Monday, January 30, 2017

My perspective about the poltical situation - 30 Jan 2017

A friend has asked me to compare what we're going through now to other political crises you've experienced in the US.  An interesting suggestion.  So here goes ...

I was born at the end of 1945, so my adult family members went through WWII and are widely considered to be members of the 'greatest generation'.  As in all wars, the crisis of WWII led to the nation running roughshod over the Constitutional rights of some Americans, notably the Japanese-Americans.  Since I have no direct experience with WWII, I can't say much about that crisis, except to note that the suspension of at least some Constitutional rights has happened several times in the history of the US wars.  I've read a lot about the Civil War, WWI, and WWII and the associated politics, but that doesn't make me a proper historian.

I was barely old enough to have much grasp of the Korean War, especially early on.  This was the opening conflict of the Cold War.  I remember seeing news from the 1953 peace talks at P’anmunjŏm and how happy everyone was that the war had ended - with an armistice (not a peace treaty).  Technically, the Korean War never ended; North and South Korea are still at war.  This war was the time of Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee - he was characterized by a sort of crypto-fascist extreme nationalism.  McCarthy overreached his mandate and was repudiated for his extremist views.

When I was in junior high, I had a Social Studies teacher who was a rabid anti-communist.  He harangued us with frequent fear-mongering rants about the dangers of soviet and Chinese communism. This fear caused me to do some investigating on my own, so I literally read dozens of books about soviet communism.  I wanted to understand why the soviets hated us so much, even as we were being taught to hate them.  The Cold War went on for many more years, and I remember being drilled about "duck and cover" in school in the event of a nuclear war.  I was raised at a time of intense suspicion, fear, and paranoia based on what I was told about the soviet threat.  You lived every day of the Cold War under a constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  My readings convinced me of two things: 1. the Russian people didn't really hate us, and 2. most Americans were ignorant about Russian history.  Like many wars, the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, not between ordinary people.  All of us were in constant danger of being killed in a nuclear war - for something as foolish as a clash over ideology.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 occurred when I was in high school.  It was to take the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, and that fear was quite real for many days.  JFK and Nikita Khrushchev finally negotiated a settlement that ended that terrifying threat.  To us, it seemed the evil soviets had been forced to back down. The real negotiations were not at all consistent with that perspective, but both populations were fed a bogus narrative that was politically expedient for the politicians who had threatened our very existence.

The Cold War became hot again when we engaged in the Vietnam War - a tragic error in judgment by the US (including choices made by JFK and then LBJ).  Like the Korean War, the Vietnam War was not declared formally - in the jargon of the age, it was described as a "police action" fought not by police but by the military forces of the US.  Ostensibly, it was a matter of "containment" of communism - the so-called "domino hypothesis" that if Vietnam fell to communism, that evil ideology would spread across all of southeast Asia and on to the rest of the world.  By the time when the US was defeated in that war (after winning most of the battles decisively), it had divided the nation.  Conservatives felt we should have "won" the war by any means possible (even though there was no clear way to define what "winning" such a war would mean), but toward the end of our Vietnam troop presence, so many Americans were so opposed to the war that LBJ chose not to run for re-election.  The anti-war riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago happened under eyes of the media - as the chant went "The whole world is watching!"  I watched the TV coverage of that event.  Nixon (before he was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate political scandal and subsequent cover-up) tried to cast our departure from Vietnam as "peace with honor" ... but it was a defeat, pure and simple.

I will have only a little to say about the civil rights movement as it had developed around the time of the early beginnings of the Vietnam War.  It's evidence of another source of division in America. White privilege made much of that divisive clash invisible to me:  I was raised in a lily-white bubble, so I had virtually no understanding of what was happening at the time.  One couldn't help but feel ashamed of what was happening to black people in this nation, as shown nearly nightly on TV.  My time in the Army (including in Vietnam) began a process of clearing away the white foam that so limited my comprehension.  For the very first time, in that war, I actually talked with and worked with and played with black Americans  That clearing process continues to this very day, as racism has not ended in America - not by a longshot!

My nation has a long history of cyclic swings of the political center - sometimes left, sometimes right.  My perspective is that the conservative v. liberal struggle has changed from having a spirit of mutual respect and compromise for mutual benefit, to become so divisive and downright dirty that many people have grown deeply disillusioned with our government.  The government is paralyzed by uncompromising political ideology conflict.  It's become acceptable to propose unconstitutional policies in the political arena to gain political ascendancy.  Gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement have solidified the dominance of the conservatives (GOP) in Congress.  Many people have lost faith in the principles laid down by our nation's founders.  Many are willing to be racists, to be chickenhawks (willing to send our troops into battle but unwilling to fight in those battles), to murder those who violate their personal sense of what is moral.

We've gone to war several times on the basis of an exaggerated fear for the threat posed by terrorism - which concedes victory to the terrorists.  Fear is their goal, and when we give in to that fear, they celebrate.  The reality of our continuing wars is what former President Eisenhower warned about:  those in the military and those engaged in war industries coming to dominate policy decisions regarding going to war to maximize profits.  In no war in my lifetime has there been a credible threat to freedoms in the USA against which to defend on foreign soil.  The biggest threat to American freedoms is neither foreign nations nor terrorist groups.  Rather, the threat to our freedoms comes mostly from the willingness of people to give up their freedoms for the illusion of security.  We seem to be able to tolerate NSA monitoring of email, social media, phone conversations without any warrant or probable cause.  The politicians passed the Patriot Act, ostensibly to combat terrorism.  We operate a prison in Guantanamo that is manifestly illegal, and contrary to American law as it is supposed to be practiced.  We have employed the discredited and widely disavowed practice of torture to obtain information from prisoners of our wars.

 My readings of history have shown me that many Americans are inclined to believe that we somehow are immune to becoming a fascist police state, an oligarchical kleptocracy, or even a theocracy.  I see no evidence to support that delusional belief in American Exceptionalism.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  I see evidence we're quite vulnerable to dictatorial fascism.  The belief that "it can't happen here" is pervasive - it opens a wedge in which a demagogue can enter at a critical time and win a power battle that results in a fascist cult of personality. The rest will follow ...

This brings me finally to the Trump regime.  Despite what my stubborn conservative friends believe, it can happen here.  We're facing a threat I see as quite comparable to that of Wiemar Germany in the years leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor by Hindenburg in 1933.  Within a short time, Hitler pushed through legislation that gave him absolute power, and the rest of the tragic story of WWII follows from that.  Note that Hitler never actually won a democratic election - whereas we Americans actually have elected a pathological liar and narcissist who's already attacking the foundations of our secular, Constitutional democracy.  From where I sit, the threat is more frightening to me than anything I've ever experienced personally.  No, Trump has yet to suppress dissent with violence and he has not yet been granted dictatorial powers.  There are as yet no concentration camps.  If Trump's policies are fully implemented, it seems all too likely that where he and his GOP cronies are taking us is into a fascist cult of personality.  I hope the American people will come to their senses and repudiate this Trump regime.  Destroying our Constitutionally-based rule of law is not a sensible path toward improved governance by our elected officials.  As I see it, the Trump regime poses the greatest threat to American democracy short of a full nuclear exchange.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A mythical narrative - rejected

When I was a boy living with my loving, caring parents, I was introduced to a mythical narrative.  A religious narrative.  This story never made any sense to me and I never accepted it as anything other than a myth.  My parents no doubt were moved by good intentions for me, but I now see what they did was to indoctrinate me in this mythical narrative.  Brainwashing was inflicted on me so that I would live by and perpetuate the narrative as they had.

The Narrative

It begins with the claim that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent deity who knew everything about everything, could do whatever it wanted (including either violating the laws of physics or even re-writing the laws of physics), was everywhere all the time, and even knew what we were thinking.  For reasons of its own, it created the universe (in 7 days) and everything in it, including people and the laws of physics.

This deity created us and our world, and promised eternal life to those who worshipped it.  Unbelievers would be sent into an eternity of torment simply for not believing.  The story started with two people who were to become the progenitors of all humans, living in a lush garden.  The man was created from dust, and the woman was created from one of the man's rib.  The woman fell under the spell of a talking snake, who convinced her to eat fruit of the tree of knowledge and she then convinced her man to do likewise.  This was the first sin (acquiring knowledge) and blame for this sin has been imposed on everyone ever born since then.  The man and women were ejected from their garden paradise and went on to beget the entire population of humans.  At some point, this deity became exceedingly unhappy with the human race (the creations of this perfect deity, recall) and murdered all but a select handful of humans with a world-encompassing flood.  After that, at various other times, groups of people angered this deity by straying from what the deity defined as the right behavior and were murdered in diverse ways.  It was perfectly fine to take and own slaves if they didn't belong to the chosen tribe.  Women were the property of their men and could be abused as their men saw fit.  Other tribes were subject to being murdered (including women and children) with the deity's blessing (and assistance, should the need arise).  Rape was not considered important enough to be a Commandment.  Homosexuals were to be killed.

Eventually, the deity who created everything decided it needed to provide an escape from original sin, so it took human form, somehow separate from itself and a mysterious spiritual form of itself, and allowed itself to be murdered by the Romans.  At the end of 3 days, it arose from the dead and rejoined itself to itself.  Now the original deal had been altered:  the key for a human to escape damnation, and a happy life after death, was to believe in the divinity of its human form self as his/her lord and savior.  As usual, unbelievers were still consigned to eternal agony.

Since this deity is omniscient, it clearly knows whatever you're going to do and even what you think, even before you're created.  Your fate is known to the deity even before you're born - you and your fate are created at the same time.  Thus, this deity knows if you're going to accept its terms for you to escape everlasting torture, or not.  But somehow, in such a situation, you have "free will" to choose to believe or not (unless you're born in a nation with a different religion, which is a clear signal that all believers are obligated to spread the "joyful" news that you can be forgiven your ignorance and sins if you just believe in this deity's divine self in human form).  In effect, your human life is meaningless and your fate is fixed in an everlasting pain if the deity created you to be a disbeliever. 

For a certain period of time after creation, the deity was visibly manifest many times, and eventually, in human form, walked among humans for about 30 years before being killed - only to rise from death and ascend to heaven, back to himself.  Since then, the deity ceased to be visible in any way.  If you're going to choose to believe in it, that belief has to be based on faith because there's no longer any credible evidence for the existence of this deity.  In fact, the world as we know it is entirely consistent with the nonexistence of this deity.  It's quite a leap of faith to accept the narrative, so the indoctrination (brainwashing) of children into acceptance of this narrative is a necessary mechanism for its continuance.  For a time, it was considered quite acceptable to force people to worship (or at least pretend to worship) this deity.  It's no longer fashionable but some believers still find it quite acceptable and would do so if they could.  And many force their children to at least pretend to believe in the narrative

Having become a scientist, I've learned this narrative embodies the absolute antithesis of science - belief without evidence.  I never accepted it, but knowing how science works has shown me that the narrative is virtually certain to be mythical nonsense.  I don't "believe" (in an absolute sense) that such a deity doesn't exist, but I find the absence of evidence for its existence to be a compelling argument that it's quite probable that the deity is nonexistent.  The sacred documents are no more credible evidence for the existence of this deity than a comic book is credible evidence for the existence of a real Superman.  So probable, in fact, that my working conclusion is that the deity is a myth.  I leave open the small logical possibility that I'm wrong in that conclusion, but I'm awaiting a convincing demonstration of that.

The narrative (above) is how I was taught about this deity.  I'm not a biblical scholar and I'm not familiar with "academic" aspects of religion, but I'm quite capable of seeing that this narrative is simply preposterous.  It was written thousands of years ago by recently barbaric tribes in the Middle East who obviously had no inkling of how the world would change or how the universe really works.  The idea that the existing sacred documents are literally the words of this deity certainly underscores that the deity in this myth is far from omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent.  There are contradictions, logical fallacies, and even historical errors in the bible.  Despite biblical reassurances, bad, even horrible, things happen to "good people" (believers) all the time.  The deity seemingly does nothing to prevent those things.  People thank this deity for all sorts of things they deem good, and ignore the bad things, and they say nothing of all that humans and science do for other humans.  Many evil deeds are perpetrated in the name of this deity.  This deity manages somehow to be on both sides of warring groups all the time - people who believe that what they do is what the deity wants them to do typically use that to justify awful deeds.  Religious faith isn't necessarily a virtue - it's often used as justification for evil.

Today, apparently, you have to die to get any concrete evidence for the existence of this deity and the reality this narrative - if there is no such thing, of course, death brings nothing but eternal oblivion.  Anyone in the USA who chooses to do so is free to accept this myth as reality, but they're not free to impose their beliefs on me.  And their freedom to accept this narrative is limited to those practices that do no harm to nonbelievers or those who have different religious beliefs.  This narrative is nonsense and not worthy of consideration by a rational person. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Student loans, universities, and big business

Some recent FB posts have stimulated this blog.  From where I sit, student loan programs have evolved from marginally affordable low-interest loans into predatory loans.  After only four years of college, student loans now saddle graduates with massive debt in exchange for what amounts to declining potential for that satisfying job with good pay and benefits. It takes many years to pay off those loans, and in some cases, it's become well nigh impossible ever to be free of that student loan debt.  A college degree never was a guarantee of satisfactory employment. The only thing guaranteed is that if you don't have that diploma, you won't even be permitted to apply for many good jobs.

Thus, of late, the universities are running a loan sharking system that forces many students into deep debt and yet can promise them absolutely nothing in return, even if they graduate with distinction. Many large state universities have become businesses, not centers of learning.  Such universities now actively  discourage faculty from failing students because that can terminate the gravy train prematurely.  These corporations masquerading as institutions of learning now siphon massive wealth from the middle and lower classes into the universities, and badger their alumni into supporting the university. Their governing bodies are now often dominated by wealthy local business leaders, not people committed to and experienced in education.  The inherently progressive notion of helping students become contributing members of society for the benefit of all has been replaced with something resembling the dark vision of education embodied in Pink Floyd's The Wall, with students on a treadmill ending in a sausage grinder.

When I was in college and grad school, I didn't need any loans, so I entered the workforce basically debt-free.  My parents (middle class) were able to afford supporting my undergraduate education and I contributed some by working in the summers.  When I entered graduate school, my research assistantships paid me enough to be able to avoid student loans.  I was also the beneficiary, after my military "sabbatical," of G.I. Bill benefits.  Well-paid, satisfying employment wasn't guaranteed but those good jobs were available.  I entered the workforce in 1976 with my doctorate, and have enjoyed 40 years of very satisfying work as a severe storms meteorologist. Sadly, the opportunities I had are more or less no longer available.
Times have changed since those halcyon days, and definitely not for the better.  University tuition and in-residence education are decreasingly affordable.  Many scientific research institutions are now being run on what amounts to a business model and permanent secure employment is disappearing.  The way much research is done now demands short-term projects (3 years or less) with a list of deliverables, mostly "low hanging fruit" rather than risky long-term efforts with high potential value but without the luxury of guaranteed results. Increasingly, employees must find soft money for themselves even to have a job at all.  Workers hired to soft-money projects can be out of a job by the end of the funded project; last hired = first fired. Predatory capitalism is running literally out of control in our big-time universities and even in our research institutions,  forcing everyone - students , faculty, and scientists - into the business line.
Given the way things are going now in this nation, anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes are on the rise within the swelling ranks of the educationally-deprived.  This is not an environment that portends a growth of support for scientists and other intellectuals.  In fact, as it stands, they're labeled "elitists" and their findings called into question by the scientifically ignorant.  People seem to have forgotten the important role science and technology have played in the superpower status of the USA.  Investing in, and encouraging educational growth in science and technology is the "capital" that has made the nation strong and a world power.  Business people are too tightly focused on P&L sheets to appreciate the notion of investing in our youth for the long-term health of our nation.  They see only the profits from their predation and have no reason to curb their greed based on income from the middle and lower classes.  They're contributing little or nothing to our long-term stability and success.  They have no concern for the future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

PhDs as a ticket for admin?

Vickie and I were discussing this topic on our western trip and it triggered a lot of memories about my experiences with the educational system.  I mentioned some of this in my guide to grad students, but this includes some new thoughts since I wrote that "book."

First off, the way the education system works (at least as I've observed it) at the doctoral level is that the the primary emphasis is on demonstrating one's ability to do meaningful original research in your chosen field.  Often, a student's dissertation research is their first example of original work (i.e., not dished up as a project by one's major professor).  If the topic is assigned by their advisor, then the student will graduate as a "cripple" - having not yet shown themselves they can do research without assistance from their advisor.  A key element is that the idea for the project must be entirely their own.  From where I've sat, I've seen a lot of cases where this important requirement is not met, leaving the graduate to have to learn how to do this on the job!  This can have a bad outcome for everyone.

OK, I don't want to belabor that point here, but it's important to understand that a dissertation is often the first chance a student gets to show what they can do entirely on their own (as it would be in many research jobs they might have).  Doctoral education emphasizes research over classroom learning - or it should!  Sadly, many new PhDs go out into the world unprepared for the reality of the workplace and so often "disappear" into other situations.  As I was completing my doctoral dissertation, I recognized the absence of any experiences during my academic program that would have helped me overcome the hurdle of being able to dream up projects that are both solvable and worth solving.  There are lots of worthwhile projects that are essentially unsolvable, and lots of solvable problems that aren't worth the effort.  I think this is a teachable skill, but virtually no one teaches it.  For someone dedicating a career to scientific research, it seems to me that a course or two that offered a chance to begin to develop experience at formulating research topics would have been helpful.  My advisor wisely gave me no personal advice on how to do this, so I was forced to learn it entirely on my own.  Which I did, fortunately.  As did most of his students.

Now, however, we come to the primary issue of this blog post:  in many places of professional employment, it's becoming common at high levels of administration to require that applicants have a doctoral degree.  My concern focuses on the value of a standard doctoral program with its emphasis on scientific research when employed in a high level of administration.  I believe most PhD programs do virtually nothing to prepare a student for an eventual administrative position.  Of course, there are some people with research backgrounds who seem "instinctively" able (i.e., untrained) to be great managers.  A lot of being a good administrator is tied to having excellent "people skills" in order to support the working-level researchers (who can be quite idiosyncratic!). There also are "business" skills associated with finding and allocating resources for a research team.  Teamwork skills (as both a leader and a follower) are very important, as are communication skills (both verbal and written).  It's important for every administrator to understand that s/he can't be a success if the staff worker-bees aren't successful at their research (or whatever).  Administration is not productive work on its own, but it can be a big factor for those who actually perform the productive work for the organization (e.g., scientific research).

All too often, I see people promoted from the ranks of working-level science into admin positions for which they are grotesquely unsuited.  This usually breeds discontent among the working scientists and can be disastrous for morale.  Often, the only way to rid the staff of such incompetent managers is to promote them (and they are already well beyond their level of incompetence).  In my case, I resisted the temptation to "climb the ladder" because it would have necessitated my having little or no time to do the research I love.  Why give up something I enjoy to do something for which I have virtually no training and no desire to do?  It made no sense to me, just as having a PhD be a qualification for an administrative position makes little sense.  The primary benefit to having a former researcher in charge of a team is that they should be able to relate to the workers - but all too often, researchers promoted from the ranks become terrible managers or, at least mediocre in their position because they lack the necessary skills.

If someone aims at becoming an administrator in a scientific or technical field, there should be courses and seminars at the doctoral level that offer them some content they'll clearly need in such a position.  If a doctoral program has no such supplementary material (i.e.  in addition to the research experiences), then that diploma should not be viewed as suitable to apply for an administrative position.  Alternatively, some intensive training program for a management position could be offered - provided it's not just a "feel good" exercise that everyone passes.

Although I never had any ambition to be a manager, I've seen for myself the havoc that a bad manager can wreak within a professional program.  I may not be qualified for, or interested in having a management position, but I think I can recognize both good and bad management.  In science, my experience is that good ones are relatively few and far between.  If you find a good one, stick with him/her!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The will of the majority

A discussion on Facebook has stimulated this blog - the discussion ensued after I posted this old George Carlin video.  It seems pretty prescient concerning the current election situation, as the Trump "campaign" is encountering more and more manifestations of Trump's sleazy behavior, massive mendacity, and bizzare public claims.  It's difficult to know just what he does believe and what is just empty rhetoric.  Carlin's premise is that the public (or at least the majority of voters - that caveat will be unspoken but implicit in subsequent references to "the public") is responsible for the politicians.  If we don't like the politicians, it seems the public is responsible for the politicians we have.  Ergo, we have the voting members of the GOP to thank/blame for Trump.

The founders of our nation were very much aware of the potential tyranny of the majority.  If most of the people wanted to persecute a minority (say, Muslims), or establish a state religion (say, Christianity), they are prevented from doing so through the safeguards of the Bill of Rights.  Other aspects of the USA's Constitution limit the potential for abuses of the majority, including the electoral college and the balance of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Although supportive of representative democracy, the founders feared what the USA could become if the majority will was completely unfettered.  What has been happening since the Constitution was adopted is a gradual drift toward frustration with those safeguards.  People want their government to grant them what they want, even though what they seek may be bad for the nation, or will inflict harm on minorities.  This is an inevitable conflict in representative democracies.  The best path, it seems, is to remain in a state of approximate balance between the public's will and a government that declines to follow the will of the majority at all.  The secret to a successful democracy is not majority rule, but rather the protection of minority rights and doing what works best for nation as a whole (not pandering to special interests!).  As time has passed, the majority of our voters seem unable to bring themselves to vote against the very people who are ravaging the public, slowly undermining the bill of rights, pushing religion into government, and creating massive income inequality through welfare for the rich.

In other words, the majority seems determined to vote against their own best interests. This is where the people's will has taken us since the late 18th century, with anti-politics joining with a growing mood of anti-science/anti-intellectualism and a commitment to willful ignorance. This is what has become "representative" and has given rise to Trump as the human embodiment of a form of populism that involves narcissistic bigotry and a drift toward fascism in the USA. Trump has ridden the vote of the majority of GOP members to the nomination despite the GOP leadership's opposition, and is now at the very brink of the Presidency. 
The rise of Trump to the GOP nomination has been an amazing journey for America.  His popularity is widely attributed to the fact that he "speaks his mind" (including a large number of outright lies and many completely bizarre bigoted statements) and is not a career politician.  His supporters seem not to care at all about his actual words.  Instead, he's mostly just a symbol for their frustration with a system that seems unresponsive to their perceived needs.  They're unswayed by his gaffes and outrageous claims.

The current election has given us candidates from the two major parties that are widely despised by majorities within their counterpart segments of the population.  Of course, the choice between them presumably will be made by the American voting public.  Anyone choosing not to vote will avoid any responsibility for the election of either candidate, but will have chosen not to exercise a responsibility to the nation to have a role in its governance.  Some will vote for alternative party candidates that, at the present time in our history, have little chance of winning any national elections.  Such votes are not "wasted" - the value of voting is not determined by the outcome of the election - they can affect the outcome, as history has shown us.  Nevertheless, the majority of the public has adopted the 2-party system and evidently isn't inclined to depart from that choice in significant numbers, no matter how bad the candidates might be.

Hatred for politicians by the public is intense, which ironically is a sort of self-hate (a concept George Carlin was using in his comedy piece), because it's by the will of the voting public that those politicians remain in office!  Politician approval ratings are at rock bottom, but we keep electing the same people to office over and over.  The rise of Trump can be seen as a sort of "populism" - defines populism this way:  "populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite."  [The nation's founders were not all populists!]  Another populist candidate was Bernie Sanders, but he and Trump are very far apart on the political spectrum.  Bernie has since endorsed Hillary Clinton, whereas most mainline GOP politicians are now scurrying to disavow Trump.  Trump is what he's always been, but he created massive angst for the GOP faithful prior to the Republican National Convention and they're now regretting their attempts to close ranks behind him after he won the nomination.  I guess they hoped they could "control" him and winning the election was the crucial thing - history suggests that demagogues are not easy to control.  That nomination was decided against the wishes of the GOP insiders, for the simple reason that in Republican primaries, the will of the majority was to support Trump.  Well, the GOP majority got what they wanted.  Time will tell what they decide about the wisdom of their support for Trump.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Thoughts on "reverse racism"

NOTE  These comments are from two postings I made on Facebook.  I'm combining them here as a single blog, with a few minor modifications.

Interesting ... I just had an extended Facebook argument about the existence of "reverse racism". I assert that racism is NOT limited to prejudice against black people. Thus, I think so-called "reverse racism" [prejudice against whites] surely exists. My definition of racism is prejudging people on the basis of race (race is a fictional concept not recognized by modern science - see here).  A strict reading of my definition precludes any meaning for the phrase reverse racism - there is only racism, regardless of the races involved.

Whites have been in the majority in the USA for a long time, and that has allowed the development of an "institutionalized" prejudice against blacks now called "white privilege". White privilege is rooted in racism, therefore, which is in turn rooted in instinctual tribalism. I can understand the reasons that might lead to some blacks becoming deeply prejudiced against whites. Unfortunately, that is basically sanctioning what I call racism. What we need to eliminate ultimately is prejudice based on human instincts embedded in our genes - it will not be easy. But it does no good to NOT have conversations with others who may have different viewpoints. Understanding someone requires an effort to see things from their perspective. Not making that effort only perpetuates prejudice.

This single phrase "reverse racism" can have multiple definitions. Your opinions about the phrase depend heavily on what meaning you assign to it. There may be others, in addition to the three I've offered below.

1. a negative pre-judgment by blacks against all whites - black against white prejudice being the "reverse" of white against black prejudice

There clearly are those who fall under #1. It can't be denied that such people exist and there may or may not be valid reasons for it.  Returning tit for tat is quite understandable if you've experienced race-based injustice.  However, this clearly simple racism, if you define it as I've done.

2. institutionalized favoritism for blacks

This might include such things as so-called "affirmative action" programs, which seem to anger many whites, especially conservatives. At the superficial level, this sort of thing can be characterized as reverse racism. However, the motivation for it is to be to address a long, continuing period of discrimination against blacks as a result of white privilege. It's not really so much of an attack on whites as it is an attack on white privilege. Black people deserve the opportunity to prove themselves to be competent, and if they're given some benefit of the doubt, then perhaps this is the start down a path to eventual elimination of white privilege, whereby all are always given strictly equal opportunity. It's a small price to pay for centuries of discrimination against blacks and serves many positive ends. The whole "competency" argument often thrown up against affirmative action falls apart when you realize that many white people who have been given the benefit of white privilege have proven to be incompetent! Whiteness doesn't equate with competence, just as blackness doesn't equate to incompetence. The examples (counterexamples to racial stereotypes) are all around us!!

3. opposition to institutionalized white privilege

The idea that someone opposed to white privilege is automatically exhibiting "reverse racism" is obviously fallacious. Yes, blacks prejudiced against all whites (i.e., black against white racists) certainly would be likely supporters of doing away with white privilege. Nevertheless, that doesn't apply equally to all those fighting this battle for equal justice and opportunity. Many of those seeking an end to white privilege are not at all black. Frankly, it's a position I think should be the choice of all rational people.  I came to understand that the racism I encountered as a boy was not consistent with my experiences as an adult - racial stereotypes were demonstrably false - you can't claim to know anything about a particular human being solely on the basis of race.  If you must judge people, do so on the basis of what they say and, more importantly, on what they do!

I observe that racism is a form of tribalism.  We evolved as creatures who depend on social interactions for our survival.  Those in our "tribe" were much more important to us than those from other tribes.  Other tribes represented competition for resources and survival.  Other tribes had different cultures, different ideas, different religions, and in some cases, had a different physical appearance. Tribalism is deeply embedded in our genetic heritage - it was an important survival trait.  To be different is to be a threat.

Any social or cultural grouping can be considered a tribe, so there can be tribes within tribes (hunters, gatherers, scientists, clergy, carpenters, plumbers, etc.).  Minor differences in skin coloration, eye and nose shapes, etc. have stimulated tribalistic reactions whereby those who look slightly different are seen as an "inferior race".  Culturally assigned roles may have no valid basis in abilities.  This sort of thinking is in opposition to the facts as we know them from science.  Science tells us that all humans evolved from our beginnings in Africa - we all contain some of that original DNA and so all of us are "black" in that sense.  Race has become the cultural equivalent of the appendix - it no longer has any functionality and at times can be very harmful to us.  We need to discard the refuse of tribalism/racism and strive to work together for the common good.  Races are mythical - there is only one race:  the human race!  It will not be easy to overcome our tendency for tribalism/racism, but we need to do so as soon as possible.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Noah's Ark story - Is it history?

Let me be perfectly clear:  I consider the biblical story of Noah's Ark (like many biblical narratives) to be, at most, a human creation with essentially no connection to history, science, evidence, and logic.  The idea that some people choose to accept it as literal fact is both astonishing to me and an apparent tribute to their gullibility.

Let's ignore the fact that the putative supreme being, creator of the inconceivably vast universe, who is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, has decided that his creations (we humans, made in his image) have turned out to be a mistake because we don't behave the way he wants, so he's going to impose nearly total genocide on those of us extant at the time, using a world-wide flood to wipe the slate clean.  If this divine being pretty much screwed up the job of creating humans on his first try (Adam and Eve, remember?), then he's not omnipotent and omniscient - such a being should never make a mistake!  And killing all but a tiny remnant of the entire human species seems pretty much the opposite of benevolent!

Putting those issues aside, then, let's consider the impossibilities and issues within this yarn.  Quick summary:  the only way the biblical account can be considered historical is through continuous magical intervention by a divine being, who must have the capability to break the laws of nature and logic at will in order to overcome the host of impossibilities through a massive set of supernatural miracles.

1.  There's just no known way to produce a rainfall that would cover the entire surface of the Earth.  That requirement is the only way to be sure of drowning all humans save for the chosen few and it must be global, not regional.  That would be roughly 29,000+ feet (about 5.5 miles - to cover the top of Mt. Everest) of rainfall in 40 days - about 30 feet of rain per hour for 40 days - at every point on the surface of the Earth.  It's physically impossible.

2.  What would be the effect on a boat that was continuously experiencing rainfall of 30 feet per hour (6 inches per minute)?  It probably would be pretty top-heavy from that continuous rain, and it might easily be swamped, especially if there were wind that produced heavy seas.  Further, the massive load of animals and food would have to be kept continuously in balance, requiring a lot of effort by a large crew (see #8).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, keep the Ark afloat during this impossible deluge.

3.  Fitting mated pairs of all living land creatures on the Ark is a physical impossibility.  To this day, we have only incomplete knowledge of all the diverse species, but back in biblical times, their knowledge of that was nearly negligible.  Hence, it would be essentially impossible today, to say nothing of the late Bronze Age.

4.  Predators would have to eat the prey animals to live, so winding up with all of them saved is impossible unless lots of extra prey animals beyond one mated pair for each species are brought on board.  That adds to the food and water needs of all those animals ...

5.  The amount of food and water necessary to keep all the animals alive for 40 days would fill the Ark completely.  It would be impossible to bring along enough food and water for all the animals on a 40-day boat ride.  Of course, the 30 feet per hour rainfall rate could alleviate any water shortage!

6.  Going to the far corners of the Earth in order to obtain mated pairs of all Earthly creatures (plus extra prey animals) would require pretty fast transportation and transport capacity for Noah.  This job would be quite a challenge even today, but such a task for a semi-civilized man in biblical times would be physically impossible.

7.  Even if Noah somehow accomplished the miracle of gathering up mated pairs (plus extra prey animals) of all the world's animals with the help of his supernatural pal, how would all those animals get back to their own parts of the world after the flood waters receded?  [Where did they come from and where did they go?]  Even if they survived and bred along their way back to their homes on all the continents, why is there no evidence of this literally incredible migration from where the Ark landed on Mount Ararat?  Would there be food to eat along the way?  How do they know which way to go?  And how hospitable would their native lands be after a mega-flood?  Such a journey is impossible since it involves different continents and would require more supernatural intervention.
8.  Sanitary conditions on the Ark would not be very good unless there were even more crew members swabbing the interior decks constantly to get rid of the urine and feces from all those animals.  The external deck might be kept clear of urine and feces by the 30 feet of rain per hour, but not the interior.  Such a large crew would add to the requirements for food and water (and living space) on the Ark.  This is another impossible task.

9.  It's not clear what the atmospheric conditions were like during this voyage.  If it was typical of conditions in the Middle East (disregarding any impact from the mega-torrential rainfall), it might not be very healthy for animals from other regions.  Some creatures might not be able to survive the voyage despite being rescued from drowning.

10.  What about microorganisms?  How would they be gathered and maintained?  This would have to include the host of pathogenic microorganisms who survive by being parasites on their hosts.  Wouldn't this have represented a challenge for late Bronze Age barbarians to even know of the existence of such living creatures?  Some might already be on board living in the mated pairs (and extra prey), but it would be impossible to select two infected individuals from each species so as to include all microorganism in the aggregate.  And those infections would be hazardous to the survival of all the large animal species during the voyage.  In fact, they could become an epidemic easily in the crowded conditions.  Another need for divine supernatural intervention.

11.  How did the land plants of the world fare during a time of being submerged for days?  How did they recover from that?  Would there be enough food available for returning herbivore mated pairs?  After 40 days of being underwater, if the sun comes out, things just don't instantly spring up again.

12.  How does a planet-wide flood kill creatures of the sea?  Or were they just left to their own devices?  What would be the effect of a gigantic deposition of fresh water (29, 000 feet of rain - a lot of distilled water) on the world's oceans?  Might be kinda tough conditions for sea animals adapted to salt water.  The story mentions no aquaria on the Ark!

13.  Depending on a single mated pair of each animal to repopulate the planet is now recognized to being a threat to the existence of each species, owing to a lack of genetic diversity.  Of course, a late Bronze Age man would have known nothing of such obstacles to the Ark story's successful outcome.

I could go on, but it's only piling more impossibilities and issues on top of these.  [I might add more later.]  The clear conclusion I draw from all of this is that the Ark legend obviously is not history.  Finding evidence for a regional flood in biblical times isn't even close to providing support for the Ark myth.  To believe so indicates tremendous gullibility and/or confirmation bias seeking to save the appearances.  This yarn is precisely the sort of mythical story that a late Bronze Age, semi-civilized man would make up as religious parable seeking to impose obedience on the faithful, in complete ignorance of the vast amount of science we've accumulated since this myth was created.  The more we learn about how the natural world operates, the less credible the Ark parable becomes.  Hoping to find evidence for the Ark narrative in the bible is similar to cherry-picking data to find evidence denying climate change, or being paranoid about "chemtrails", or believing in a flat Earth.

You can interpret the biblical Ark myth in many diverse ways, but it just can't be literal history unless you're willing to accept the requirement for supernatural intervention throughout the whole process, making the impossible possible.  It's always a logical possibility that compelling evidence to support the preposterous Ark story might be found somewhere, but in the absence of that compelling evidence, I'm of a mind to see the Noah's Ark hypothesis as a totally human fictional creation, not historical fact.  And the story's plot line was stolen from other, earlier religions, to boot.