Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hubris of Physics?

Those who study physics as a discipline in its own right must confront the reality that it is essentially impossible to be a master at all parts of physics.  The people who study fluid dynamics, or electromagnetics, or quantum mechanics, or astrophysics, or relativity, or any of many other disciplines that all fit under the umbrella of physics must realize that they simply can't be a master of all these very diverse subdiscipines.  My field, meteorology could be considered a subdiscipline within physics, but meteorology itself has fractionated into many diverse sub-subdisciplines:  atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, high-atmosphere physics, boundary-layer meteorology, physical meteorology (the study of optical, electrical, acoustical, and thermodynamic phenomena in the atmosphere, including the physics of clouds and precipitation), severe storms meteorology, tropical meteorology, remote sensing, etc.  Again, no meteorologist is master of all these.

Why do I belabor what might seem to be an obvious point?  Science is growing so fast that no one could possibly become a world-class expert in all its facets.  Surely everyone already knows that.  Yet I've seen several recent examples of scientific papers published by those who call themselves "physicists" who are attempting to say something original and innovative about the meteorology of tornadoes.  In virtually all the examples I've seen, the physicists are displaying embarrassingly profound ignorance of the science of meteorology.  What qualifies them to publish such "research"?

When I talk to students about their progression from undergraduate, to graduate school - first for a Master's degree, and then for a Ph. D. - one thing that I emphasize is that if you're going to do original, innovative research in some area, it takes considerable time to build up an appreciation for what's been done already in that area, and to learn what problems are still in need of solutions.  The trick for a piece of research is to know what problems are simultaneously interesting and important, as well as being solvable.   It's relatively easy to find interesting problems, but many are unsolvable, barring some as yet unknown breakthrough.  Solvable problems are not always worth the effort because they're not very important.  The "dilettante" physicists of which I'm writing seem content to bypass all that, perhaps because they've concluded that their physics academic credentials qualify them as experts on whatever they choose.

The "Horatio Alger" story about the outsider who comes in knowing nothing and so is unshackled by "conventional" thinking and thereby able to see things that specialists can't see is widely popular, but the reality is that the vast majority of such efforts by "science carpetbaggers" are failures.   Alfred Wegener is probably one of the very few exceptions to this, and he was a meteorologist speculating about geology - at least it was another Earth science!  A few of these "outsider" papers about tornadoes manage to get published in scientific journals, but virtually never in meteorological journals, where the reviewers would pick them to pieces.  None of them, to my knowledge, ever have contributed anything at all useful.

Just because physics likes to consider itself the "Father of the Sciences" doesn't mean that a physicist knows much about, say, meteorology.  I've known a few physicists personally, and while I certainly can't generalize about all physicists, I've seen the sort of disdain some physicists have for "lesser" sciences, evidently thinking they're child's play compared to physics.  This sort of arrogance is not merited by reality.  Many sciences have their own emergent concepts that might be based ultimately on physical principles, but which represent a specialized domain of knowledge that isn't so easily understood, even by physics majors!  In general, nothing about a physics education prepares one to leap into some other science and claim to have a deep insight not shared by the scientists in a "lesser" science.  In the cases with which I can claim some familiarity, the ignorance of their assumptions about meteorological topics is the dominant flaw in their papers.

All of us need to be respectful of the work of others in comparison to our own.  We may have issues about that work or the conclusions drawn from it, but we should never disrespect others simply because we perceive our discipline is more challenging and our understanding more comprehensive and, therefore, we are more deserving of respect.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New Thoughts on the Human-Machine Mix in Weather Forecasting

With the development of digital computers in the 1940s, the stage was set for numerical weather prediction models based on the equations governing the atmosphere, as envisioned by such meteorological pioneers as Andrie S. Monin, Vilhelm Bjerknes, and Lewis Fry Richardson.  Numerical solution of those otherwise unsolvable equations was the catalyst for a revolution in the science of meteorology, and a continuing debate about the role of humans in weather forecasting.  Sverre Petterssen and Werner Schwerdtfeger, among others, began to anticipate how computer forecasts could compete with humans in the task of weather forecasting.  With the introduction of post-processing methods for turning the gridded variables of a numerical model into actual weather forecasts, Leonard Snellman recognized what he saw as a very real possibility:  fully automated public weather forecasting.  Snellman coined the term meteorological cancer to describe the eventual demise of human intervention in the forecast process.

The notion of the human-machine "mix" has been around since at least the 1970s.  The model developers and those using models as input for objective weather forecasting schemes have steadfastly denied their goal is to replace humans in the forecast process.  As I see it, anyone working to develop objective "guidance" for forecasters is basically in the business of replacing humans with their product, whether they admit it or not - or whether or not they even realize that's what a very successful "guidance" product will do.  As model forecasts improve - which they have done continuously since they began - the need for humans diminishes.  For "ordinary" weather situations, it can be argued that humans already no longer add value to the forecast, even at relatively short range.

The use of numerical models has evolved considerably over those first tentative steps at numerical weather prediction.  The models moved rapidly away from crude one-layer models with coarse resolution and very limited physical processes, to today's models based on the so-called "primitive equations" using vastly increased time and space resolution, fully 3-dimensional, and with extensive physical parameterizations, coupled with sophisticated post-processing schemes to convert gridded variables to sensible weather, and even text generation for fully automated forecasting.  The role of humans during this process has been one of "gap-filling" - the limitations of numerical models represented gaps where a human forecaster could add value to the automated products.  With time, the gaps continue to be filled as the technology of numerical weather prediction evolves.  There are fewer and fewer niches where humans have much of a chance to add value.  The gaps are disappearing.

I've talked about this before, in many essays that can be found here.  Recently, it came to my attention that something interesting is being explored in the UK, whereby forecasters could work with models interactively.  Up to now, computer-based forecasts were like the pronouncements of an oracle, and forecasters were faced with either accepting what the models said or rejecting that solution and providing their own alternative forecast by whatever means they had at their disposal.  Forecasters have been similar to high priests in the business of interpreting oracular pronouncements.  This has not been a truly interactive human-machine relationship. 

What I've envisioned for an interactive relationship is that the forecaster would use the model as a tool to test various possible scenarios in a dynamically consistent way.  What if the moisture available was actually greater than the initial conditions for the model showed?  What if the trough approaching was stronger or approaching more slowly?  How would the forecast change?  A forecaster educated and trained properly could use the model to test such possibilities intelligently and efficiently, and to see the ramifications of those "what if" scenarios.

As I now see things, if something of this sort is not explored and developed, virtually everything now done by forecasters eventually will be automated.  The only debate will be how soon full automation will take place.  Meteorological science is spending a considerable effort all time trying to improve the model guidance, by whatever means necessary.  What are we doing to refine the role of humans and to improve their performance?  Damned little!! Remember:  highly accurate guidance = no more need for forecasters!  Humans cost much more than computers. 

An interactive relationship between model and forecaster would demand a considerably more comprehensive grasp of the science by the forecaster than is now the case.  And it would require a much more extensive training program for human forecasters.  Today's forecasters need to consider their future - young entry-level forecasters may find themselves out of a job before they're old enough to retire!  No one in public weather forecasting is safe from this.  NO ONE!!

The Persistence of Mythology in Science

My personal experiences as a scientist make it clear to me that scientific myths are quite prevalent in science, even among scientists - not just the non-scientific public.  What do I mean by a "myth"? - dictionary definitions include:
  1.  a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.  
  2.  a widely held but false belief or idea.
Mythology of the (1) sort can be thought of as a forerunner to science, in the sense that the myth is an attempt at offering an explanation for how things are.  Any myth that calls on the supernatural is, of course, well outside what we would call science.

No, I'm talking here of mythology of the (2) sort.  In a very real sense, a great deal of today's science incorporates mythology of type (2).  Science (as it is really done) never provides absolute truth.  Rather it offers provisional hypotheses that can always be reconsidered and revised, at least in principal.  The notion of a scientific  consensus is that a majority of scientists accept some provisional hypotheses as being not inconsistent with the observations (data).  I've deliberately used the double negative "not inconsistent" rather than its logical equivalent "consistent" in order to shade the interpretation of that consensus science toward being as provisional as possible.  New data from new experiments may overturn an earlier well-accepted hypothesis - the history of science is replete with examples:  Einstein's relativity, Wegener's continental drift, and so on.  By this process, our scientific understanding is ever a work in progress, even when applications of that science are quite successful.  There are no sacred truths in science, no dogma beyond question, no concepts that can't be challenged.

This uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process, not some sort of problem that needs to be solved.  Any scientific explanation is open to challenge, but challenges that invoke the supernatural (e.g., creationism) are not legitimate challenges in this context.  Rather, challenges based on the supernatural are attempts to impose mythology of type (1), an "explanation" entirely outside of the scientific process.

Every new contribution to science, mostly in the form of a paper submitted for publication in a refereed scientific journal, is a challenge to existing scientific understanding, to a greater or lesser degree.  A challenge to existing understanding inevitably gores someone's sacred cow.  It's natural that this creates controversy between proponents of the existing understand and those who advocate the new provisional hypothesis.  This is described by Thomas Kuhn in his controversial book The Nature of Scientific Revolutions as a paradigm shift.  Paradigm shifts may be minor (of interest only to those specialists in some narrow, specific topic of science) or major (e.g., nonlinear dynamical theory, or chaos theory), affecting many diverse disciplines, and anywhere in between.  Some newly-proposed paradigm shifts (not all) are then subjected to further testing and if those tests are not inconsistent with the data, they go on eventually to become a new consensus among scientists.  Others fall by the wayside, perhaps for lack of interest or because they fail some new test of their consistency with the data.

In my experience, there are many myths of type (2) in my chosen field.  I've written papers to challenge them and to replace those notions with a different understanding that I believe is a better fit to the facts than the older idea.  Not all science starts out to be directed at myth-bashing, but if new understanding is revealed, this sets the stage for a clash between old ideas and new ideas.  Most people, including scientists, who accept a myth are reluctant to abandon it - myths often have a sort of feel-good comfort about them that their adherents are reluctant to give up, so they do their best to attack the new ideas.  That reluctance to accept new evidence might be justified, if the new evidence is flawed in some way, or is being interpreted incorrectly.  The trick is to be as objective as possible, and most humans find this difficult to do, often on both sides of a controversy.  Such arguments frequently are plagued by confirmation bias:  "... the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses."

The main point to be made here is that controversy and challenge are inherent in science.  If you manage to accomplish anything at all, you will find those who oppose your ideas, sometimes even to the point of being mean-spirited in their critiques of your work.  This should not make you uncomfortable, but you should, in fact, embrace their opposition.  I tell my students that "Your most vigorous 'enemy' is your best friend!"  Such a crucible of intellectual heat is essential in helping you do your best science.  Their attacks can reveal weak points that need to be strengthened, and may even show that you're incorrect in at least part of what you're proposing.  Try to lose your fear of being wrong - being wrong is a learning opportunity!  Your opponent will have done you a favor by showing you're wrong!  When your opponent seems to misunderstand what you're saying, you should stop and consider how to express yourself so as not to generate that misunderstanding.

All in all, controversy is good for science and you should understand that without controversy, the science is dead.  When all scientists agree about everything, then that science had reached a dead end.  Fortunately, this has never happened and likely never will.  It's not a sign of some inherent problem with science.  Controversy is at the heart of a vibrant, living science!

Where scientists go astray is when they take or offer criticism personally.  The topic isn't supposed to be the scientist, it's the science!  No matter how mean-spirited an opponent may be, however, don't lower yourself to that level.  You're not being threatened.  It's your work!  And your work isn't beyond question, right?  Real humans find it all too easy to feel threatened by opposition, but you can't be a scientist without generating opposition!  Be prepared for it.  Keep your mind open to new ideas and be willing to admit when your notions need to be abandoned in the face of a superior understanding.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Some thoughts as we approach Veteran's Day

Collectively, Americans have come far from the days of the war in Vietnam.  Now, it seems we have learned that we can honor the warriors even as we protest the war.  My Vietnam experience was not one of a combat soldier.  I didn't believe that war was in the best interests of the US, and I have mixed feelings to this day about my service there.  I didn't carry a gun in the boonies and shoot at the "enemy", but I did what was asked of me by my nation.  No one spat on me when I arrived back in "the world" (as we called the US, then) at 3:00 am in Ft. Lewis, WA.  But there was no "welcome home" either.  My life was changed by my experiences in the military and I'm still trying to decide the sign of the balance - negative or positive. At least now I do see more positives than when the experience was more recent to me.

There will be an outpouring of thanks tomorrow for all the veterans, as well as for those currently serving.  That's a sort of progress, I think.  But there are other perspectives on this day of recognition for veterans.  Most of the wars on foreign soil we've conducted since WWII haven't involved a real threat to American freedoms at home, so our military personnel have been killing and being killed for causes that are pretty far removed from protection of American freedom.  The war fighters, now including both men and women, in the wars since WWII may have been heroic in their battlefield actions on behalf of their brothers/sisters in arms, but that heroism is not based on defending America, per se.  These soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (not all males, anymore) have been carrying out the orders passed on to them by their civilian leaders, irrespective of the rationale on which those orders are based.  They're doing their duty as best they can, doing what is asked of them by their nation, doing what they've sworn to do, doing what they're paid to do.  In real wars - not the sanitized wars of righteous Americans battling the evil servants of an evil nation often portrayed by political "leaders" - Americans engage in atrocities amounting to war crimes, just as their enemies do.  War is an evil, poisonous thing that attacks the morality of all its participants.  The victors may put the losers on trial for war crimes, but their hands are never lily-white clean.

I came home from Vietnam with no flashbacks, nightmares, and ingrained fears (all symptoms of PTSD) because I was "in the rear, with the gear".  But many did come back from wars on foreign soil with psychological problems, in part because of things they had seen and in which they had participated.  I offer no judgment of anyone who may have done immoral things in the military - who carried out unlawful orders.  Those participating in incidents like My Lai certainly are responsible for what they did (Nuremberg established that principle), but I'm not in any position to judge them.  I don't know what I would have done had I been there - my good fortune in my war was to escape such awful situations.  I'm grateful for that.  I'm certainly no hero, by any stretch of the imagination.  With time, I've mostly come to terms with my service and am not at all ashamed to be a military veteran who participated (in a very minor way) in a war on foreign soil - like my son - and my father before me.  In my family, we have answered the call of our nation.

The real crime, in my opinion, is that we ask our young people to engage in wars, not only to defend our liberty, but in many instances to carry out the political will of our government by the application of violent force on our "enemies".  We throw them into the cesspool that is a real war and we expect - no, demand - that they come back squeaky clean.  Let us all ponder that as we recognize our war fighters for their service on this national holiday!  May we eventually come to learn that war is supposed to be a last resort, engaged in to defend ourselves and our allies from those who would harm us - not to be a violent means of imposing our political will on others.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Losing the War on Terror - more thoughts

I've been reading the book "A Bright Shining Lie" by Pulitzer Prize winning author Neil Sheehan, which reveals the massive extent to which bungling high-level military leadership failed completely to understand the nature of the Vietnamese civil war they inherited from the French after Dien Bien Phu, leading us to (a) support incompetent and mendacious leadership, and (b) supply our foes inadvertently with American weapons and ammunition.  Our blundering prosecution of counterinsurgency actually was destined to aid the very enemy we were trying to defeat.  Curiously, by reading some history books in my undergraduate days about Vietnam, I concluded this was not a war we could win, short of utterly destroying the "country" we were trying to "save" from the evils of Communism.  Even a lowly undergrad kid had a better understanding of Vietnam than our national leadership, it seems.

Although no events in history ever repeat themselves perfectly, there are many points of similarity between our current "War on Terror" (WoT) and the mess we created in Vietnam.  For one thing, the war is dividing our nation in ways not entirely dissimilar from how our nation was divided by the Vietnam War.  Liberals and conservatives are positioned on similar ground as the populace learns more about the mostly hidden issues in the WoT.  We're going down a similar path to defeat, but this time, we're impoverishing ourselves to an unprecedented extent and yielding our open society to a politically expedient sanctioning of giving up our Constitutional rights.

Second, we're again inadvertently supplying arms to our implacable enemies as our leaders (both military and civilian) struggle to come to grips with a war they evidently don't understand.  Rather than clashing political ideologies (as in Vietnam), the current war is one of clashing religious sects - sects that have been fighting and killing each other for a long time before we ever became involved.  Which side do we back?  Sending arms to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in their insurgency against the Soviet invasion backfired on us rather thoroughly - in our fear of Communism, we helped to arm Osama Bil Laden!   The "Iraqi Freedom" invasion was based on lies and actually had nothing to do with terrorism, at least until the overthrow of Saddam encouraged eager terrorists to flood into Iraq to fight the "great satan" (i.e., us).  We seem entirely to have misunderstood the outcome of the "Arab Spring" revolutions against Mideastern fascist-style secular dictatorships:  we apparently believed this was the start of a western-style democracy spreading into the Mideast, when it was clear enough that the islamic majorities eventually would elect islamic theocrats, not liberals supporting minority rights. Which side of those clashes should we support?  It seems whomever we supply with arms comes eventually to turn them on us.  Is it not in our best interests to stay out of such clashes?  Sadly, our obsession with Mideast oil has clouded our vision ...

So after 9/11, after we invaded Afghanistan (supposedly in retaliation for the attack on the World Trade Center), the inevitable reaction of the Afghanis became focused on expelling the infidel invasion (i.e., us).  What a surprise!!  Evidently, no one had read the history of that war-torn land - like Vietnam, its people have been fighting against and expelling invaders for many centuries.  What made us think it would be different for us?  Did we really think we could manage to succeed where no one has ever succeeded before?  What colossal ignorance and arrogance!

Third, like Vietnam, in the name of operational security ("opsec"), many actions of the WoT are criminal activities being hidden from the American public.  As suggested in Sheehan's book, opsec is often the perfect coverup for immoral and/or illegal activities.  Why would the Bush administration try to conceal the recently-uncovered discovery of chemical weapons during Operation Iraqi Freedom?  What possible purpose could there be to not reveal their existence, when it was WMDs that formed the cornerstone of the government's excuse for that invasion?  What sort of machinations have been (and are now) going on behind the cloak of opsec?  As the WoT has proceeded, there have been various evil deeds (including torture on captured enemy troops) perpetrated but held mostly under wraps in the name of opsec, or justified by the WoT (e.g., the drone attacks).

Do we give up our freedoms for the sake of an illusory security?  Many historical figures in our nation's past (including Benjamin Franklin) have warned against that.  Yet we currently are approaching something like a police state, with judicially-sanctioned warrantless searches, pervasive illegal and unjustifiable surveillance of all sorts, widespread police brutality, the militarization of police, etc.   That's what fear does.

The irrational fear of terrorism is unwarranted - it's exactly that fear that is the goal of all terrorists.  The very name "terrorist" makes that abundantly obvious. Unfortunately, that fear is being exploited for the sake of pursuing an ill-justified war on an ill-defined enemy, with ill-defined goals and unjustified tactics that mostly serve to recruit new terrorists.  The war is one that can never end, because the terrorists can't all be killed, so the profits will continue to pour into the corporations supporting the military and security operations.  War is profitable for them, and they've learned how to exploit politicians to keep the trillions flowing into their coffers, even as Americans (and innocent civilians) die or are grievously wounded in this senseless war.  And we Americans lose more and more of our freedom.

As I've said many times, terrorism is the last resort of an enemy not otherwise capable of imposing their will.  It's a clear indication of weakness.  We only play to their strengths by perpetuating the WoT and imposing a police state on our own people.  Defending ourselves is perfectly justifiable, but not to the point where we must give up the very things we're supposed to be fighting to keep!  Not to the point where our tactics are as immoral and illegal as those of our foes.  In confronting terror, we have become a state that sanctions terror.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It's not all of us! - or - Everybody does it!

Whenever anyone criticizes a religion these days, many liberals start calling such critics bigots or even racists (Does religion = race?  I think not!).  Recently a brouhaha on the Bill Maher show prompted one participant to add further "explanation" of his position (note:  Sam Harris linked this essay from his own blog page).  Bill Maher and Sam Harris were taking the position that islam itself bears responsibility for the violent behavior of some islamic adherents.  Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristoff considered that position to be biased and even bigoted.

My friend, RJ Evans, recently put up this essay that describes the situation as he sees it:  if you're willing to believe in a supernatural deity, you can be convinced to commit atrocities.  I came to this realization several years ago about "moderate" believers:  it's likely that if religious fanatics assume control over a government, moderates will be forced to go along with those violent events, or be killed.  They'll be confronted with the inevitable challenge to choose a side, and most of them will cave under that sort of pressure.  Perhaps they're fearful for their lives (and those of their family and friends).  Perhaps they just can't give up their faith, no matter how evil are the deeds committed in its name.  Of course, some might resist a call for atrocities by the fanatics.  But history reveals that few will do so when religion and government become one and the same.

We critics of religion argue that this tendency is an inevitable consequence of belief in a supernatural deity.  Moderates say, "It's not all of us!  They're just a minority of crazies!"  That might well be the case at present, but in the past and perhaps again in the future, it could be the law of the land.  If you believe that can't happen, I can call that belief into question.  What prevents it from happening here and now, as it has in other times and places?  In some nations, it's already happening.  It's not the "holy" scriptures (the foundation of all religions) that will prevent it.  Those writings are the source of the fanaticism that could be inflicted on us all!  You can justify nearly anything with quotes from those "sacred" documents, which to my mind renders them useless in a rational discussion.  In all such scriptures,  the supernatural deity demands complete and total submission, and is willing to kill anyone who doesn't believe as s/he/it commands.  Believers are followers, not leaders!  For each such religion, then, their deity is the ultimate authority figure, and if you accept that ultimate authority as legitimate, you must be willing to do as commanded.  It's inherent in all religions with a super-everything deity.  You can pick and choose those parts of the documents you like with your modern, moderate morality, and ignore the parts that make you uncomfortable, but the religion you cling to is precisely the source for evil deeds done in its name.  Everyone who commits such deeds also believe they, and they alone, know the true religion of their choice.

"But that's not the true ____ (choose your favorite religion)!  My religion is one of peace.  And love."  So your interpretation of your religion is the only true one, then?  What a coincidence that it's your religion that's the true one!  Isn't that the reason for the evolution of religions into many, many different subspecies?  "It's only we who are the true believers!  The rest are abominations, heretics, fanatics!"  Can you not see where such a belief leads?  Anyone who convinces themselves that they, and only they, are the sole possessors of absolute truth is likely to be a willing soldier on behalf of that truth.  When their faith is tested by the fanatics, will they be ready to sign up, or will they refuse, possibly at the cost of their lives?  History suggests the answer.

"But everybody does it!"  By a curious bit of irony, some moderates also argue that both sides of a religious divide have done evil.  They're using the fact that all religions have at one time/place or another,  been in control and committed awful deeds.  Followers of each religious denomination like to think of themselves as being persecuted - typically by some other religion, but any form of unbelief (including atheism, naturally) will serve their needs.   Some claim that religious persecution by atheist regimes is identical to that of theocracies.   I maintain there are important differences, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this blog.  Religious persecution can be, and has been, cited as justification for violent actions at some point.  No matter the reality of a situation, if someone perceives themselves to be victims of persecution, it becomes easy to rationalize violent responses.  The fact that one side has committed atrocities is no justification for the other side to do likewise - especially if that other side makes the claim they are adhering to a doctrine of peace and love.  Violence always results in more violence, not peace and harmonious co-existence.

Today's moderates evidently are blind to the dangers invariably associated with an absolute authority figure they must follow that wields a sword in defense of absolute truth and seeks to convert all others to the one true religion.  The potential for evil deeds flows from such a source in a fearful torrent, whether or not the moderates actually are participating at the moment.  If they see any criticism of religion as bigotry or racism, they're being misled by a modern sense of morality that doesn't arise from "sacred" religious documents but is, rather, a humanist morality.  A morality not imposed by some mythical supernatural all-everything authority figure who commands obedience on pain of death and rewards the faithful, but rather is based on our sense of shared humanity and empathy for others.

Criticism of religion is not equivalent to bigotry or racism.  It's absurd to equate religion with race, for one thing.  Race is a myth, for another, and modern religions generally accept believers of any "racial" character.  And it's not bigotry to criticize religion - religion is an idea, not a person.  A dangerous idea that needs to remain separated from government.


Just read an essay by Reza Aslan that seems to take a rather elitist stance when it comes to criticizing religion:  apparently, Aslan thinks that only dedicated religious scholars are qualified even to discuss religion.  He says that "Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience."

So being a neuroscientist is a strike against his point of view?  This seems rather a self-serving interpretation of religious criticism.  Aslan is a religious scholar, so his views automatically trump those of anyone not a religious scholar?

We critics of religion may not have studied ancient scriptures in their original language or delved into ancient history, but neither have most of the followers of those religions.  In fact, many of the followers have never even read those documents!  There are passages in those scriptures that promote barbaric behavior of all sorts, and those passages are cited frequently to support that behavior.  Yes, we non-religious scholar atheists echo the "fundamentalists" (in part) because at least the fundamentalists take a mostly consistent position regarding those scriptures.  They don't cry "out of context" every time someone cites a scriptural passage that seems to contradict the myth of a peaceful, loving religion - rather, they embrace it, word for word. 

I'm most definitely not in favor of prejudice against islam - I dislike all religions that follow an absolute, all-powerful deity, for reasons I've given in this blog. It just happens that islam is the current world "poster child" for evil deeds done in the name of religion.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Losing the "war" against terrorism - latest installment

A story broke the day before yesterday that a woman in Moore, OK was stabbed and beheaded by a man who had just been fired from his job.  This man happened to be a fan of radical islam, so suddenly this nutcase becomes part of the ISIS/ISIL conspiracy to inflict islam and sharia law on the US.  Watch out folks, the terrorist sleeper cells are spreading through Mexico and penetrating everywhere.  We're all in mortal danger of being beheaded!!  Everyone who immigrated from the Middle East is a jihadist ready to inflict islam on us all!!

Get a grip, people.  This is simply fear-mongering to keep the expensive and unnecessary "war on terror" going - it's very profitable for the weapons manufacturers, the military, the police, etc.  Many politicians love to beat the war drums and portray themselves as strong proponents of the very American rights they've been so instrumental in taking away, all in the name of "protecting" us.  The simple fact is that the number of people in the US who have died as a direct result of terrorist acts since 11 September 2001 is quite small.  The odds of being killed by a terrorist are now considerably less than being killed by a tornado, for example.  More of our troops have died in wars on foreign soil than were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center (both of them), to say nothing of the physical and mental wounds inflicted on those troops not killed in those wars.

Terrorism is a clear indicator of the military weakness and cultural isolation of the islamic terrorists.  If they had the remotest chance of inflicting their religion by a direct military confrontation, history suggests they would do so.  After all, that's what the christians tried to do during the crusades.  Nowadays, no group in their right minds would succeed in a set piece confrontation with the firepower of the US military.  Therefore, the terrorists have torn a page from the US tactics in the Revolutionary War (and used by the Vietnamese communists in the US's Vietnam War).  They hit and run, always so as to create maximum horror, and use that fear to intimidate their enemies into massive military expenditures (which are simply a black hole for precious resources:  they produce only destruction when used, and are a complete waste when not used), and disruption of their societies by massive, mostly useless "security" measures that destroy the very freedoms we claim separate us from them (the terrorists).

Terrorism will never be defeated by direct military action and attempts to kill off the terrorists.  Never!  Violence only begets more violence.  The way to suppress terrorism is to make it irrelevant.  To pay little attention to it.  The screaming headlines terrorism generates are among the many goals of the terrorist actions - they spread the paranoia at no cost to the perpetrators, and attract the sort of bizarre folks who are only able to derive a sense of self importance through the pain they inflict on others.  By perpetuating fear, we serve the ends of the terrorists, not ourselves.  When we give up our rights for the illusion of security (e.g., "security theater" at airports), we serve the ends of the terrorists.  When ordinary citizens cringe in fear at every headline and see terrorists everywhere, we serve the ends of the terrorists.  When we elect chickenhawk politicians who portray themselves as "strong" against terrorism, and send our troops to fight and die in pointless foreign wars, we serve the ends of the terrorists.

No American should give in to the irrational terror of the jihadists (or other terrorists).  Resist the urge for vengeance and go on about your lives without unfounded fear.  See terrorism for what it really is:  a direct admission of weakness.  That's the way to become a "soldier" in the "war" against terrorism.  This does not imply a capitulation to the terrorists and there are times when direct action against terrorists is both warranted and effective.  If we learn of a terrorist cell, take it down.  If a terrorist is running amok in a mall (or whatever), shoot him like a mad dog!  Protect and serve.  But spreading fear and breeding suspicion are not the answer, nor are invasions of foreign territory with the sole purpose being to eliminate terrorists.  These are inevitably counter-productive, as recent history has demonstrated so clearly. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Death by cop ... increasing or not?

I readily admit that I'm having trouble grasping the significance, if any, of the recent spate of events where police have beaten or killed people who seemed not to represent a direct and obvious threat to the officers.  Of course, I can't say I know for sure the precise circumstances in those situations.  What seems to be the industry standard is to put the officer(s) involved on paid administrative leave, pending an internal investigation - with the preponderance of the investigations resulting in exoneration of those officer(s).  Not always, but most of the time.

Police are granted special powers over the rest of us, in order that they may carry out their duties to "serve and protect" the people in their jurisdiction.  They literally can become judge, jury, and executioner if they deem the situation to require that response.  The job they do is difficult and very dangerous - officers lose their lives in the line of duty all too often.  The assumption we make is that most of those we select to wield this power are going to be reluctant to exercise that extreme power, reserving it only for those situations that place them (and others) in serious, imminent, and obvious danger.  Officers may have only very limited time to consider their course of action in a given situation and it's reasonable that mistakes (fatal ones!) can be made.  As with any particular grouping of people, there will be some who are willing to abuse this power granted to them.  Again, we assume that the selection process should weed out most of those who would disgrace the trust placed in them, and that if someone reveals such a trait, they would be removed from that duty.  An officer who makes too many mistakes in judgment under pressure is not worthy of the responsibility.

Recently, it seems the frequency of such abuse is increasing - or is it?  Has the frequency of police abuse of power actually been increasing, or is it just being exaggerated by social media?  I wish I knew, but law enforcement agencies seem reluctant to make public any information about the frequency of officer-involved killings and beatings.  See here, here, and here, to offer just a few examples of this apparent universal wish to keep secret the information by which we might be able to ascertain any trends in death (and abuse) by cops.

I can't claim the sites I've cited are completely objective - I would posit that absolute, total objectivity doesn't exist in anyone, actually, so it's absurd to use that as a means of dismissing such concerns.  I know all the arguments by police apologists and am willing to grant that in some cases, those arguments have some merit.   But in many cases, those arguments seem pretty thin to me.  Why be so secretive if there's nothing to hide?  If it was a mistake, surely they would want to admit that, right?  Well, no, we humans often are reluctant to own our errors.  And our jobs may depend on not coming clean!

Yesterday, Jon Stewart made a key point in his rant about the Ferguson police shooting of an unarmed black man:  can we not hold our police officers to a higher standard than that of a street gang?  Ignoring all of the divisive discussion about widespread racial profiling by police (which I deem to be an undeniable fact), the simple reality of many of these police shootings is that even the suspicion of a minor crime on the part of the victim is being used to justify the immediate use of deadly force (or massive beatings).  Is it not reasonable to expect that police officers might risk their own lives to avoid the needless taking of another's life?  Isn't that what we should expect from those charged with the awesome life and death responsibility to serve and protect us!

As events unfold on the media, we often hear the officer's version of the story as being forced to shoot (or beat) in self-defense, when citizen videos may contradict the officer's version.  Not always, of course - some citizen videos confirm what the officer said after the fact, but if that's the norm, then why are police reluctant to wear body cameras, and when they do wear them, why not disclose the video to the public in every case?  The fact they prefer to maintain secrecy seems indicative of a cover-up.  What's the point of wearing a body camera if the footage is kept purely internal?

My question to the police is a simple one:  if the main objective of the legal system you're sworn to uphold is justice for all, then why is exoneration of police officers your main concern in these events?  Shouldn't you be seeking to have external investigations in such cases, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest associated with your internal investigations?  Are you not remorseful over the taking of another human's life?  Or has your typical experience with much less than the best side of humanity resulted in dehumanizing others, to the point where you no longer care about whether they live or die?

We need a system for independent investigations, with full access to all the information available, including body cameras, dashboard cameras, etc.  Yes, bad apples exist and they disgrace the many officers who do their duty honorably (and at great personal risk).  Should we not be concerned to find those bad apples and remove them from the ranks of those entrusted with such a huge responsibility?