he did was a violation of his own personal promises to his family. I know it’s hard when your wife is preoccupied with the young children and you can’t get the grown-up time you need, but it’s a question of honoring your obligations. I know Tiger was brought up to keep his promises and to care about those around him. His history up to this point is full of examples of this. I’m sure it created quite a bit of cognitive dissonance to break his word but the drive to cheat must have been very strong, or the opportunities exceedingly plentiful, for whatever reason. I find it hard to condemn him for this particular fault though because I don’t know if I’d have been able to keep my word in a similar situation with similar opportunities. It’s impossible to say, besides it’s not good to get in the habit of condemning people. I hope he’s able to salvage at least a relationship with his children out of this debacle because that’s what’s really important in his situation. No doubt the healing process will be long for their family and I wish them luck. In any case, it’s their private business, and none of ours.

As for coming back to golf… I hope he comes back sooner rather than later, say before the Masters, but that’s just because I may one day have some grandchildren to razz.

Calamity strengthens faith

One of the strangest phenomena of human behavior that I know of is the way in which experiencing a catastrophe causes people to become more superstitious. CNN is currently running an article regarding how the recent earthquake has caused many Haitians to become more religious that caused me to ponder on it.

“A lot of people who never prayed or believed – now they believe.”
“People don’t blame Jesus for all these things. They have faith. They believe that Jesus saved them and are thankful for that.”
Christina Bailey, a 24 year-old clerk.

“Thank you, God, because he saved my life. If I lose my feet, I always had my life.”
11 year-old Anaika Saint Louis, who later died from injuries to her legs

I find these quotes intriguing because of what it indicates about the way the catastrophe is interpreted as regards to faith. From an unbiased viewpoint an observer could just as easily (if not more easily) conclude that the devastating earthquake was evidence for the absence of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent supernatural being. But these people who have just experienced this horrible calamity instead interpret their continued existence as evidence that Yahweh saved them. I believe this is purely due to myopia and confirmation bias. I say myopia because certainly the people who were killed by the earthquake could not claim to have been saved by Jesus, and it is the inability of the survivors to see the situation from the perspective of the deceased that allows them to see their own survival as a positive act of a benevolent deity. The confirmation bias part comes in with the identification of the deity responsible for their salvation. Clearly Vishnu or Chtulu wouldn’t be responsible for saving Christian/Voodoo hybrids. On second thought, it’s myopia that enables this confirmation bias anyway because it is the inability to view one’s own religion from the perspective of an adherent of any other religion that allows believers to be certain about their own beliefs at all.

The article does make a good point towards the bottom regarding the correlation between poverty/hopelessness and faith. This is clearly a strong aspect of faith in such an impoverished place as Haiti. There is no easy answer to the hypothetical question posed at the end of the story, “They leave everything in the hands of God. When you have so little, what else can you turn to?” Aside from turning to your fellow humans for support and empathy, you have to do it all yourself. This is just the nature of the human condition. Turning to imaginary super-friends never actually solved anything, but it may make a believer feel a little better about a situation and allow them to carry on when they might otherwise crack. It’s like an elaborate form of denial. Of course, while I’d like to see the diminution of blind religious faith world-wide, right now the Haitians need to use whatever techniques enable them to get through the day with a scrap of sanity intact, even if it includes praying to their imaginary super-friend. My heart weeps for the survivors… and the dead. More so for the survivors when I contemplate what their existence is likely to be for the foreseeable future. And yes, I did donate to relief efforts. Another godless donor.

Croup strikes the house

My son recently had a case of croup that scared us pretty bad. It began with a mild cough that got progressively worse. By bedtime he was clearly pretty miserable and we brought him to sleep with us. We kept him propped up in bed because that seemed to help him breathe. He still didn’t do very well and was wheezing like a leaky bellows. Occasionally he sounded like he was choking and we’d both sit bolt upright and start whacking him on the back. That’d clear it for a second and he’d get a good cough and go back to sleep for another fifteen minutes. He also had a pretty bad fever which we treated with acetaminophen infant drops.

Not having any prior experience with these symptoms we just kept him home from school the next day and kept him under close observation. He seemed to have recovered completely and had a good long nap without any breathing problems. I decided not to take him to the doctor thinking that the worst had passed. However, come bedtime he was huffing and puffing all over again. We spent another sleepless night watching him like a hawk and I took him to the doctor in the morning.

Here are the things I learned from the doctor that should be in the children’s operator manual:

  • Croup is caused by a virus lodging in the throat and causing the tissues there to be inflamed and swell
  • It can impair breathing to a dangerous degree and needs to be treated immediately
  • It can be identified by the raspy wheezing sound during inhalation. (Bronchiolitis is similar but you hear the wheeze on exhalation).
  • The fever that attends it may need both acetaminophen and ibuprofen taken alternately in order to keep it under control, so have both in the cabinet just incase
  • Steroids given orally can dramatically reduce the swelling in the throat and remove the danger
  • It always gets worse around bedtime and seems to clear up during the day

After a two day course of steroids, cheratussin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen as directed by our pediatrician he was right as rain. It sure was scary though! Next time one of the kids is wheezing (inspiration or expiration) and has a fever I’m taking them to the doctor or after-hours clinic right away because chances are it’s either croup or bronchiolitis and needs to be treated.

Et tu, NatGeo?

The National Geographic channel is running a show now titled “The Real Jesus” in which they discuss in great detail the cause of death and other aspects of Jesus’s life. All of this discussion proceeds on the assumption that he really existed. They never once mention that there is very little evidence that he did actually exist.

I don’t know why, but I expected more from NatGeo. I wish they would spend their money on doing a show surveying the primary source evidence for and against the existence of Jesus. It’s research I haven’t found time to do myself but would very much like to see a show on. I don’t know if I can trust their academic integrity now though. How can you have a show entitled, “The Real Jesus,” without including a discussion about whether or not he actually existed?

True, lack of evidence of existence, is not proof of lack of existence, however given the amazing events that were said to attend his live there is a decided dearth of information regarding him in secular and Jewish records. In fact, as far as I can tell there is not a single piece of contemporary primary source evidence for his existence. The one most often brought up by Christian apologists (those that realize that the Gospels aren’t contemporary) was the mention in Testimonium Flavian. Clearly there are significant issues with that one. We don’t accept the existence of any other historical figure without significantly more evidence than there is for Jesus and I think it’s an important point, if not the important point, to raise when discussing a historical Jesus. In any case, that’s a topic worth exploration. The tripe NatGeo is peddling now though is an insult to the intelligence of their viewing audience.

Empirical Facts Do Exist (Global Warming Edition)

They really do. At least during my lifetime many people seem to have gotten out of the habit of basing their opinions on good solid evidence, but that doesn’t mean that facts themselves no longer exist. There has been an unfortunate trend, particularly in politics, of choosing a desired course of action first and then editing or modifying the facts that support it. One example of this that has received a lot of attention is the Bush Administration’s efforts to build a case for invading Iraq culminating in Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN General Assembly. At the time the evidence seemed compelling to many of us and it wasn’t until well after the fact that we discovered just how spurious many of the allegations against Iraq were. Many of the facts that their case was built on were distorted or had previously been researched and rejected by the CIA. In the end it turns out that very little of what the Bush Administration asserted regarding Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al-Qaeda was true. Most of it was blatantly falsified.

Another example from the Bush years was the manipulation of Federal government produced scientific reports regarding the environment by the Bush Administration to neuter their conclusions regarding climate change. In several well documented cases the Bush Administration earned the condemnation of scientists for manipulating the results of research indicating the existence of anthropogenic global warming. Evidence indicating that action must be taken to curb the use of fossil fuels was systematically suppressed by Bushies. Indeed, ignoring facts and basing decisions purely on political gain became a hallmark of his administration.

Recently the anti-science crowd (read: Conservatives) has been energized by the release of e-mails from East Anglia University in England in which climate scientists discuss whether or not to include data points which don’t fit the anthropogenic climate change conclusions held by climatologists worldwide. David Frum, a Conservative commentator, wrote this opinion piece for CNN regarding it. Leaving the clearly fabricated unattributed quotes, such as the one at the beginning referencing Abu Ghraib, to one side for a moment, you can easily see the elation he feels at having something to legitimately criticize his opponents for.

I’ve read several articles from different sources regarding these leaked e-mails, but not seen them myself, and it’s still unclear to me how damaging they really are. In the end that’s immaterial because they are clearly perceived to be damaging enough to create the controversy. For the sake of analyzing this situation let’s assume that they were what they are purported to be, evidence of scientists fudging data in order to fit the anthropogenic climate change conclusion when it otherwise wouldn’t have supported such a conclusion. That’s bad… real bad. In the pro-science community that’s worthy of excommunication.

Scientists working in academia can lose tenure for such an offense, and they know it. The way that the peer-review system works at academic institutions and other research organizations ensures that such shenanigans will be exposed eventually though, and they know that too. There are many scientists studying climate change at universities and government research facilities around the world. Each and every one of them is well motivated by the terms of their employment and the prospects of community prestige to identify and debunk the mistakes of others. In a hot field like climate research every single paper that is released is getting thoroughly scrutinized by many people with the requisite education and skills to identify mistakes, whether they be inadvertent or deliberate. Therefore, if these East Anglian researchers had released any papers based on fudged data I am entirely confident that it would have been discovered and exposed, at least within the climate research community, if not the general public.

In many situations it is difficult to identify what the facts really are. Media outlets who blur the lines between news and commentary are largely to blame. Also earning blame however are commentators, like David Frum, who form and espouse opinions on subjects which they are unqualified in every way to evaluate. Ask him why he is skeptical of climate change and you probably won’t get an answer with many facts in it. He’ll say, “Well, I just don’t think it’s been sufficiently proven,” or some such. That sounds reasonable, right? Consider, however, that with a History undergrad and Masters degree, and then a Juris Doctorate, that he cannot be expected to have a clue regarding anything of a scientific nature. For example, it is unreasonable to expect him to recognize the photographs of shrinking glaciers worldwide for what they are, incontrovertible evidence of global warming. Nor is he qualified to assess, or probably even aware of, the vast quantity of data regarding ocean current and temperature shifts that also indicate that the Earth is getting warmer. As an historian he should be aware of the significance of the Northwest Passage, the search for which was one of the great exploration endeavors of the last couple of centuries, but he is probably unaware that due to arctic shrinkage it is now regularly navigable. He is probably equally unaware of the extensive data regarding coral die-off from excessive ocean temperatures. I’m sure he hasn’t spent any time researching the vast quantity of evidence indicating a global warming trend. I doubt that that he would even understand it if he did.

But, no matter, he’s out there spouting his opinion regarding it as though he were an expert, and even worse he is challenging the very existence of empirical fact in general. That’s just criminally delusional. Thanks to CNN his delusions get wide circulation and the opportunity to convince many other under-educated voters. If you really wanna’ lose your lunch read the comment thread on his article. Many of the comments indicate that people are convinced by such arguments questioning the existence of empirical evidence. I’d like to see a study conducted regarding empiricism and voting record. I’m betting that there would be a strong correlation between Conservatism and disbelief in empiricism. After all, there’s no other way to justify most of the Republican agenda except to just make shit up. “Death panels” anyone?

Evidence of speciation

Many creationists like to claim that “we’ve never seen one species come from another species; when a human is born to a chimp I’ll believe evolution,” in what they believe to be a knock-down argument against evolution. Obviously this claim is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of speciation, but I’ll let that pass for now. What is really more important to the debate is that this claim is actually flatly false. We have indeed witnessed speciation numerous times.

Here’s an interesting article about an instance of observed speciation in Galapagos finches from Wired Magazine: Birth of New Species Witnessed by Scientists

Neil deGrasse Tyson said what?!

I love the work Neil deGrasse Tyson, Doctor of Astrophysics and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, does popularizing Science. I agree 100% with him that raising the profile of Science and making it more accessible to the masses is needed in our society and I think he does a fantastic job of this. His NOVA scienceNow show and many public appearances do a great deal to advance the cause of science in our society, and for that I am extremely grateful to him. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to hail him as the heir apparent to Carl Sagan. They are big shoes to fill, but I think he can do it. In short, I’m a big admirer of him, but…

Here’s is a recent interview he did on the Colbert Report on June 29th, 2009. In this interview he defends the Bush Administration as not being as anti-science as many people have claimed it was. The whole interview is worth watching but you can jump to 4 minutes in for this part.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson
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I have to disagree most emphatically with him on this. I think that the Bush Administration, and Republicans in general since Reagan for that matter, have had a terrible record regarding the support of Science. Their consistent denial of climate change comes immediately to mind. Destroying ecosystems indiscriminately in order to access petroleum is one of the Republican party planks. Ever hear of “Drill Baby, Drill!”? It’s one of their campaign slogans for crissake! For a thorough treatment of this subject I recommend “The Republican War on Science” by Chris Mooney. Also, don’t forget that Bush moved to quash stem-cell research, one of the most promising areas of medical science, on the basis of his religious convictions.

Dr. Tyson puts an emphasis on the fact that President Bush put science in his speeches, and therefore created some amount of science awareness that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred. In the same sentence he downplays the importance of whether or not President Bush actually acted on the science in question. This is the point at which I diverge from Tyson. I believe that it matters very very much whether or not he acts on the science.

Talking about something but then not taking any action regarding it is called “paying lip service”. Talking about something and then actively working to undermine it is called “hypocrisy”. The former would be bad enough but it is the latter of which I accuse the Bush Administration. Suppressing reports from Federal Government agencies (NASA, NOAA) regarding climate change, and even going so far as to change the conclusions from “climate change is happening and humans are responsible” to “we’re not sure climate change is even occurring” has got to be considered undermining Science. There are countless other examples. Every science-related Federal Government agency had their budget reduced or was otherwise meddled with during the Bush Administration as far as I can tell.

I think President Bush did great harm to Science by teaching people that it doesn’t really matter. He may have raised it’s profile, but it was only so he could then dash it to the ground. In his defense he did add many many acres to wildlife refuges and national forests… but only in areas that didn’t have any oil. His administration consistently pushed the idea of drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and making many other concessions to petroleum companies at the expense of the health of the planet.

I respectfully urge Dr. Tyson to reevaluate his position on this because I believe that the Bush Administration deserves to be vilified for undermining Science, and that it is dangerous for pro-Science personalities, such as himself, to give tacit approval of the kinds of behavior that they engaged in. As rational people, interested in the welfare of the entire planet and the advancement of human knowledge, we cannot accept, and must vehemently speak out against, dismissing scientific evidence in order to protect or further the cause of particular industries or religions. In this way the Bush Administration repeatedly showed themselves to be enemies of Science, and as the unofficial spokesperson for said “rational people” I expect Dr. Tyson to say so!

Olbermann Misses the Point

The atheist bus campaign got some coverage on cable news tonight but not really in a good way. Here’s the clip from tonight’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

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What I believe Keith fails to appreciate is the potentially serious ramifications of “coming out” as an atheist. It can be a career killer. No, forget that. It can be a family killer! I’m sure the donor had perfectly justifiable reasons for not wanting to come out. Every atheist’s situation is different. Some can afford to take off the mask, and some, such as myself, cannot. Today, in America, if you are a business owner, or a job seeker, or many other things, you cannot afford to “come out” or you will endanger your family’s livelihood. How about you do a story on that Keith?!

Another thing about this segment that irks me is that he says that the purpose of the campaign is to encourage atheists to “come out”. That’s only one of the purposes. The more obvious purpose is to convince the theistic among us that atheists can be moral people. Indeed that is literally what the ad’s statement says. Atheists are the most marginalized minority in the U.S. precisely because our neighbors believe we are untrustworthy and evil. That is the negative stereotype this campaign is trying to address.

In this segment he uses a narrow focus on the wrong message in order to blow this completely out of proportion and make an issue where none exists. He didn’t understand the issues involved and, frankly he made an ass of himself. Keith, these are the tactics of your enemies. I thought you were better than this. Very O’Reilly-ish of you.

Thank You Ayatollah Khamenei

I don’t find myself agreeing with Republicans very often these days, and I’ve never agreed much with Texans, but I’m in complete agreement with Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) right now. Today he was the only U.S. Congressman to vote against a resolution condemning the Iranian government and supporting the dissenters. In his statement he said:

I have always hesitated when my colleagues rush to pronounce final judgment on events thousands of miles away about which we know very little.

I agree with him that all too often American politicians rush to grandstand without bothering to study anything but the surface of an issue. What is going on in Iran right now is very dramatic, and very complex, and America has played several parts in the story, not all of them good. Indeed, our government has a pretty poor record over the last 30 plus years of meddling with Iranian internal affairs. Just to mention a few, we replaced their last democratically elected government with a monarchy and supplied their enemies (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) with weapons. If the United States wishes to promote democracy in Iran we would do better to not make “official” statements in opposition to the current Iranian government. Doing so just gives this admittedly corrupt and brutal theocracy the excuse they need in order to quash the dissent. If that happens the flickering candle of democracy in Iran will be put out before it can become a bonfire and it may be many years before it can flicker to life again.

While I am against the sort of usless non-binding resolution grandstanding that the House engaged in today I’m all for the stated purpose of the resolution. It just wasn’t something that needed to be said. The people of Iran who yearn for the freedoms of a Western-style democracy know very well that we stand with them in principal. It is uncomfortable to see friends in peril and not being able to do anything to help them. It’s a natural human reaction, I think, to want to at least speak out in their defense. This is all admirable and correct, but in this particular complex case the best way to help Iran towards freedom is to keep our official mouthpieces shut.

At least we can all be grateful for one thing, there is little doubt who has the moral high ground in Iran right now. Yesterday Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for an end to the demonstrations protesting the election results and even threatened the protesters saying, “If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible.” Be clear that this is a serious threat to use violence against peaceful protesters. By all reports the protesters in Iran have been entirely peaceful and non-violent. These are not wild looters run amok. In a truly civilized country using violence to crush peaceful dissent is simply unthinkable. It hasn’t happened in the U.S. since the 1968 Democratic Convention “police riot” in Chicago and the “Kent State Massacre” in 1970. Yes that’s sarcasm. Sometimes Americans annoyingly think their republic is perfect and not susceptible to the failings of other governments.

In any case, I’d like to thank Ayatollah Khamenei for making perfectly clear to everyone inside and outside of Iran what the source of Iran’s problems really is… himself. I desperately hope that the good people of Iran will one day break their chains and replace their primitive theocracy with a government that respects them and their basic human rights.