Class Warfare Blog

September 26, 2017

You Can’t Create Something from Nothing?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:27 am
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It is a common trope of Christian apologists to bring up the Big Bang cosmological theory and either endorse it as the act of God’s creation of the universe or condemn it because “you cannot create something from nothing.” The fact that these two approaches are completely contradictory doesn’t cost these apologists even one minute of sleep, of course; they are not looking for consistency or correctness, they are looking for a “killer argument.”

Setting aside everything but the claim that “you cannot get something from nothing” point, let’s look at this. Apologists often make this claim, which is not only unsupported but possibly unsupportable, and then claim that the only alternative to this merely physical description of the beginning of our universe is that their god created the universe … from nothing … by magic. Honestly, they say this with a straight face. At its heart, they are claiming you cannot make something from nothing … except by magic. And, of course, “magic” is not defined or demonstrated or … anything.

So, what about this premise: you can’t create something from nothing. When they do argue this, they say that everything that “begins to exist” (also not defined) has a cause and a cause must be pre-existing which contradicts the “nothing” aspect. So, they claim, their god is the First Cause (concept and name borrowed from the Greeks), the Prime Mover (concept and name borrowed from Aristotle, a Greek), the Totally Awesome: Yahweh.

Okay, theists, take a deep breath. Consider what “nothing” represents. Presumably, applied to this discussion nothing means no time, no space, no laws of physics, no things. Of course “things” are material objects, but it appears that in this case there would also be no energy or other non-material manifestations of our current universe.

“I wonder, have the apologists ever won an argument? Ever?
Apparently they can’t create something from nothing.”

If this was the case just before the Big Bang, what could prevent anything from happening? What, no cause? Hello? There is no relationship between cause and effect. There are no physical laws, no chemistry, no physics, no thing. Under these circumstances, there are no limitations at all on what could happen.

For example, allow me a flight of imagination. In a state of “no thing” an immense explosion occurs, creating two universes: one created from matter and energy and the other of anti-matter and anti-energy. (Imagine two balloons connected at their mouths, suddenly inflating. Each is ignorant of the existence of the other. Each seems to have been inflated from nothing.) Initially there is some mixing between the two, but since the two forms of matter and the two forms of energy annihilate each other, soon, the two universes are both quite “pure” and  stable. (This solves the mystery, by the way, of why there is so little anti-matter in our universe, when the physical laws now operating say that equal amounts should have been created “in the beginning.”) The net mass of the two universes: zero. The net energy of the two universes: zero. The laws covering whether this could occur “from nothing”: zero.

A state of nothingness is completely unlimited as to what could happen, so something could come from nothing, easy peasey.

I wonder, have the apologists ever won an argument? Ever? Apparently they can’t create something from nothing. I wonder what that says about their message.

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August 25, 2017

Aliens … and Dinosaurs!

Having covered all of the ground possible … and a lot more, the Ancient Aliens TV show has hit a new high, or low, depending on your point of view. They kept many of the same people on staff, introduced some new folks, and they kept their normal whirlwind pace, one that doesn’t allow much time for consideration of the fabulous things they propose, such as aliens being the cause of the demise of the dinosaurs.

The main thrust of this episode is indeed that it might just be possible, maybe coulda been, that aliens eliminated the dinosaurs so we could thrive. I won’t comment on the “evidence” they present but there was one point at which the idiocy achieved new heights. They were developing a line of argument challenging the facts that humans are 2-3 million years old at best but “all” of the dinosaurs perished 65 million years ago, in what was considered an extinction level even involving a rather large meteor, landing in Mexico, but clearly dinosaurs and humans lived alongside one another … well, and aliens, too, of course.

They trotted out the éminence grise of this generation of unbridled thinkers, Erich von Daniken, to ask the question: If this was an event large enough to kill “all” of the dinosaurs, why did it kill off just the dinosaurs? (Apparently enquiring minds want to know.) Well, the event in question is called the Cretaceous-Paleocene mass extinction event and it resulted in about 75% of all species on the planet being wiped out, not “just” the dinos. And, it didn’t even kill off all of the dinosaurs! Many of the smaller theropods (what most of us think of when we think of dinosaurs), that is those under 25 kg/55 lb in mass, survived. Of course, the big beasties died.

The show then went on it’s merry way establishing that dinosaurs and human beings could possibly have lived together (mighta coulda). They didn’t mention Alley Oop in their arguments but they did throw in the Loch Ness monster and coelacanths. Right in the middle of this a talking head I didn’t bother to identify started bad mouthing radiocarbon dating, saying things like it was based on the production of carbon-14 in the atmosphere by cosmic rays (true) and that the rate of production may have been different millions of years ago (also true) and that these things could affect the dates on early human and dinosaurs remains (uh, not so much). If you want to know why I was puzzled, Dear Reader, read on.

Carbon-14 Dating: A Primer
All radioactivity-based dating methods are based upon a factoid of radioactive isotopes (kinds of elements): they all decay in a pattern involving a half-life. A half-life is an amount of time in which a radioactive sample loses half of its radioactivity. Interestingly, the next halving of that sample’s radioactivity takes the same amount of time, as does the next even though there is less and less to lose. This creates a situation that is summarized in a rule of thumb: a radioactive isotope can be used to date object as much as 10 half-lives back in time. The amount of radioactivity in a living animal cannot be very high in the first place. Comic books aside, radioactivity in high doses is typically lethal. So, all living plants and animals start out with only tiny amounts of radioactive elements in their bodies. Then after one half life, half of it is gone (unless it is replaced which in the case of carbon-14 happens because we eat carbon atoms in all of our food and plants absorb carbon dioxide—this, of course, stops when the plant or animal dies). After two half lives, only a quarter remains because half is lost in the first period and half of what is left was gone after the second. After the third half-life one eighth is left, after the fourth, one sixteenth is left, etc. After ten half-lives 1/210 is left. As a percent that is a little less than 0.1%. Since very little was started with, at this point close to zero is left, so there is basically nothing to measure.

So, what is the half-life of carbon-14 you ask? (You’d better!) It is 5730 years. Ten times this number is 57,300 years. This is the time span that radiocarbon dating can be used. That won’t get you back before Homo sapiens begins (200,000-300,000 years) let alone back to the large theropods getting killed off 66 million years ago. This is a classic smokescreen tactic, used often in this show. Throw anything you got against the wall and see if it sticks.

The Problem With All of This
As you are probably aware, Americans are not the most scientifically-literate people on the planet. As more and more of this bushwah is passed off as some sort of legitimate argumentation (It is not!), people are going to more easily believe the bullshit our governments peddle us. Global warming? That’s a hoax perpetrated by greedy scientists looking for grants. Dumping mine wastes laced with toxic heavy metals, not a problem. The Earth cleans itself. Lead in drinking water? A little bit is okay; go ahead and drink it.

The Exxon Corporation has released documents showing that 80% of the studies they undertook or analyzed showed that global warming/climate change was real and had real negative consequences. At the same time, 80% of its marketing budgets on the topic went to casting shade on the topic (for decades). Their problem is that one of the greatest sources of the climate change problem is the burning of petroleum products, which is what Exxon is in business for.

 

August 9, 2017

A Modern Quandary

I have been reading “Sociology is a Martial Art: Political Writings by Pierre Bourdieu.” This is puzzling to me because I haven’t been having any trouble sleeping, so why would I want to read a sociology text? (Sorry, old joke.)

In a context different from the one I will address in this post ( his was the impact of television), Professor Bourdieu wrote “How can I reconcile the exigency of ‘purity’ inherent in scientific and intellectual work, which necessarily leads to esotericism, with the democratic interest in making these achievements available to the greatest number?” His concern was that the primary function of television seemingly was to dumb down even simple discussions. Here I want to address the topic of the anti-evolution crowd and the anti-climate change crowd.

Without specialized training, it is hard to follow the science in these fields. I have a graduate degree in chemistry and I am not versed in the nuances of either subject (although I guess I could create a small summary of each). So, without esoteric training, how are the citizens in a democracy supposed to assess the validity of such concepts.

We could start with having better basic education, explaining that a scientific theory is a mechanism that explains a great many facts as well as makes predictions available to expand out knowledge. Currently people use the word theory as a synonym for “wild ass guess.” “I have a theory about that …” they will say. No, they don’t. At best they have an hypothesis and more likely they have a guess that is poorly substantiated at best. To say one has a “theory” makes one sound better than to say “I have a guess as to….”

It also does not help that each topic has a cadre of sociopolitical opponents. If the Theory of Evolution is correct, all of fundamentalist Christianity and most of doctrinaire Christianity is off to a rubbish heap somewhere. Basically, if God didn’t created humanity magically, we couldn’t have “rebelled” against his authority, so there was no original sin, and hence nothing for the human sacrifice that was Jesus to absolve. (Bye, bye!)

Climate change has political opponents who have economic stakes at risk. The Koch brothers fund anti-climate change efforts to protect their oil refining, oil pipeline, and other industries, while David Koch supports NOVA science education programs on PBS, including programs on climate change (possibly as a suppressing maneuver?).

So, ordinary citizens are left to evaluate what appears to them to be a propaganda war. “Scientists” have lied to them before as have businessmen, so it is hard to decide which side of either of these debates is trustworthy.

I find the argument that climate change was invented for scientists to be able to secure grants for their work (It is a hoax!). Whoever invented this red herring obviously has never interacted with scientists, each of which has a big ego, and the first of them to discover such a plot would gleefully expose his colleagues to shame and humiliation for participating in it. Most scientists minored in gloating in college.

So, what’s a citizen to do?

I think part of the problem has to do with the evidence not being on display. I hear Christian apologists often ask the question: Where are the transitional fossils? This questions goes back to the time of Charles Darwin when there was a very sparse fossil record. The key facts that the public needs to know is that fossils do not form all that often, so are passably rare and that with regard to transitional fossils, fossils that show one species transitioning to another, there are large numbers of them available. Maybe a video (to reach the masses) needs to me made of the amount of evidence underlying the Theory of Evolution. The amount of evidence, from many, many different and unrelated fields of science is incredibly vast. Just a list of peer-reviewed articles supporting the theory scrolling on like the credits of a Hollywood movie (like they do on TV, at super high speeds) would take hours. Flashing photos of all of the fossils that apply to animals no longer in existence but which fit into the evolutionary family tree of Earth, would also take quite a long time (blink, blink, blink, maybe a running counter would help: 1, 2, 3, …, 3008, 3009, …).

The same could be true for Climate Change. We could run publicity shots of the smiling faces of the scientists in the field who support the tentative conclusion that humanity is contributing to the current round of climate change (blink, blink, blink, maybe a running counter would help: 1, 2, 3, …, 178, 179, …). Then the photos of those reputable scientists who oppose the current consensus on climate change could have their photos flashed (blink, blink, blink).

There is no way ordinary citizens could be brought up to speed on these topics through educating them, because even with the head start in such training I have, I do not want to put in the effort. Instead, I trust the scientists in their field to represent their findings correctly (to the best of their ability) and I trust the egos of their colleagues to prick any intellectual bubbles that are flimsy or unfounded.

Another route might be to create an independent evaluation board to provide basic explanations of science topics to legislators and citizens. The Town of Brisbane, Australia did this a while back (don’t know whether they still do) when they created the office of Town Scientist whose job it was to explain scientific topics to the town governing board and citizens of the Town of Brisbane. For the longest time the State of California had an independent political official whose job was to explain issues voters needed to address and that office was never politicized or demeaned, and it worked really well for quite some time (don’t know whether it still does).

This is a modern problem, because back when “governance” was by autocrats/monarchs, they didn’t give a fig about whether the people understood or not. Ironically, it was the advent of merchants (aka business people) who accumulated wealth (aka power) enough to make it important that a wider swath of a country’s population be made to understand governmental decisions. With the advent of modern democracy, issues are now submitted to the ballot and candidates for office are voted upon, too. We need to figure out how to “reconcile the exigency of ‘purity’ inherent in scientific and intellectual work, which necessarily leads to esotericism, with the democratic interest in making these achievements available to the greatest number” and we need to do it fast. Life ain’t gonna get simpler.

July 16, 2017

It Is Put Up or Shut Up Time for the Intelligent Design Movement

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:52 am
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As you may know the “Intelligent Design Theory” is just a second (third, fourth, … ?) generation form of Creationism. The people who created “ID” (it is not a theory by the way, at best it is an hypothesis) are folks who believe that God created the entire universe in only six days, about 6000 years ago or so and the science that says otherwise, aka “God’s Creation,” just has to be wrong.

The ID people spend most of their time criticizing the science of evolution (which claims we evolved and were not created magically), paleontology (which claims there is fossil and other evidence dating animals and humans back millions of years), geology (which claims that the Earth is over four billion years old), cosmology (which claims the universe is much older than our solar system), etc. but they do not seem to be motivated to answer questions on their own. These people are like colleagues who criticize your work but don’t do any work themselves.

So, it is put up or shut up time. Here are a few questions I would like to see the ID people answer. All are based upon their beliefs, primarily that God created everything about 6000 years ago. Also, since they argue that we cannot know the mind of God, I choose not to ask “why” so much as “how.”

  1. When God created all of the stars, how did he create the starlight so that it looks like it had been en route for billions of years? (Humans can start light beams and stop light beams, but not create a beam millions of light years long instantly.)
  2. When God created the Earth, He included the fossilized remains of animals that were not described in the Bible or any other historical source. How was this done, also why? (The answer “it was a test of faith” is specious because that would imply a knowledge of the mind of God.)
  3. There are animals on Earth that cannot be domesticated, nor are they good tasting or nutritious. How is it that they serve man’s dominion?
  4. When the Earth was created, radioactive elements were created alongside large quantities of their daughter products, thus creating the illusion that those minerals had been buried for millions if not billions of years. How was this done?
  5. Since all of the Earth’s creatures were created just 6000 years ago, why does all of the evidence in God’s creation point to them having evolved over a very much longer time period (3 billion years).
  6. Why does mitochondrial DNA point to a common modern human ancestor of all current humans (Mitochondrial Eve) who lived somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago?
  7. If the Earth was created 6000 years ago, why does the Earth exhibit geological layers of sediment that can only have taken place over a very long time. Many of these layers show extreme tilting and folding and contain the remains of plants and animals of bizarre domains (e.g. ferns near mountain tops)?
  8. If all of the Earth’s animals are descendant’s of the animals on Noah’s Ark, why does their DNA point back to common ancestors far farther in the past?
  9. In the Garden of Eden, what did the carnivores eat? If they ate the meat of other animals, then the GOE was a charnel house as all of the lions, tigers, and wolves mowed down all of sheep, cattle, and the rest of their kind. (Death was common in the GOE then.) If they ate grass, how were they converted into carnivores from herbivores in such a short time?

How about we collect a long list of such questions for the ID movement? Help the IDers by asking questions like the above. It seems that they are struggling to come up with a research agenda, let’s create on for them! Now, that’s creationism!

May 30, 2017

If the Universe Is So Vast, Where Is Everybody?

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:29 am
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The question in the title is a variant of “Are we alone?” Are there other sentient life forms in our galaxy? Enquiring minds want to know.

This post is prompted by a review of a new book (ALIENS: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili).  I have not read the book and do not intend to. The reason? The discussion is premature.

One of the powers of human minds is to imagine (possibly the greatest of human powers) but it has a gigantic flaw: garbage in, garbage out. If our imagination has little to no data to work on we come up with quite fallacious outcomes. This is how we got demons and gods and unicorns and leprechauns.

So, what evidence do we have regarding the universe? We have optical and EMR evidence for the existence of billion upon billions of stars in our galaxy and billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe. But realize we have not known this for long. One hundred years ago, we knew that the Milky Way was a manifestation of other stars in our “neighborhood” but we though that that represented the totality our universe, too. We had observed fuzzy spots in those star fields but hadn’t acquired the evidence to recognize them as other galaxies. And while we had speculated that many of those stars would have planets about them, we had no direct evidence that was so until quite recently. The first actual planet circling another star was identified in … wait for it … 1992. So, we have been aware that there are other planets “out there” for all of 25 years. We have subsequently identified hundreds of others.

Do we have any evidence that life exists on those planets? No, but we do not have any evidence that life does not exist either. At this point, we are not yet ready to make those discoveries (although we are close).

The question in the title implies that since there are so many stars, there must also be unbelievably large numbers of planets, and if life is not an isolated accident, or divine bit of magic, occurring here and only here, then where are those other peoples? There is a mistake embedded in this question though, leading to flights of imagination fueled only by fairy dust. The universe is indeed vast, but the primary constituent of our universe is empty space, aka nothing. The next closest star to us is about four light years away from us. To go there to get direct evidence of what exists there, we would have to travel for four years at the speed of light. Since the fastest speed ever achieved by a man-made object is about 25 miles per second, and the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second, at that speed (as an average), a trip to Alpha Centauri would take a bit under 35,000 years. If we could get their magically and then sent data back to Earth, it would take four years to get here and when it arrived the information would be four years old.

The universe is unimaginably vast, but this is also misleading because it is also vast in time. A civilization could have arisen around Alpha Centauri, to the point that it was capable of building spacecraft capable of very high speeds who could have made the trip in under 20 years, let’s say. But if this occurred 100,000 years ago, there wouldn’t have been anyone here to notice. (That doesn’t stop the imagination, of course, … Ancient Aliens!)

The universe is vast in time as well as space. In order to generate a signal that we could interpret as synthetic instead of natural, that civilization would have to exist within a small radius in space and time. If it is over 100 years out of phase with us now, we wouldn’t have a chance of detecting it. So, 100 years in time is our bubble. How many years has the universe been around? That number is 14,000,000,000 years, roughly. Our “time” as a species capable of detecting another sentient species in our vicinity is therefore about 0.0000025% of the time that has occurred to now. Considering that our spatial bubble is roughly 100 light years wide and the universe is roughly 28,000,000,000 light years wide, we have in out neighborhood, 0.0000012% of the universe’s space. Consequently, we have a combined fraction of the universe’s space and time of  3 x 10–14%. In other words, 99.99999 … 9999% of the universe is outside of our purview, either existing in the past or so far away as to be unattainable.

Something you need to know. Those extra-solar planet hunters … when they “find” evidence of yet another such planet, if that planet is, say, 540 light years away, when the light gets to us it is showing us what was going on 540 years ago. Even if there were a planet with a civilization what could produce radio waves or some such we could detect, that information is 540 years old. What is to say what will happen to us in the next 540 years? Right now our prospects of existing that long do not look good. At the rate we are shitting in our own food bowl, we might not have much of a civilization to be found by aliens.

April 25, 2017

Wrestling the Unconscious (and Losing)

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:44 am
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In a review of an author’s first nonfiction piece (Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious by Nick Romeo, April 22, 2017) in The New Yorker magazine, we are treated to a review of a serious attempt to address the unconscious mind by someone immersed in language, Cormac McCarthy.

I have yet to read the original article (I will) but a number of comments by the reviewer struck me and I will comment on them. here are three paragraphs snatched from that review:

“His title references a famous eureka moment in the history of science: after years of thought and research, the nineteenth-century German chemist August Kekulé claimed that he hit upon the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule after he dreamed of a snake eating its own tail. McCarthy calls this ‘the Kekulé Problem’ because it’s unclear why the unconscious supplied a non-linguistic solution to the puzzle of the molecule’s configuration. Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium? McCarthy generalizes the quandary, asking, ‘Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.’

“His answer—which, he says, appeared in a sort of Kekulé moment of its own, as a sudden epiphany while he was emptying the trash one morning—is that the unconscious is ‘just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break.’ The description of the unconscious as ‘not happy’ with language—as, in fact, ‘loathe to speak to us’—is not an isolated lapse into intentional language: throughout the essay, McCarthy personifies the unconscious as an ancient and inscrutable agent with its own desires and talents.

“McCarthy knows that some of this might sound eccentric. After declaring that the unconscious labors ‘under a moral compulsion to educate us,’ he inserts a parenthetical anticipating a dubious reader. ‘(Moral compulsion? Is he serious?).’ McCarthy doesn’t think the unconscious is interested in micromanaging our affairs, but he does seem to seriously believe that it has a broad interest in our wellbeing. The unconscious, he writes, ‘wants to give guidance to your life in general, but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use.’”

I tend to agree that the subconscious abilities of our brains eschew the use of words and numbers. But studies do show that there is some understanding of things expressed in words and numbers by our unconscious.

McCarthy’s fixation on “Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium?” is misplaced, however. For one Kekulé was investigating the behavior of the chemical compound benzene specifically with regard to the shape of its molecules. So, his problem was geometric and not verbal. (We can forgive McCarthy this misunderstanding as its logic is probably of interest only to chemists.) So, basically the subconscious offered up a spatial option for a spatial problem.

Next, the image of a snake biting its tail is an archetype one can find embedded in cultures all over the world. Actually believing that snakes bite their tales and then roll around as a form of locomotion was taking things a bit too far, but this image is common enough that we have a term for it: ouroboros (see image).

May the circle be unbroken, by and …

And what McCarthy and more scientific researchers seem to ignore, possibly because it may be an insoluble problem, is how many times this image comes up in our dreams (day or night) and which then is rapidly forgotten. In my callow youth I kept a dream log. I learned a few things from it, namely that dreams are mostly rubbish, outtakes from a cornucopia of images we have stored, but also that they take almost no time to deliver. One time I remember falling asleep looking at a bedside clock and then having this very long, convoluted dream that switched locales so fast as to be breath taking. I then woke up with a start to see than only about five minutes of real time had elapsed. These dream episodes happen several times a night and the only ones we seem to remember are the last ones, which fade rapidly unless some effort is made to reinforce them. I no longer reinforce them, so I remember dreams 1-2 times per year at most.

So, consider the thousands of dreams I have had over the last year that have been forgotten. Since they seem to be snippets of images already stored in memory, I suppose they haven’t been forgotten, but there was nothing “new” about them as they were mishmashes of old images. Kekulé was struggling mightily with a problem involving the shape of a molecule and in the ongoing slideshow that was his dreams, an ouroboros pops up and this is latched onto by his conscious mind. He takes that and runs with it.

Did his subconscious really “solve” his problem for him? Is our conscious mind “under a moral compulsion to educate us?” Or is it just throwing up a slide show of images because your conscious mind has been engrossed in that topic? Or does the conscious mind filter out all of the rubbish and sift out the images because we are interested in something like at the moment?

The answers are: we do not know, we do not know (but highly doubt our subconscious has a morality), we do not know, and we do not know. The speculations of philosophers, authors, neuroscientists and the like are all grist for the mill but we still do not know the answers to those questions and their like. We are just beginning to find out. We now know that the subconscious processes of our brains use the same circuitry for the same purposes as do our conscious minds (the visual cortex for processing and storing images, the auditory cortex for processing and storing sounds, etc.). That seemed logical to assume, but now we know.

Since so much of our lives is governed by subconscious mental processing (a majority I believe) it is high time we learned more about it.

October 27, 2016

Good Science, Bad Science

This link is to a blog post that shows one aspect of our public health science that went wrong and is still not fixed (The Calorie Debacle). “Public science” is science mixed with politics. A very obvious example of this is the so-called “food pyramids” (USDA Nutrition Guides) we were shown as children. These were basic guides as to what to eat to be healthy. They were also heavily politicized by food industry lobbies. So, a governmental committee of scientists would come up with guidelines and then during a “review” stage bureaucrats would be pushed and shoved by lobbies to make changes, often substantial ones. An easy example is “dairy products.” No mammal “needs” dairy products after they have been weaned. But these nutrition guides always contained a substantial recommendation regarding the consumption of dairy products. Why? Well, the dairy industry was very powerful and the science was weak.usda_-_basic_7_food_groups

“The truth of the matter is we do not know what should be eaten to maintain good health.”

The truth of the matter is we do not know what should be eaten to maintain good health other than food recently prepared from fresh ingredients is generally healthier than processed foods. We also know that a wide variety of foods tends to be healthier than a very narrow diet (Morgan Spurlock’s movie Super Size Me being an example of what happens to someone who confines their diet).

We are primed to learn from stories and those of us who are overweight (including me) are attracted to quick weight loss schemes because they are: a) easy, and b) fast. They are also ineffective. These “schemes” are sold through the telling of stories. I am bombarded by Internet ads for weight loss schemes and they are larded (a carefully chosen word) with “before and after” photos of real people who have lost weight under the scheme. But the same is true for all of the other schemes and if they all “work” why is there an obesity epidemic? If you answer that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” you are falling into the “blame the victim” trap. People were exercising more and eating according to the guidelines (less fat, more vegetables, etc.) like crazy as our body weights spiraled out of control. We are now starting to realize our errors and correct our mistakes, but standing in the way of more rapid progress are our “friends” in the food lobbies.

If you want a detailed source of what went wrong in the public health recommendations regarding diet, read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taube.

October 24, 2016

Is Scripture Divinely Inspired?

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:57 am
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I have been away on vacation for the last two weeks, which I hope explains my silence. While I was gone, I wrote the following. Steve

* * *

Every religion with some sort of written record claims that their written records, or at least some of them, are divinely inspired. In many cases those words were claimed to have been delivered by revelation and others dictated by angels (Joseph Smith, Mohammad, etc.) so, are these actually divinely inspired? I will make some old and new arguments that they are not.

The simple and obvious reason that these texts cannot be divinely inspired comes from the fact that there is not any universal understanding of these texts. I would expect words chosen by a god to be perfectly clear and, even if translated into other languages, would remain perfectly clear. I would also expect a being who had the power to create a universe or world to be concise as to how he/she wanted his creations to behave. Instead, we are treated to irrelevant stories lacking moral messages we expect from even the simplest children’s stories. For example, in the Old Testament at one point King David gets on Yahweh’s bad side and to punish him Yahweh creates a plague that kills tens of thousands of David’s subjects. And the moral of the story is … what? Apparently Yahweh may kill your ass because he is pissed off with one of your associates. Many of the stories in the Jewish and Christian Bibles seem designed to convince the reader of the authenticity of the texts being read or to convince the reader to follow the precepts provided therein. A god’s words would carry that weight by themselves, no?

And all of the scriptures in the Abrahamic religions are rife with contradictions, obvious bad edits, etc. In the case of Islam as well as the others, the original transcriptions of the original texts have been lost. A god’s words couldn’t be obfuscated or lost or changed in any way if that god had any real power over his/her message. No?

And what are these messages? If they are a code of conduct, I would expect something closer to Hammurabi’s code, a set of laws and punishments for violating them. The “laws” that are to be found in Christian Bibles seem to be ignored by most Christians, converting those laws into recommendations or suggestions rather than requirements. Got an unruly teenager who gives you lip, stone him to death. The scripture couldn’t be more clear. Yet, teenagers getting stoned has an entirely different meaning today. If scriptures are not sets of instructions about how to behave toward one another, what are they for?

My second argument is based upon a fabulous book I am reading (The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, a physicist). In this book the author argues for Karl Popper’s viewpoint that the only way new knowledge can be created is through “conjecture and criticism.” This is basically the scientific method (the actual one, not the bullshit one proffered in school science textbooks). A conjecture is an attempt at an explanation for why something is the way it is, in science we call this an hypothesis. Then such conjectures are exposed to criticisms, in science this is by word and experiment (If this were true, then if I do this, the response would be….). In reality all experiments are suggested by such conjectures. When such “tests” are “passed” repeatedly, scientists stop testing those hypotheses and they become settled science (settled, not “proven”).

Dr. Deutsch’s point (one of many) is that if you withhold criticism, you cannot generate new knowledge and without new knowledge you cannot solve new or even old problems. In most religions one is not allowed to criticize scripture. Scripture is defined as being correct and inviolable. If you do not understand something, then you are wrong, not the scripture.

A consequence of forbidding criticism is there will be no new knowledge. This is 2016. If we go back one hundred years to 1916 and count all of the advances made by science, a human endeavor that requires open communication and open criticism, with religion we find that science has provided: broadcast radio, broadcast TV, antibiotics, the Green Revolution, space travel, communications satellites, synthetic drugs, synthetic fabrics, robotic surgeries, medical imaging, amazing new construction materials (carbon fiber, etc.), and on and on. And religion? Nothing. No real, new, or helpful knowledge has been created and it seems much of the material has become dated, seeming to no longer apply (don’t eat shellfish or pork or meat on Fridays, for example).

Not all of the products of science over the least 100 years have been good: nuclear and chemical weapons, electronic spying, chemical waste products, air and water pollution, and climate change aren’t exactly benefits. But Dr. Deutsch’s position is that problems are inevitable and solutions to those problems generally come from new knowledge, and new knowledge cannot be predicted it can only be pursued and discovered. Imagine what would have happened if the Bubonic Plague hadn’t happened until after antibiotics were invented. Problems will always be with us and the only way through them is “conjecture and criticism” on a large scale. So, Republican politicians denial of climate change or any other scientific reality, for example, is just another form of shutting down discussion/criticism and is self-defeating. Certainly the widespread conservative opposition to the Enlightenment, which has given the world its first large dose of the ability to criticize, is at best anti-progress and worst suicidal.

Scripture is supposed to be above criticism, but is it? All of the evidence says it is not. There are theological seminaries devoted to figuring out what it means (shouldn’t it be obvious?). Christianity alone has tens of thousands of sects, each existing because of a perceived difference it has with all of the others (based upon what?). The others have similar segments. New “churches” such as prosperity churches are popping up all over the place making new arguments based upon old scripture. If this is not discussion/criticism producing “new knowledge” then what is it?

Basically this fact alone tells us that it is not divinely inspired. Scriptures are subject to interpretation by scholars and Imams and whoever wants to spin those words in a new direction. In other words, scripture is not above criticism, and new knowledge is being created (“God wants you to be prosperous!”), so “god’s words” are apparently insufficient, which makes them not a god’s words.

* * *

Yes, this is a  blog focused on class warfare (and, boy, are we losing) but I also write on religion as it is a tool used in the war against the betterment of all human beings.

 

September 22, 2016

Sure, We Can Trust Big Oil!

Last night I saw a TV commercial that, I presume, ran locally that was made by an Illinois-based petroleum industry organization. It started with acknowledging the ever louder call to “leave fossil fuels in the ground,” and tried to counter that with pointing to all of the good things petroleum is converted into: fertilizers, life saving pharmaceuticals, plastics and fibers, fire retardants, etc. Then of course, the plea pivoted on to “you wouldn’t want to put all of those things at risk would you?”

Apparently, these sort of “those are nice kneecaps you got there; it’d be a shame if sumpin’ were to happen to them” threats are considered common and effective now. This is also a straw man argument. The call to leave fossil fuels “in the ground” is due to the wholesale burning of those fuels to power moving vehicles and to be converted into electricity, the primary uses that result in carbon dioxide being injected into the atmosphere far faster than nature can deal with it, thus causing the conditions leading to climate change/global warming. No one is criticizing any of the wonderful things that can be manufactured from fossil fuels.

Of course, the commercial has calming music and pictures of farm machines reaping golden grain, smiling children and parents, etc. for the same reason factory farms still use bucolic pictures of Amish farms in their advertising, so I guess we shouldn’t hold that against them.

If one were to look critically at the, say, petrochemical industry, the industry that converts petroleum from out of the ground into “petrochemicals” other than gasoline, diesel, and other fuels, I guarantee you that there is much to find that we would dislike in the way of pollution, but these are small potatoes compared to the impact of the wide-spread, large scale combustion of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) in our motors and stationary engines. This is not only causing global climate changes faster that we can adjust for them, but is also wasteful in that petroleum burnt can’t be converted into all of the wonderful things the commercial commented on.

Their argument will boomerang if that is the only one they have and it is the only valid one, even though they will mention all of the jobs in their industry that will be “lost” if a “leave it in the ground” policy were to be implemented. But, just like all of the other U.S. workers who have been “displaced” by corporate and government actions, those people will have to find other things to do. Whining about the loss of good paying jobs when the job description is “destroying the biosphere your children will need to survive” is a bit disingenuous, especially when so many other U.S. workers have been gleefully thrown under the corporate bus, just for a better bottom line.

Like the Wells Fargo accounts scandal, these continuing issues completely undermine the Conservatives’ campaign to “remove burdensome government regulations to unleash the power of U.S. corporations.” Clearly that is the last thing we want to do for the segment of our society which willingly does things on a daily basis to poison our environment, disrupt our financial systems catastrophically, and cheat their own customers, all governed by a need to “improve the bottom line.”

September 18, 2016

Pascal’s Wager and Climate Change

Filed under: Politics,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:38 am
Tags: , , , ,

A common tool of religious apologists is Pascal’s Wager, which is basically the claim that believing in God is the safest approach to reality because if you are wrong, there is no penalty and if you are right, then the rewards are tremendous. None of this applies, of course, if you “bet” that God does not exist.

This, obviously, has nothing to do with God and everything to do with human beings and risk management. I have commented before that the “risk” has been created by said god and hence Pascal’s Wager is merely part of the scam. It is not an argument in favor of god, it is an argument in favor of belief in a god whether He exists or not.

Having said all of that, Pascal was using his reasoning faculty when he proposed the idea of the “wager,” and, if this applies to something as profound as to whether to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful supernatural being, should it also not apply to belief in, say, climate change? It is an obvious correlation that “strong religious faith” and disbelief in climate change are linked in this country. Did not the Christian/Jewish god provide the Earth for us to dominate? Would God allow His Creation (man) the power to destroy His Creation (the biosphere) that supports human and other life? Doubt about their religion is unacceptable but doubt about science, which often challenges their religion, well, that is actively cultivated from the pulpits of U.S. churches. So, if the religious are going to doubt anything, it is science.

So, let us apply Pascal’s Wager to the idea of climate change. If we believe in climate change as being man-made and, hence, capable of being rectified by the actions of men, and we are right, then we may survive to live on. If we are wrong, and there is no such thing as climate change, then we have lost little. If on the other hand, we disbelieve in climate change and we are wrong, we doom the future of humanity. If we are right, then there is nothing lost. Clearly the wager favors belief.

There is another dimension of this argument, if we believe climate change is man-made and we act upon it, but none of the man-made “causes” we suspected seem to have any effect when we rectify them, then there is a consequence, we have wasted time and effort on a non-solution. But this is not a net negative. By doing that experiment, we may discover what the real causes are and then have a leg up in solving them. If we do not even attempt the experiment, then we not only won’t find out if we are right, but we will not find the underlying causes of the effect. Basically, if climate change is real and not a “hoax” as so many claim, we are better off pretending that it is real and acting upon it.

The reason this is so important is we cannot afford the experiment we are now running, the experiment of changing our climate from one that supports human life to something else, something which is likely, very likely, to be less beneficial. It is not as if it is the case that if our experiment in climate change challenges our ability to survive, there isn’t a back-up Earth we can retreat to lick our wounds and learn from our mistakes. If we are wrong about climate change being “unreal” we may pay a penalty that is beyond our worst nightmares.

To solve this problem, just requires a little belief, but time is running out as the experiment is running and has been running for decades.

 

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