Uncommon Sense

May 31, 2012

Yes, But What Does It All Mean?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:50 am
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In my last post I addressed what I see as a widening gap in this country between the worldviews of scientists and nonscientists. There was one aspect of that discussion I did not cover in that post as it was rather over long as it was and that is the “search for meaning.”

Opponents of evolution, “Darwinism” as they call it, often refer to evolutionists as atheists. Here is a typical quote from a letter-to-the-editor writer in the Arizona City Independent: “Under Darwinism, which is atheistic, there is no God, no morals, no purpose in life, and no life after death, thus no accountability for one’s choices and actions.” Apparently the letter writer doesn’t know that there are billions of people who are non-Christians and are behaving about the same as Christians do, certainly no more or no less morally. Also, people like the letter writer don’t seem to believe in the coercive force of one’s neighbors, a god is necessary, not just the threat that your neighbors (in the form of police, courts, etc.) will take you in hand if you impinge upon their freedoms too greatly.

These folks often also state that God has put us here for a reason.
But they never seem to be able to state what that reason is. 

These folks often also state that God has put us here for a reason. But they never seem to be able to state what that reason is. They respond with “We cannot know the mind of God,” and other such platitudes. So, apparently, their reason we are here is to figure out the reason we are here.

This appears to be a clash of religion and science but I think it is more than that. I think it is a clash between those who think there has to be “reasons” and the fact that the entire universe reflects back to us a quite meaningless playground. Take humans off of this planet and pretend you were a space explorer and you just discovered Earth. Would you ask the question: “Why is this here? I wonder what the existence of this planet at this time and place means?” I rather doubt it.

But, of course, we are here. So, the question arises “Why are we here?” The only answer to the question that seems at all sensible is we are here because if we weren’t, that question wouldn’t exist. Because we are here, we can ask the question. But that doesn’t mean there is an answer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of religions have been invented by man. Most take a swipe at answering the “why are we here” question. Possibly religions exist to address this question.

 The clash over science being atheistic comes not from scientists, but from religionists who are basically complaining that the universe,
through its behavior, doesn’t agree with their religion. This is a problem with reality, not science. 

But the universe, shows no inclination to answer this question. Most scientists are content to ask questions the universe will answer and leave the larger metaphysical questions to philosophers and religionists.

The clash over science being atheistic comes not from scientists, but from religionists who are basically complaining that the universe, through its behavior, doesn’t agree with their religion. This is a problem with reality, not science.

In conclusion, I recommend that you consider the possibility that there is, in fact, no meaning to life. What does your world look like if that were so? Would you lose heart? Would you not have the energy to get out of bed in the morning? Would you go on a serial killing rampage? Or would you just get up in the morning, hug your spouse and/or kids, go to work, and continue on as you have done? Would you find yourself less friendly or less charitable? I don’t think so, because if we are all just “in this together” we need each other more than ever.

May 30, 2012

Two Cultures Getting Farther Apart?

Filed under: Education,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:50 pm

I spent several hours in my car with two friends and it struck me from our conversations that the gap between the scientific literate and those not so literate is widening. Even though I have been an educator all of my life I am not one of those who insist that everyone needs extensive knowledge of science. What I would like, though, is that almost everyone have a fair grasp on how science works.

Everyone of us in the car was college educated but one seemed to have no clear idea of how science works. Many citizens are in this category. They say things like, “I don’t know if I can trust scientists as they have got things wrong in the past” or “I don’t think everything can be known.”

Scientists are people; they get things wrong. I think we can all agree on that. But scientists are required to publish their work, under their own name. In addition, they need to tell everyone not only what they have done, but how they did it, and what they believe happened. This is somewhat scary. Can you imagine if business people had to do the same? Or politicians. Lay their actions out for everyone to see and, most importantly, to check up on.

The basic understanding is that science is “operator independent.” What that means is if I do an experiment, I should get the same results as if you were do it. In fact scientists won’t spend much effort getting worked up about something until other scientists have replicated that something and gotten the same results. Once that is done, then the arguments about why what happened happened begin in earnest. A noted example recently is the “discovery” that there were particles moving faster than the speed of light. Please note this wasn’t a discovery. It was experimental data with a seemingly rational interpretation that those particles were moving that fast. Scientists acknowledge their humanity by telling everyone what they have done so that others can do the same to see if they get the same results. If they don’t, somebody has made a mistake. Having all of one’s mistakes made public is not pleasant, but it is necessary.

Yes, scientists have been wrong. And, over time the things that are wrong are corrected and made less wrong. Whether they are “right” is rarely established. Scientists are not only leery of thinking they are “right,” but they have a healthy respect for the fact that all knowledge is uncertain.

Conflicting with this is the perception that scientists behave as if they know the “right” answers. And they, we, always seem so certain of themselves. And they seem to want to “know everything.” Let’s look at this.

Is there any way a person could know that “everything” wasn’t knowable? Only if one claimed to be a god, I think. Scientists, on the other hand, are always looking to see “what we can find out.” They are not trying to know everything; in fact no one scientist knows even 5% of the knowledge in his/her field of specialty. Since I was trained in college in my subject field, chemistry, the total amount of chemical knowledge has double, doubled again, and doubled again. In other words, I learned a tiny fraction of all of the chemical knowledge there was and then since then the amount of chemical knowledge has increased eight times! Every scientist knows they not only don’t know everything but they could not. The human mind has great capacity, but information is being discovered at a faster rate than any one person can learn, so each of us is falling further and further behind. We just do our bit to add to the total.

As for sounding like we are right, I will admit that there are quantities of arrogance mixed into the general sea of humility, but in order to speak forcefully, you had better know what you are talking about and, in general, scientists only speak forcefully when they do know what they are talking about. The consequences of doing otherwise are dire. The extreme case of faking data to prove a point, often results in ostracism of that scientist, such that they never work in that field again. There is no second chance for such people. They are done.

 I do not recommend we try to create a “you can trust scientists” attitude,
as we don’t even trust one another. 

In this country, there is currently a clash between some religious folks and scientists about the theory of evolution. Apparently the U.S. is the only country where this is happening extensively but we are exporting the “anti-evolution” movement to other countries now. I do know religious people do not like to have scientific findings contradict their religious teachings, but throughout history there has never been a case in which religion has triumphed over science in a contest over reality. In addition, most of those who are against evolution apparently do not understand it and this is anathema to a scientist. Scientists would never claim something is wrong without first understanding it very, very well. I am trained as a chemist, so evolution is not in my field but I am a student of the history of ideas and this is what I see: Charles Darwin proposed the Theory of Evolution based on his observations of the natural world. He could not prove anything as he had no mechanism that could explain how it was that minute changes in creatures could result in substantive changes over long periods of time. Along came Mendel creating the field of Genetics. Here was such a mechanism and, lo and behold, nothing in Genetics undermines Darwin’s Theory in the least. In the last century, DNA was discovered, genes were mapped, and we now have an exact chemical framework that explains genetics . . . and evolution. That and piles and piles and piles of experiments and data supporting the Theory of Evolution, so I would say that such a theory was quite “robust.” (We don’t use words like “true.”) Even though a theory reaches the point where it is quite unimaginable that it be contradicted, e.g. the theory of gravitation, it is still called a “theory,” which some common folk equate to “it still may be wrong.” This is an incorrect interpretation of what a theory is, but I will grant that errors will show up and they will be small and, by and large, the theory will be corrected. To say the whole thing is rubbish, well, that is like saying “I am willing to step off of this cliff because the theory of gravitation is “just a theory” and it may be wrong. This is not a good bet.

Asking every citizen to know enough science to be able to evaluate the work of millions of scientists around the world is ridiculous, but in school, could we not teach the history of scientific ideas, show how things were got wrong and then were corrected. (I suggest starting with the history of the measurement of the speed of light as the ancient Greeks recorded some of their experiments.)

I do not recommend we try to create a “you can trust scientists” attitude, as we don’t even trust one another. Scientist have to prove every claim they make, not just to me, but to everybody who cares to consider the topic. Occasionally, even this process breaks down but that is relatively rare and, when found out, is made public.

May 28, 2012

Is This Treason?

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:31 pm
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Imagine that a foreign power has sent undercover agents into the U.S. to undermine our faith in our government and to foment unrest, a Fifth Column, as it were. These agents are clever and effective. They encourage local, state, and federal agencies to overspend their budgets, thus putting us all in very difficult positions when emergencies occur. They undermine people’s belief that government is even acting on their behalf. They actively disenfranchise people so they cannot vote against their plans. And they demonize anyone who opposes their dastardly programs. They receive almost unlimited funds to perform their actions from sources almost impossible to trace.

If caught, those agents would face the death penalty. Any U.S. citizen abetting the actions of those agents would be committing treason or, at least, sedition, crimes also including the possibility of the death penalty.

But, what if those agents weren’t foreign, what if they were members of, say, the Communist Party, USA? Would their actions then be legal or even acceptable? I think not.

What if those agents were members of a major political party?

All of the things described above are being done by the GOP. When the Democrats took over the House of Representatives during the most recent Bush Administration, the approval rating of Congress was 43%. Now it hovers around 11%. The GOP has frequently cut taxes without cutting spending and spent gigantic sums on wars without paying for them which creates budget deficits and debt that makes us indebted to foreign countries and in a position where we cannot respond flexibly to emergencies. The GOP has encouraged an attitude of disdain for poor people, the unemployed, and people of color thus alienating those people from their government. Republicans have repeatedly diminished the control of women over their own bodies. Republican officials have recommended investigating Congress for un-American activities. Republican officials repeatedly spread untruths about the strength of the nation.

Need I go on?

Is this treason? Even if not, should it be condoned?

May 24, 2012

Promises, Promises

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 7:54 am
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Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has made several promises recently, among them that unemployment would be at 6% or lower at the end of his first term. Since predictions are that is what unemployment will be in 2017 if he does nothing, that is equivalent to a promise to do nothing about unemployment. Moving on, his other promises are to: cap federal spending at 20% of GDP, cut taxes to about 17 percent of GDP, keep defense spending at 4 percent of GDP, and he has pledged to balance the federal budget. Again, these numbers are perplexing in that with spending at 20% and taxes at 17% of the same number, I don’t see how the budget gets balanced (defined as spending = income or less), but I never did master Voodoo Economics, so I guess there is something here I just don’t see.

All of these promises, save the unemployment promise are very, very significant changes in the federal fiscal picture. What Candidate Romney does not address, though, is how he will get these things through Congress. Let us assume that not only does he get elected as President but that the GOP hangs on to the House of representatives and even takes control of the Senate with, say, 52 seats. As the Republicans have so clearly demonstrated, a minority party only needs 41 votes in the Senate to stop anything from happening.

So, how will President Romney get his program enacted? Will it be through compromise? The Republicans in Congress have declared compromise to be anathema, so that path seems unlikely to get even Republican support.

Just how does he plan on doing this?

I am waiting to hear his plan.

May 9, 2012

Onward Christian Republicans!

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 6:58 pm
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A couple of days ago the Speaker of the House of Representatives allowed a religious conclave to occur in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, possibly the most prestigious meeting place in that building. This was not, as you would expect, a multi-denominational meeting representing the whole country’s religious, this was a meeting of radical Christian Evangelicals, you know the type, those who claim Catholics aren’t “real” Christians.

This is clearly an example of the religious right flexing its muscle, its access to the seats of power. I don’t want to address, at least for now, the advisability of such a breach of tradition (it ain’t) but rather what this says about the latest crop of Evangelical Politicians. Supposedly these folks claim that Christianity is under attack and that Christians need to become more political just to defend themselves. So, is their premise true? To some extent it is. But they don’t often address why Christianity in the U.S. is “under attack.” Really, the phrase “under attack” is a bit overblown. Actually some Christians are being criticized for being too negative, too bellicose, too political, and for being UnChristian.

To understand why, just look at what the Christian right has done with the little power it has garnered through the 2010 midterm elections. We got a flood of anti-abortion bills in the House and in the state capitals which Republicans dominate. We got a flood of anti-gay marriage bans. Oh, anti-immigrant and anti-minority rights bills, too.

Wouldn’t you expect Christians with some political power to think “What would Jesus do?” and want to succor the poor and help those in need. We apparently are getting just the reverse. It is the poor’s fault they are poor. Get a job, you bum. And while the rich are supposed to have a hard time getting into heaven, they are being taken care of quite nicely by earthly Christians in political power. Christian charity? Not right now, please, I am working on a bill to raise the interest rates on college student’s loans and cutting Pell grants so we can cut taxes for rich folks.

What is really happening is righteous radical Republicans and Republican backers are cherry picking Christian input to advance their radical agendas. Consequently Christians are getting the reputation of being abrasive, political, and harsh. If Christians don’t want this mantle, if they want to end the “attacks,” they need to disavow the ideas painted with their “support” as being Christian efforts.

May 3, 2012

Mr. Romney’s Business Experience

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:23 pm
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Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney claims that he knows what to do because of his business experience. Because of his experience, he says, he knows what to do to get our economy back on track. Of course, he does not quite state what his experience is, specifically. Now some of you may be expecting that I will now pick apart his work at Bain Capital and point out all of the negatives contained therein . . . and you would be wrong. The reason Candidate Romney doesn’t bring up the details of his business experience is that he doesn’t want to go through the positives because the negatives will necessarily get included. I agree. So, if he doesn’t, neither will I.

What I am going to attack is his premise—that his, or for that matter anyone’s, business experience prepares them to be President of the United States.

Consider that Mitt Romney’s business experience is quite narrow. He has spent his life in either the financial sector (corporate takeovers) or in politics and, of course, he is not running on his political record, so we needn’t include that. So, has Mr. Romney ever struggled to make a payroll? Has he ever negotiated with his employee’s union? Has he had to cancel health benefits for his employees because he could no longer afford them? Has he had to battle with city hall for the permits needed to run his business? Has he had to deal with five layers of supervisors? I think not. I think his business experience is quite narrow and specific.

What I am going to attack is his premise—that his, or for that matter anyone’s,
business experience prepares them to be President of the United States.

 But was it training for the White House? Well, possibly. If Mr. Romney, in his experience, had to persuade two Boards of Trustees to make any significant changes in operations. One Board has 435 members and the other 100 but both must consider and vote on and provide majorities for any significant change of direction. Also the Board of 100 may require a 60% vote majority at its own whim. Has Mr. Romney spent time in business having to convince anything more than a small team of people to go into a venture? I don’t think so.

If Mr. Romney couldn’t spend a dime not authorized by two similar boards and had to satisfy their oversight, then his experience might count.

If Mr. Romney had the capacity to send his employees into harm’s way and possibly to their deaths in foreign lands then that experience, in business, would surely qualify him for the White House.

Nobody’s business or any other kind of experience prepares them for the presidency. The only experience that counts, whatever the field of endeavor, is the experience that shapes one’s character. Being President is all about character. So, what do you stand for, Mr. Romney? And why do you feel so passionately about what you stand for? What experiences have you had that have shaped your attitudes that we would trust you with our economy and our lives. That’s what we want to know.

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