Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dangers Inherent in the Seductive Allure of Paradise

Both christians and muslims believe in an afterlife (for the "righteous") that's characterized by eternal bliss with their putative deity.  For the unbelievers and unrepentant sinners, there's eternal pain and torment.  This is the classic carrot-and-stick by which the faithful are controlled.  Reward or punishment?  It's your choice.  Submit or suffer forever, it appears.  This seems like a simple and effective way to control behavior and, to listen to many believers, it seems to work.  Furthermore, many people who experience the death of their friends and relatives are comforted by the thought that (a) the suffering (if any) has been exchanged for eternal bliss, and (b) they will meet again when the living join the dead in paradise.

Unfortunately, this seemingly simple black-and-white isn't so simple as it seems.  For instance, the comfort derived from the prospect of a heavenly afterlife for our friends and family members has to be a bit uncertain.  After all, there's precious little comfort if the deceased were to pass on into eternal torment!  How can we know for sure, since no one has ever come back and let us know how it turned out for them?  Can we know for sure that we'’ll pass muster when we die?  Every religion claims to be the right path.  At most, only one can be right, and they may all be wrong, even about the very existence of a heavenly afterlife reserved only for their followers.

And think about the attractive lure of paradise when your life becomes a living hell (at least as you or others see it)?  Why not take one's own life, put an end to your troubles, and hasten your entry into paradise?  The bible is silent on suicide, interestingly enough.  See:  here

The clergy figured out centuries ago that if they gave believers the choice of a hard, unpleasant life on Earth or an everlasting paradise in heaven, their churches could become rather sparsely populated!  Hence, the clergy invented a cure for this problem:  they ruled that suicide is a guaranteed way to wind up in the bad place to spend eternity, not the good place!!  No mention of that in the bible, so it's clearly an invention of the clergy.  Brilliant!  Problem solved, right?

Well, no, not completely.  Religious believers are still committing suicide, although some perhaps are swayed by this threat.  To what extent the prospect of paradise (or hades) motivates their decision, I certainly can't say.  Many people evidently see no alternative in this life, despite the threat of going to eternal torment for it.  Furthermore, suppose someone is having a really difficult time, or is perceived to be suffering (or about to suffer) by one of their friends or family?  Would it not be an act of mercy to murder them, and hasten their entry into paradise?  Surely, releasing someone (even without their permission) from physical pain and/or mental agony would be an act of altruism.  But of course, murder is a sin and damns the murderer in the afterlife .  Nevertheless, in some people’s twisted mind, this "benevolent" act is a selfless sacrifice by the murderer.  You give up your own ticket to heaven (and book a ticket to hell) for the noble purpose of sending the sufferer to immortal joy, relieving them of their anguish.

We see reports of this sort of "benevolent murder" all too often – it's pretty obvious that such people have a very twisted view of right and wrong.  Most would agree that the perpetrators are mentally ill, and such a diagnosis is probably correct.  But these murderers believe they’re doing good, not evil.  Mainstream religion has provided them with this vision of neverending paradise that they believe not only justifies their crime, but ennobles it!  The vision itself likely isn't the root cause of their murderous deeds, but it's a way that a sick mind can “rationalize” what they do.  The prospect of paradise for the victim is a ready-made excuse, and the hope for gaining paradise is preached by religious clergy all the time.

To what extent does such a justification affect the frequency of murder among believers versus non-believers?  I haven't done the work to give a proper answer to that and know of no work done on this subject.  But I can virtually guarantee that no atheist will ever justify a murder for such a "reason".  What might these sick minds have done without the vision of their deeds as help, not harm?  No one can know that, of course.  They might have found a different excuse for their murder, or they might not have done the murder at all.  We can only speculate on what might have been, but we do know for a fact that the allure of a heavenly paradise was used as the reason they gave for their actions.  If they didn't actually need the excuse, nevertheless they used it rather than something else.

In a related vein, the religious concept of the "end of times" includes the sweeping up of all the righteous into paradise and the eternal punishment of all the unbelievers and unrepentant sinners.  I find it worrisome that some people actually look forward to this "end of times" evolution, with its "settling of all the accounts".  Rather than seeking to make the Earth a better place, such people are provided with a ready-made excuse to do nothing to improve our lives in this life.  And I've even heard people say that if they could hasten the day of the world's end by doing something, they'd gladly do so. That is, in my view, a sick person, deluded by religion in the arrogant, narcissistic belief that they surely would be selected for paradise.

Paradise in an afterlife has some pretty worrisome implications as a concept, if you think about it – it puts a benevolent face on an otherwise evil deed.  Suicidal terrorists often justify themselves this way, as well - they're sacrificing their lives for the sake of advancing their (religious) aims, and so will be guaranteed an eternity in heaven.  The paradise concept  doesn’t cause mental illness and murder, but it does make it possible for sick, deluded people to justify horrific acts.  In the absence of the belief in a paradise (and/or an anti-paradise), mentally ill people might find other excuses, but this one is so widely disseminated and accepted, it falls readily into their hands.  It is concept that provides fertile ground for diseased minds.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Take a Dose of Empathy and See If It Helps you Feel Better

I spent the years of my life before college in DuPage County, IL, a nearly homogeneous bastion of white, conservative Middle America.  The spectrum of ethnicity we had was dominated almost entirely by the choice of religion.  We didn't have blacks or Hispanics or even Asians living in our communities and attending my schools - if there were any, I never knew of them or saw them.  As a boy, I seem to recall being told a  story that a middle-class African-American couple wanted to buy a home in one of my hometown neighborhoods.  All the neighbors were so horrified, the story goes, they offered to buy the property from the homeowners rather than letting a black couple live in their precious paradise.  I don't know if the story is true.  But it's safe to say that I grew up in lily-white America, and it was very much like that in my university experiences, as well.  Yes, there were diverse ethnicities at the Universities of Wisconsin and Oklahoma in the 1960s (especially on the football teams!), but not in the circles within which I circulated.  I was taking mostly math and physics and such, after all.

In July of 1969, I was drafted into the Army and even spent a tour in Vietnam.  Needless to say, the Army wasn't too proud to take anyone in as cannon fodder in Vietnam, so I was suddenly tossed into a world where cultural and ethnic diversity was light years beyond anything I'd ever experienced.  I was rather startled by it all ... but all of us enlisted draftee swine had a common enemy:  the Army!  In the military, you make friends quickly or you'll have no friends at all.  Via the vehicle of marijuana, I suddenly found myself amidst a very different group of people than at any time before:  blacks from all over the US, Latinos, even southern rednecks!!  And a few of us actually respected the Vietnamese rather than dismissing them as contemptible, subhuman "gooks".  The "heads" were my primary group affiliation, although my best friend in the military was a white farmer from Oregon - and he hung with the same group I did!  Lo and behold.  After the shock wore off, I found it relatively easy to get along with pretty much any cultural or ethnic group.  I realized by actually talking with them that they valued mostly the same things I did.  They disliked many of the same things I did.  We had much in common and I found the cultural differences interesting, rather than threatening.

That experience stayed with me, but when I left the military and returned to the civilian world, I re-entered those circles that traditionally have been sparsely-populated by non-whites.  Hence, my group affiliations once again reflected a relative minimum of diversity.  Recently, though, there has been some progress.  Circumstances once again have conspired to let me know real people who don't share my skin coloration and ethnic background.  Lo, and behold! - they've had very different experiences from mine!  When they share their experiences, I sometimes find myself being embarrassed for those who share my ethnicity but not my attitudes.  It's not my fault that some people I know are racists, but it's difficult to interact comfortably with my non-white friends when some awful example of racism becomes front page news.  I guess I shouldn't expect comfort when confronting these issues, eh?

Here's what I think is the key to eventually defeating the poison of racism in our nation:  empathy.  If people just try to imagine what the world looks like to someone different from themselves, then perhaps we can begin to see why they do what they do, and think like how they think.  It doesn't necessarily mean that they're right in their thinking (nor does it mean I'm right in my thinking), but it helps to understand them better.  If you take advantage of any chances to speak with someone different and thereby have a dialog about things, perhaps you will learn things you never imagined to be so.  How does the world look to someone else?  You'll never know if you don't listen and don't ask - if you never talk with them and at least try to imagine their point of view. True empathy is when you've experienced precisely what they've experienced, but the next best thing is hearing about their experiences directly from them.  Then at least you can imagine what it might be like for them.

I can make an argument that empathy is the wellspring of morality ... but this is not the time or place.  As we approach the Christmas holiday season, I wish I could give everyone a big dose of empathy.  I suspect many people would feel better in a lot of ways if I could do that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Lengthy, Point-by-Point Response

A while back, I posted a blog about the atrocities perpetrated by Communist dictatorships.  Someone has attempted to discredit one aspect of the arguments therein, so I created a point-by-point response.  The result was rather too lengthy for this blog format, so I posted it on the web, here.  Short comments can be offered via this blog, but lengthy, detailed commentary should be sent via email using the address provided in the essay.

Giving Up the High Ground in the War on Terror

The recent Senate committee investigation of the use of torture on prisoners in the "war on terror" has confirmed what seemed obviously to be the case several years ago:  the USA has been using terrorist methods on their prisoners.  The Senate investigation concluded that little or nothing was gained in terms of useful information by resorting to torture, so the only substantial outcome of the process has been the validation of terrorist claims that the USA is an immoral international bully.

I've repeatedly said that violence only leads to more violence, and that terrorism is a tactic resorted to primarily by militarily weak opponents, who can't possibly win a "set piece" military confrontation.  The terrorists can't hope to win a purely military victory, so they're smart enough not even to try to do so, but if they can instill fear in us and use that fear to cause us to adopt fascist tactics to fight terrorism (e.g., giving up personal freedom in the name of security), then they'll have succeeded in their limited aims.  By giving up the moral high ground in this battle between some fanatic religious sects and a world superpower, we hand them a cheap victory.  We confirm their "great satan" claims about us, and expend our resources in a vain effort to kill enough of the terrorists to get them to stop their actions.  Can we not see that religious fanatics will never give up?  Can we not see that for each one we kill, making them into martyrs, we only create more terrorists?  Can we not see that "collateral damage" to noncombatant citizens from our war on terror makes new terrorists every day?  Can we not see that the primary beneficiaries of our massive military expenditures are the big defense corporations?  Are we not smart enough to see that a purely military victory is impossible?

I know there are many Americans out there who advocate giving the terrorists a taste of their own methods.  There are many Americans who say that terrorists have no rights and deserve whatever pain we can inflict on them, by whatever means.  Clearly, many Americans prefer vengeance over morality, despite their "christian" upbringing.  Treating our enemies in the way they treat us removes any substantive difference between us and them!  Do many Americans fail to see this?  Evidently so.

This nation was founded on the basis of high moral principles:  freedom and justice for all, in particular.  Due process.  Probable cause.  Innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone entitled to legal representation.  Habeas corpus.   Speedy trials by jury.  Humane treatment while in prison.  Cruel and unusual punishment forbidden.  If the GWB administration was so certain about the correctness of their actions in employing torture on prisoners, then why did they feel compelled to lie about it?  When someone says one thing and does the opposite, that's generally called hypocrisy.  And, as often observed by my friend R.J. Evans, the hypocrisy always reveals the lie.  Americans like to point to themselves as the standard bearers for freedom and justice in the world, but the facts lately seem to contradict that claimed status.  Many people in the world have reason to see us a bullies, using our military might to serve mostly selfish ends (like "protecting" oil for the big energy corporations to enrich themselves and use the wealth to influence the political process), paying lip service to our ideals.

It's hard to live up to those lofty ideals, it seems.  Many Americans apparently are all too ready to discard those ideals in order to wreak vengeance on our terrorist enemies.  They simply can't see that such actions ultimately reveal that we don't have enough faith in our own ideals to defend our moral high ground simply by resisting the temptation to resort to tactics like torture.  We should show the world by our example that it's not us but the terrorists who are immoral, violently evil fanatics, willing to do anything to advance their political/religious cause.  We should re-confirm our claims that our nation is the embodiment of high ideals for the world to emulate rather than descending into the same slime pit the terrorists occupy.  We should defend personal freedoms and personal justice for all (even accused terrorists) even more vigorously, rather than giving them up in the forlorn hope of defeating terrorism by rooting terrorists out and killing them.

I have no love for terrorists.  I don't mourn the deaths of their leaders (but neither do I celebrate their deaths).  They are evil fanatics!  But I maintain we can't "win" a military victory over terrorism.  The "security" we've gained by sacrificing our rights as human beings in this war on terror is an illusion.  Terrorists will always be able to find holes in that security - no security plan is impenetrable.  Not only is that security ultimately ineffective against terrorism, but it's expensive!  We're bankrupting ourselves with our tactics, including fighting unwinnable wars on foreign soil and maintaining the very same military-industrial complex about which outgoing President Eisenhower warned us.  Can most Americans not see this?  Evidently not.  That just plays into the terrorists' hand.

What we can do to limit the effectiveness of terror is stay true to our principles and show that they're wrong about us and our ideals, thereby marginalizing them and limiting their power of fear over us by restoring our lost freedoms and once again supporting justice for all

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Christmas Cherry in Music

This time of year, the music of Christmas fills the air - in malls, on TV, in concerts and elevators.  After all " 'tis the season to be jolly! ".  For me, since the music is an integral part of the season and, therefore, I was raised with it, so the sounds bring back memories of Christmas past.  Today, my wife and I attended a Christmas concert at OU that was delightful and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There were even sing-alongs of some of the religious songs, with which I gladly joined.  I still remember the words to those songs (for the most part) after all these years.  What fun - I even had to wipe some tears from my eyes at times!  Music is something that can touch any living person, needs no translation, and allows the spirit to soar -  your voice breaks and your heart fills your chest.  Tears can flow, chills can run up your spine, and you are carried to places where the only thing that matters is that moment.  You lose your "self" in such moments.  That someone could compose music centuries ago that still has the ability to affect us so deeply means that some cord of commonality exists between us and that composer - who may be long dead but is still capable of communication with us! 

Some might see the combination of my forthright atheism and Christmas songs to be somewhat confusing.  In my view of things, the music is beautiful beyond question and the memories are mostly wonderful.  If you find it bothersome that I can enjoy Christmas music, then I say you're the one with a problem, not me.  I don't feel any hesitation or embarrassment in saying that I enjoy Christmas music.

What I find sad and disappointing is the extent to which many fail to live up the the lofty ideals within those Christmas songs - except perhaps for the few weeks when Christmas is looming on the horizon.  It's also the case that many people - usually those experiencing misfortunes of one sort or another - may find Christmas to be a miserable time.  The happiness surrounding them can be depressing.

That many christians "cherry-pick" their bibles is something I've noted in some of my atheist polemics:  Christians select those passages that reflect their personal views, even as they rationalize away (or ignore) passages that don't match those views.   This tactic is convenient for accommodating some of the nasty bits of biblical scripture, as I've pointed out.  But I have no big problem with someone who chooses to follow this path - after all, religion ultimately is a very personal thing and not everyone adheres to precisely the same dogma as everyone else, despite millennia of attempts by organized religious denominations to get everyone on the same page, at times using violent methods.  All I ask is that the cherry-pickers acknowledge what they're doing.  In America, this sort of individual selection of religious elements is rampant - Americans are notoriously difficult to get to march in lockstep - one of our positive traits in my book!  Every believer has their own personal spin on their spiritual beliefs.

If religious believers can cherry-pick their scriptures, it seems perfectly acceptable for me to cherry-pick the aspects of religion I prefer:  the music, the art, the devotion to charity for the disadvantaged, the call to love one's enemies, and so forth.  I see nothing wrong or hypocritical about that and nowhere is it in conflict with my atheist morality.  [Yes, atheists can be moral without the need for a deity and the scriptures associated with that deity!]  I choose to reject all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo as metaphorical at best and certainly don't see those scriptures as inspired by some all-everything deity.  The basic tenets of religious faith I reject as irrational, contradictory, and even potentially harmful.  But religion has, beyond doubt, inspired many of the world's artists to contribute their finest works.  Let anyone hearing Handel's Messiah tell me they aren't buoyed to great emotional heights by the power of that work!  Not coincidentally, this afternoon's concert concluded with the Hallelujah! Chorus at the end of Handel's Messiah.  During my junior year in high school, our Christmas concert concluded with that same piece and it was an emotional volcano to be a part of the combined choirs as we belted out that joyful emotion embodied in song.  You would have to be a dead soul not to find that inspirational, even when you're an atheist!

The power of music to reach into our psyche is not rational.  There's no logic to support that.  It's beyond reason but, rather, touches something deep in our DNA.  Most people are vulnerable to its power even if they, like me, have little or no talent for making music themselves.  Music, in my opinion, is a great gift of our existence.  That I have children who are musically-inclined is a great joy to me.  And I love Christmas music.  Anyone who has a problem with that can go eat shit.

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.

Update:

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?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Addiction, Depression, Suicide - Thoughts on the Suicide of Robin Williams

The untimely death of Robin Williams has forced many of us to ponder some nasty realities.  Amidst the numerous tributes and expressions of condolence (as well as the ugly political opportunism by some right-wing folks, including some typically thoughtless and cynical remarks by Rush Limbaugh), there have been some posts that actually offer some worthwhile things to ponder.  They have stimulated this blog.

Addiction to various substances (alcohol, addictive drugs) and behaviors (gambling) is an awful thing to experience when it happens to close friends and family.  If you haven't experienced this first hand, it's likely very difficult to understand.  A friend of mine said his experiences with his family member left him feeling completely powerless to know what to say or do that would cause the addicted person to get off the self-destructive path they're on.  Unfortunately, it's not up to us to change their behavior - it's in their hands.  They have to want to get over their dependence on the behavior so badly, they'll do whatever it takes.  I dislike 12-step programs that say the victims are powerless in the face of their addiction.  That's ultimately self-defeating and in many cases is often just an excuse to push religion on addicts.  But by no means do I want to diminish the power of addiction.  If addicts can't break the grip of their behavior, it's not necessarily a sign of weakness - it's a sign of how powerful the grip of these addictions can be.  Solutions to the problem of addictions remain elusive. Why do people feel the need to escape from the world via their addictions?  I suppose the reasons are many and varied, but the typical result is that their behavior makes their self-esteem fall still farther in a nasty positive feedback loop that can end in total disaster and death.  Friends and family may only be able to look on in horror as this downward spiral unfolds.  In my circles, there are several such situations that have gone on and are still ongoing.  The friends and family members likely need support as much as the addict!

The war on drugs is just as ineffective and counterproductive as was prohibition of alcohol.  As I see it, you can't solve this problem at the supply end.  If you remove one supplier, there are dozens willing to take that place, because there's so much profit in it.  The path to a solution has to be at the demand end.  How can we keep people from abusing certain behaviors that in and of themselves are not necessarily destructive?  I wish I knew.  I wish someone knew.  Rather than waging war on the supply side, and jailing people for their addictions, we should be using our resources to do the research into the challenge of preventing people from self-destructive behaviors on the demand side.

Depression and addiction aren't always associated, but depression apparently often leads to the sort of need to escape reality that addicts seek.  Not all those who are depressed are addicts of one type or another, but their suffering is real and often in silence - until it's too late.  There are many causes for depression - it can be a fatal illness, sadly.  Those suffering from depression in its many forms, including bipolar disorders, desperately need support but may shun the very people who could help the most.  Frankly, it's depressing to consider depression!  But if we can't face the issue, and it's as widespread as it seems to be, then we won't ever find a solution and tragedy will continue.

And of course, depression often leads to suicide attempts.  I've known people who have committed suicide and those of us left behind struggle to understand why someone we know and love would cause us so much pain.  We ask "Why?" "What could I have done to prevent this?"  Suicide ends the pain for the person who kills him/herself, but the pain goes on and on for the friends and family, who often struggle with their guilt over what they could have or should have done to stop this tragedy.  Thus, suicide is a selfish act, but for the person seeking to end their own personal pain, it seems there as if there's no other way for them.  There's no point to casting blame on the person who committed the suicide, but it's easy to understand the agony and even anger on the part of those left behind.  I don't pretend to know why a popular and successful public figure commits suicide - it seems all too common.  Wealth and fame aren't always good things, I guess.  Some of those left behind become so depressed over the suicide of a beloved friend or family member, they also give in to their pain.  Again, I can't pretend to have any solutions, but suicide always is an occasion on which survivors are forced to reflect.

What's the meaning of a life?  I've written about that here and here, but I can't claim any particularly satisfying or deep insight.  I know that as I get older, every year I lose more friends and family.  What I'm left with is their legacy:  the things they accomplished during their lives, the humanity we shared, the joys and sorrows we experienced together.  I don't believe in some cosmic purpose for life, so I see the search for that to be futile and not worth the effort.  If there's any meaning to our lives, it's how we go about creating a meaning for us as individuals through our friends and family, our professional work, our charity, our giving back for the blessings we have, and so on.  If the suicide of Robin Williams is to have any positive outcome, it will be the people moved by it to give something back to humanity for the gift of their lives.  I'm convinced we help ourselves the most when we push our "selves" to the back burner and seek to use our abilities and learned skills for the benefit of as many as possible.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Still an idealist

The definition of an idealist is "a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations."  Although guided by those ideals, I also try to remain aware of practical reality.  In particular, the latest installment of the never-ending conflict in the Middle East puts my ideals to the test.  Yes, that part of the world has been in violent dispute for thousands of years.  Radicals, goaded on by their leaders, employing their personal interpretations of religious faith, have used terrorism, genocide, and war to try to carry out their political ends.  I say "try" because it's pretty evident they've all failed to achieve a stable peace through violence.  It's widely accepted that it's a form of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome.  I'm told by some that it's foolish to hope for the madness that permeates the region (and occasionally spills out on the rest of the world) to end one day, to hope that the warring sects eventually will come to realize the futility of their violence.  Well, my message here is that I just can't give up that hope, even though my understanding of this unreal "reality" is that there's no such hope in the near future.

Vengeance for wrongs committed is poor excuse for violence.  It can't bring back those killed in previous violence, and whatever "satisfaction" is served by murder in the name of vengeance is ephemeral.  Such hatred only serves to destroy the hater from the inside.  For believers, consider Leviticus 19:18 ... "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."  That message appears over and over in the bible.  And in the koran, a similar sentiment can be found "The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof."  Of course, in those same documents can be found very contradictory calls (or even demands) for violence against their enemies.   Apparently, in Abrahamic religions, vengeance is not entirely left in the hands of their deity - or at least the message in this regard is pretty mixed.

Ironically, the unceasing violence that dominates the Middle East is thoroughly covered with the cloak of "religions of peace".  Like politics, the mindset of religion is dominated by unthinking, unquestioning obedience.  Religion and politics often are bedfellows in the rape of humanity - not always, of course, but history says this is a common situation.  Sometimes politicians see religion for what it is:  a means of exercising control over people, and so some politicians seek the suppression of religion since it can be a competitor for that control.  But religions typically survive (or even thrive) under political suppression - believers often see themselves as being persecuted for their beliefs, even as believers persecute others for their different beliefs.  One need only to look at theocracies or nations dominated by one religion to see the fruits of such tribalism.

Nationalism and religion are simply tribalism made manifest.  Tribalism is the ultimate source of "us versus them" - it requires conformity (obedience, control), rewarding those who support the tribe and punishing those who don't.  Tribalism simultaneously can induce compassion (reserved for the tribe members) and encourage cruelty (toward members of other tribes).  Tribalism is buried deeply in our evolutionary heritage and so has become instinctive.  We find comfort in the security of surrounding ourselves with people of similar beliefs and are discomforted in the presence of those who differ from us.  It's the wellspring from which bigotry, hatred, and violence flow.  That sort of "thinking" likely was helpful to the survival of early humans and so is hard-wired in our brains.  But what was helpful in days of primitive human existence is not at all helpful today.  Seeking company only of like-minded people nowadays is seen by many as harmful and counter-productive:  being challenged by someone of a different mindset is seen by many as a good thing.  Interestingly, some of those mouthing such words are, in fact, wholly dismissive of opposing viewpoints.  This had led the US to a deeply divided society:  liberals in one tribe, conservatives in another, who pour invective on the "enemy" and their leaders.  Wake up, folks!  This is unproductive tribalism and, given free rein, it ultimately can lead us to violence.

Since I'm an idealist, I must maintain the hope we can overcome this.  There are some who proclaim the secular humanist viewpoint that it's unhealthy to surround ourselves with those of entirely like minds.  We can think things through and if we do so, it should be possible to suppress our tendency to yield to tribalism, to push back the anger and the bloodlust that tribalism generates to support our wish to impose vengeance on those who differ from us.  Our experience tells us that achieving vengeance only hardens the will of the "tribe" upon which we exact vengeance - it creates a never-ending "feud" that can only achieve more of the same.  It creates new recruits for our "enemies", ready to sacrifice themselves just to kill us.  Surely we can agree not to give in to primitive urges, choosing instead to embrace diversity.  Tribalism is no longer the path to human survival.  We must work together to solve our many challenges in the modern world, or we risk falling back to a much more brutal form of existence.

Friday, July 25, 2014

That very rare commodity-a manager who was a real leader: Ken Crawford

I'm made some short FB posts about this, but this blog gives me a chance to be somewhat more complete.  On 23 July 2014, yet another friend and colleague of mine - Dr. Ken Crawford - died.  It seems 2014's toll on my friends and family continues.

I first met Ken when he was a forecaster in the Fort Worth, TX, Weather Forecast Office (WFO), thanks to my late friend and colleague, Al Moller.  Ken then moved to Slidell, LA, as a deputy station chief (Deputy Meteorologist-In-Charge); then he became MIC at the Oklahoma City (OKC) Office, and was still there as the MIC when the office moved to Norman (OUN).  Subsequently, he left the NWS and became a Professor of Meteorology at OU.  At the end of his career, he left the university to be involved with the Korea's national weather service.

Although I met him many years earlier, it was when the OKC office moved to OUN, and I followed not long after, when Dr. Bob Maddox became NSSL's Director, that my interactions with Ken really developed significantly for me.  Bob and I talked many times about our professional relationship with the Norman WFO across the street from our building on OU's North Campus.  We agreed on what to do and so convinced Ken that it would be a good thing if a research meteorologist from NSSL had an office in the OUN WFO.  Ken embraced the idea from the start, of course.  I was duly ensconced in the OUN WFO and, although as a non-NWS employee I wasn't authorized to issue forecasts, I had daily interactions with the staff.  Not only could I get to know and observe the people who actually made the local forecasts, but I could observe the office dynamics.  Those were some wonderful years for me and perhaps I might tell that story someday, but not now.

What I saw in Ken as the station chief was something I'd never encountered from a manager before.  Let me illustrate that with an anecdote:  When I would talk with "outside" people about the great things happening at the OUN WFO, they'd typically say something like, "Well, Ken Crawford has assembled a team of superstars there.  What else did you expect?"  The thing was, the group of people at the OUN WFO was, at that time, the same team (except for two people who were induced to leave the office) he'd inherited from the previous MIC.  Under the previous MIC, the office had been pretty low on the respect bar and Ken had effectively transformed the staff, but used the same people!!

How did he accomplish this?  Ken always operated under the principle that he would not be successful as a manager if his staff was not successful in their endeavors.  He understood that the people working for him aren't identical robots - they're individuals with particular strengths and weaknesses, so the idea is to use their strengths to contribute to the success of the office and to encourage them to improve in areas where they're weak.  Everyone was made to feel like an important member of the team.  And so the office prospered, even as his staff prospered (including winning various awards and kudos for their performance).  Ken always was supportive of his staff and was willing to "buck the system" should the need arise to help his office be successful.  I'm pretty confident that most, if not all of them, would have followed Ken wherever he led them, because it was clear that he reciprocated that respect.  How rare that perspective seems to be!  What a shame it's so rare - but Ken showed me by his actions how a good manager of people needs to operate.

When I was working in that WFO office of mine, one day it dawned on me that the 35 or so NSSL mesonetwork sites were just rusting away in a warehouse, and that they might be installed as a permanent mesonet for the benefit of the WFO operations.  When I brought up my idea to Ken, he then told me of his dream for a statewide mesonet that would have at least one station is every Oklahoma county!!  I was floored, but quickly discarded my own paltry idea to get behind Ken's Mesonet project.  He honored me by inviting my participation in the Mesonet Advisory Committee, a story all on its own and a time when I was very excited about what we were creating:  the Oklahoma Mesonet.  Circumstances forced me to give up my participation, but I'm very proud of what we set into motion on its way to becoming a reality.

When Ken became a faculty member, I had the opportunity to be a member of some of his grad student advisory committees.  I wasn't surprised to see the same overriding concern Ken showed to help those under his supervision to become successful.   Ken was an excellent meteorologist, above all, and that showed in his teaching.  Complex topics made sense when Ken explained them!  And he sought to challenge students to improve in their weak areas, even as they used their strengths - a familiar theme, implemented in a new context.  The panoply of his successful graduates is powerful testimony to the acuity of his vision for what he should do to be successful himself.

His death leaves a hole in our weather community that can't ever be filled, to say nothing of the loss felt by his close friends and family.  Yet, those of us who mourn his passing are supported by the gratitude we feel for having been his friend and colleague, or family member.  Ken was a very, very special person, who leaves us the gift of his presence and the inheritance of his achievements.  It's selfish to dwell on our grief over his absence - he'd want us to move on, capitalizing on what we do well and seeking to improve on what we do poorly, as he showed so many of us how to do in so many ways.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on the eve of the Fourth of July

As many of my readers may already know, I was drafted in August of 1969, after completing my first 9 semester hours of coursework toward my doctorate.  The occasion prompting the elimination of the student deferment for graduate students was the Vietnam war, and so while I was working as a student trainee for the summer in Kansas City, I received that fateful letter informing me I had to report for duty on such-and-so a date at the Chicago Induction Center.

As early as high school, it became clear to me that the Vietnam mess threatened to suck me in, and that threat had grown with time.  I would turn 24 years old that fall and had been reading about Vietnam and its history.  Even to a naive college student, it was obvious that our nation was headed toward the disaster that involvement in Vietnam would create for us.  The Vietnamese had a rich history of fighting against and repelling foreign invaders, and that was precisely what we were:  invaders.  I knew that the Vietnam war was a terribly bad choice for our nation, and our American freedoms were at no way at stake in Vietnam.

So, I struggled with the decision of what to do.  I had 3 options, basically:  (1) go to Vietnam, (2) go to Canada, or (3) go to jail.  The latter options both would have destroyed any chance I had for a career as I'd envisioned it.  So ... to serve my own ends, I reported for duty and the rest of that adventure followed its course.  For many years, I was ashamed of my inability to accept the consequences for resisting what I knew was wrong.  I still feel some of that shame, although time has shown me that my time in service had many positive aspects I didn't recognize during my enlistment.  For whatever reason, I still fulfilled my obligation to serve my country when called upon.  That's not something I'm ashamed of, at least by now.  As my father served before me, and my son has served (and still serves), so did I.  I feel no honor in my service, but I did serve.

I've never felt a lot of animosity for those who skated out of being in the military during the Vietnam era.  No, my animosity is toward those who supported that terrible war, even as they avoided any commitment of their own lives in that very conflict.  The chickenhawks.   Those unwilling to do what they said others should do.

To me it comes down to is this:  my country has not always been right to become involved in foreign wars.  In some cases - like WWII and the first Gulf War - that involvement was necessary.  This is not the case when it comes to our participation in the so-called "Iraqi Freedom" war and our continuation of the so-called "Enduring Freedom" war in Afghanistan.  The latter might have been justified early in its evolution, but nation-building in a foreign land with no democratic traditions is a terrible mistake.  Both of these bad decisions pushed through by chickenhawk politicians have proven to be nightmares in the same fashion as our war in Vietnam.  Hopeless messes with no logical "end game" - trying to build our brand of freedom in nations where foreign ideas are nearly universally loathed and foreign invaders resisted implacably and without limit on the means.  I honor those who stand by their principles and refuse to serve in such a war!  We support the principles of American freedom most meaningfully when we protest the wrongs our nation's government perpetrates.  When we decline to support those wrongs.  When we make sacrifices of conscience to draw attention to those wrongs.

I love the USA and the principles under which it was founded by those who declared our independence from English rule on 04 July 1776.  But my love of my nation is not of the "My country - right or wrong" variety.  I believe it's our obligation to challenge our government when it commits wrongful acts in our names.  Now, with my career in its final years, it's relatively easy for me to protest our involvement in pointless, unnecessary foreign incursions, with a huge cost to our nation - not just in the trillions spent on these debacles, but the cost to our young men and women, and the cost to the Iraqis and Afghanis we have killed.  Just like in Vietnam ...

It's the chickenhawks whom I most detest in all of this:  the rich and privileged who can use their circumstances, their wealth, and their influence to avoid serving in the wars they support and create.  They like to perpetuate the myth that our warfighters are there to preserve American freedom.  Bullshit!  Our young men and women are fighting for oil and corporate profits and political hegemony and ludicrous ideological notions, not American freedoms!  These are unworthy ends, incapable of justifying the tremendous costs inflicted by these ugly conflicts on foreign soil.  American blood (to say nothing of others) is being spilled without American freedoms being challenged by those "enemies" living in those lands.

Our founding fathers supported asymmetric warfare against the British to earn our independence.  We should be able to relate to those who seek self-determination through asymmetric warfare, even as we may disagree with their principles.  Surely we can understand people who resent having a foreign system imposed on them by powerful foreign invaders.  It's easy to feel empathy toward those who simply want to be left alone to follow whatever course they choose.  It's only when they choose to impose their course on others that we have any viable argument to oppose them - and military intervention is not our only alternative in opposition.   We in the USA can't claim the moral high ground when our history is laced with examples of unjustified interventions in the affairs of other nations.

I think the Fourth of July represents a good time to reflect on what we are doing and why we're doing it.  Let us mull over what is truly at stake, here and now.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A logical dilemma for a scientist

It's widely accepted that the Internet is awash with nonsense, as well as vast amounts of good information.  All sorts of wild notions are given "equal time" with other notions supported by genuinely knowledgeable people.  A thinking person understands that and behaves accordingly, not accepting any single source and seeking out information to get a balanced perspective.  Since the very beginning of my meteorological career, I've been dealing with "crackpots" on a regular basis.  First by mail, then by email, and now via social media.  There's a fuzzy boundary between truly innovative thinking and outright nonsense, and I've been dealing with "outsiders" (i.e., those who are not severe storm meteorologists) for decades.  I have files of interactions with crackpots.  An extremely high percentage of the "ideas" from outsiders are pure nonsense, despite the very rare instances when an outsider actually brings something worthwhile to the forefront (e.g., Alfred Wegner - the meteorologist who first proposed "continental drift" - known now as plate tectonics).  For every such example, there are hundreds of claims that are pure bullshit.

A recent example is the physicist who wants to erect walls to prevent the "clash of air masses" that purportedly "causes" tornadoes.  Recently, he even had to gall to respond to his meteorologist critics by asserting that their physics education was too weak to grasp his brilliant ideas!  This, from a physicist without any meteorological background!

Another recent example is found here, where the person clearly doesn't understand the physics of atmospheric gases.  He questions fundamental physical laws but provides no meaningful basis for his lack of belief in them.  There's no basis for his wild claims about the relative densities of moist versus dry air, inter alia.  Thinking "outside the box" is one thing - making counterscientific claims with no substantial evidence is quite another.

The issue that confronts us is this:  by responding to these nonsensical ideas, are we not affording them more respect than they deserve?  Are we not prolonging the "debate" with the authors of these unscientific notions when we attempt to refute them?  Would it not be better simply to ignore this blizzard of balderdash?

Well, for one thing, the public media, including, but not limited to,  social media on the Internet - in their technical ignorance - often don't allow these sleeping dogs to lie.  Crazy ideas like the "tornado wall" are news!!  The media bring them up over and over, incessantly bombarding their readers with questions for which they (i.e., the media) are too ignorant to answer.  By leaving the questions hanging, the media lend credence to unscientific notions.  Even when they provide quotes from actual practical scientists disputing crackpot hypotheses (not theories! - in science, the word theory has a much different meaning than in colloquial speaking), I suspect many readers are left thinking the crackpots have some legitimacy.  Scientific ideas are not settled by debate ... they're either validated by the logic and evidence, or they're not.

Thus, the public is bombarded with crackpot notions like chemtrails and the HAARP conspiracy.  The decline of respect for science in this nation, combined with abysmally bad science education (where creationism is taught as legitimate science by some public schools dominated by ignorant christians), is fueled by the barrage of outright bullshit from the media.  If we don't respond in some way to this flood from the cesspool of scientific ignorance, we run the risk of seeming to advocate it with our silence.

In my experience, there seems to be no way to get across any sort of nuanced notion by appearing on the regular (non-Internet) media, such as TV or radio.  Hence, I have a general policy of not doing interviews for the media - with rare exceptions.  My few pitiful sound bites and abbreviated presentations of nuanced notions inevitably are overwhelmed in the crushing cascade of crapola.   I always come away from such experiences feeling frustrated with how little I'm allowed to say.  There's a constant push to get away from typical scientific thinking, where "shades of gray" are the norm and ideas are presented with many caveats to prevent misunderstanding - toward the black and white world of dumbed-down short sound bites.

Science, as it really is practiced, requires deep, nuanced understanding.  Some scientists may be notably effective at presenting scientific ideas to the public (e.g., Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson), and so are given more time to present those ideas.  Most of us are hampered by the fact that in order to understand the subtleties, one must have some background in science.   If we keep it short to fit the apparent assumed short attention spans of media "consumers", we run the risk of leaving something important out - either for brevity per se, or because we were rushed and forgot to add it to our presentations.

So should we respond ... or not ... to the crackpots?  Is it worthwhile to seek opportunities to make presentations to the media?  Insofar as the media control the content, I say "No!"  But here on the Internet, the medium remains open to all.  The crackpots and the scientists are given equal opportunity.  I say we scientists should take every opportunity to discredit the crackpots here on the Internet.  We can take as much time as we want, and seek to provide evidence and logic to support our attempts to discredit the wild claims of the crackpots.