Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Argument from Authority

Years ago when I worked at a dotcom, there seemed to be a lot of my fellow coworkers who were believed that aliens were visiting us and doing all sorts of things from leaving crop circles to rectally probing people. I remember having a debate with a couple of people who were insistent that all of that were true, and one woman used as her trump card that she heard "a guy from the C.I.A." who said that it was all happening.

I pointed out that she was using an argument from authority fallacy (technically, it's an argument from an anonymous authority), but as I've mentioned before, pointing out logical fallacies only has an effect if you're talking to somebody who's playing by the rules of logic in the first place. It's not too hard to figure out why this is a fallacy. What if I got another guy from the C.I.A. who said that it wasn't happening? (He's part of the cover-up, obviously!) Sure, it very well may be possible that it is happening, but I need some actual evidence if I'm going to believe something so incredible. Simply having some guy with some insider government information (that he's rather reckless about spilling to the average person) claim that it's so doesn't make it so.

Essentially, the argument from authority is the adult version of: "My mom said (x) is true!" I remember that I once had a student tell me that Catholics weren't Christians because her grandmother said that they weren't. I had to gently tell her that her grandmother was wrong. As we get older, we tend to give automatic credence to doctors, scientists, etc. without necessarily checking to see what their specific credentials are or if they actually have evidence to back up their claims. Nothing is true simply because an authority figure says it's true.

I can imagine that somebody might object here and point out that I often point out the scientific consensus when it comes to things like evolution, climate change, and GMOs in order to make my point, and thus, I make the argument from authority fallacy. While I do point out the consensus, I'm not guilty of making the fallacy as I'm not trying to make the case that evolution is true, climate change is happening, and GMOs are safe because the scientific consensus says so. In the case of each of those, the evidence speaks for itself, and you don't need expert opinions to figure that out.

Then why bring it up at all? I do so because it's an interesting challenge, and when I refer to the scientific consensus, I refer to a consensus of scientists who are experts in those particular fields because ultimately the person who is arguing the opposing side is asserting that they have an understanding that the experts don't. For instance, if somebody denies anthropogenic climate change, they're implying that they understand the science better than the vast majority of climate scientists. It very well may be the case that they do, but when I bring it up, I'm asking them to explain what it is that they get that the experts don't get. Usually in this case, you can expect an evasion.

I once got into a conversation with a creationists about a TV special featuring Stephen Hawking. In it, Hawking gave his reasons for why the universe doesn't need a creator in order for it to exist. The creationist called Hawking's conclusion "laughable". My response was to ask what, exactly, did Hawking get wrong as far as the science was concerned. He brought up the fact that Hawking didn't mention things like "evidence from design", which still doesn't address the question. Did he really think that Hawking had never heard that before? Same goes with people when I talk about GMOs; they will express that more testing needs to be done, but that implies that they understand something about the process that the majority of geneticists understand, since they are saying that they're safe. Again, the critics might be right, but if they are, they should be able to explain why their understanding is better - preferably with an actual geneticist in the room.

Bringing up what the experts say isn't a logical fallacy so long as you're not using it as the reason as to why something is true. It's simply a way of getting people to address the specific arguments and offer any evidence to the contrary. The problem comes in when people use the opinion of an authority figure as evidence, their authority figures aren't even experts on the particular subject, or the authority figure isn't even named in the first place (like our mysterious C.I.A. official).

A big problem that comes up with this fallacy is that often the people who constantly use it will assume that you're doing it as well. To be specific, I have had on more than one occasion Christians bringing up the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche to me. Nietzsche is understood to be an atheist, and he was the one who is often quoted as saying that "God is dead". From what I understand, and I very well could be getting this completely wrong as I'm no philosophy expert, his point was that as society moves away from religious faith, humans will struggle to find some sort of intrinsic value to life, as that's what they had with a belief in God. Essentially, the Christian is trying to tell me that since Nietzsche is an atheist, and I'm an atheist, that I should accept his premise and feel that life has no inherent meaning (ultimately as a way of demonstrating that their worldview is superior to mine).

What they don't seem to understand is that if this I don't give a crap what Nietzsche had to say. If he says things with which I agree, then I agree. But if he says something with which I disagree, then I disagree. I'm not going to agree with the guy on everything just because I agree with many of his critiques of religion. More importantly, if I am understanding his premise correctly, I think that it's a false one, as I don't think that people derive intrinsic value from religion. Rather, I think that they have their values and then wind up ascribing them, after the fact, to their religious faith.

This doesn't just happen with Nietzsche. I've had a theist tell me that Richard Dawkins thinks that atheists should embrace the idea of being "militant" after I said that was a ridiculous thing to do. I suppose the person thought that I was going to find myself in some sort of difficult position of sticking with what I said and contradicting Richard Dawkins. Fortunately for me, I have no problem disagreeing with the man. (I personally think that calling ourselves "brights" is pretentious as all hell, for instance.) I guess what many theists don't seem to understand is that atheists - or to be more specific - skeptics don't have any authority figures. We might have people we admire, but if Lawrence Krauss (another atheist I admire) started talking tomorrow about how we need to wear tinfoil hats to protect us from alien mindreaders, then I'll have no problem saying that Krauss is off his nut. (That is, of course, unless he provides objective and verifiable evidence.)

An even better example of this misunderstanding comes up in the movie God's Not Dead. The setup for the film is a Christian student takes a philosophy class with a professor who insists that the kids sign a statement declaring that "God is dead" in order to pass the class. (Something which has never happened and would be criticized by even some of the most strident atheists.) During the film, he debates his professor on the existence of God, only to get the professor to admit that the problem is that he's mad at God, which makes him not an atheist at all (but I digress).

I hesitate to give this movie any publicity, even if it's the 30-100 hits my blog posts get. I also must admit that I haven't seen it, but a friend told me about it, and I've read so many reviews of it that my point still stands. If anybody has seen it, and it turns out that I'm getting something wrong, please let me know. (And if you want a very thorough analysis of the film, check out what the Camels with Hammers blog, written by an actual atheist philosophy professor, has to say.)

From what I've read, the arguments that the two throw at each other consist of little more than arguments from authority. The professor quotes the likes of Dawkins and Hawking, and then he's dumbfounded that the student (the hero of the film) isn't impressed by the credentials of those he quotes. In other words, he is unable to make any arguments of his own. He can't even seem to paraphrase what others have said.

Perhaps there are atheists out there who only parrot what prominent nonbelievers have said, but that's not the way most of the ones I know come to their conclusions. I was an atheist long before I ever heard of Richard Dawkins or many of today's prominent nonbelievers. Sometimes I will quote one of them, not as a way of providing what I think is evidence, but because I think that they have made a true statement in as clear a manner as possible, and for me to use my own words would be to run the risk of being less articulate. A prime example includes Christopher Hitchens, who said: "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

It's not true because he said it. It's true because it simply makes sense. Why should I have to go digging for evidence to disprove something for which no evidence has been provided? A basic tenet of logic is that the person making a claim about something is the one who has the burden of proof to provide evidence, not the other way around. (I guess I ought to write my next logical fallacy post on the burden of proof.) In other words, Kermit the frikken' Frog could have said it, and I'd still quote it. Shoot, I bet you could easily compile a list of Hitchens quotes with which I do NOT agree, but that has no impact on the fact that I like what he said that one particular time.

I suppose that I can understand why I run into this problem with so many theists in particular. Their entire belief structure is based on the words of an authority, so naturally they assume that I must be doing something similar. Even when people get away from theism though, they run the danger of replacing one authority (The Bible - or somebody's interpretation of it) with another (like the Food Babe or some other mountebank).

The good news is that it's very possible to not fall into this particular line of fallacious thinking. As Lawrence Krauss said, when speaking of the scientific method:
There are no scientific authorities. That's a key point. There are scientific experts. But there's no one whose views are not subject to question. And that's the key point. And there's no student that should ever be afraid of saying to a professor in a science class, "You're wrong and here's why."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cal Shakes - Pygmalion

I have some vague memories of reading Pygmalion and watching My Fair Lady when I was a freshman in high school. It gave my teacher, Mr. Byson, a chance to teach us all about England in general and London in particular. I knew what Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square were long before I spent a semester there as a college student, and I think that it was my teacher's influence that made me a bit of an Anglophile.

I haven't read or seen either of those works since, and I thought that I had remembered them pretty well, but I realized that there was a lot that had slipped my memory when I went to see it at Cal Shakes this afternoon. I remembered Eliza Doolittle and her cockney accent (that is what it is, right?) but I think that I remember more from My Fair Lady. Isn't there a bit about the rain in Spain staying mainly on the plain? And for some reason, I thought that Julie Andrews was in it, but a quick search shows that it was Audrey Hepburn. Oh well, guess I'd better check it out again.

Anyway, today's performance was thoroughly enjoyable, and it all went by rather quickly. The cast did a nice job, with Irene Lucio showing that she has some great comedic chops as Eliza. Anthony Fusco did a great job as the rigid, intelligent, but awfully clueless Henry Higgins. (I like to call 'im 'Enry "Iggins" meself.) And while he might not seem like a main character, I really appreciated L. Peter Callender in the role of Colonel Pickering, as he was able to radiate the good nature of the character, providing an excellent foil for Higgins.

Just like most of the best works of art, this play has a lot of themes that are still relevant today. So long as there are some people who have more than others, we'll have people dividing themselves into groups based on who has more. Even though Britain's class struggles aren't exactly the same as what we experience in America, we've got enough of it that I think it speaks to audiences here as well. Even without all of that, it deals with a very human tendency to disregard the needs and feelings of others.

For my final thought, I love the irony of having a George Bernard Shaw play at a Shakespeare festival. No, I'm not talking about how they're doing non-Shakespeare stuff. They always do that. I'm talking about the fact that when it came to the Stratford playwright, Bernard had this to say: "There is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare."

I won't hold it against him.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Advice for the recently deconverted

Julian the Apostate
I figure that if I can give sincere advice to proselytizing Christians, I should probably be able to do an even better job of giving advice to those who have recently abandoned their religious faith. While nonbelievers are not a monolithic group, I think that what I have to say should prove useful for most of them, whether they identify as an atheist, an agnostic, or perhaps even a deist.

1. Be open about it. This might be easier said than done depending on your family situation and where you live. If you think that you can still maintain your important relationships (not to mention your career) with this revelation, then let people know where you stand. I'm not saying that you need to confront people and get in debates, but don't let people assume that you're something that you're not. I wrote before about how atheists can learn from the struggle for equality that gay people have faced. Many people have come to accept gays and support their rights simply by realizing how many of them are around them and learning that they're really not all that different from them. When more believers realize that apostates don't become cat-sacrificing meth-heads upon deconversion, then we'll start to become less scary to them.

2. Be prepared to hear points as though you've never even considered them, even though you've spent much time pondering and ultimately rejecting them. If you follow my first piece of advice, then you're probably going to find this to be one of the most frustrating things. Did you spend a long time thinking about the various arguments for the existence of God only to find them wanting? Did you even use to say some of them yourself? Don't expect any of that to matter, as you'll hear everything from the ridiculous "Why are there still monkeys?" to the more thoughtful (but ultimately flawed) "The universe must have a case that exists outside of itself, and the best explanation for that cause is God". Not only will you hear all of these arguments, but believers will say them as though you've never given them any thought - even when you demonstrate that you have. They'll likely then accuse you of being close-minded and/or biased (even though you have already demonstrated that you can change your mind and overcome a bias).

3. It won't matter that you used to believe. This certainly seems to be the case with Christians in particular, but I imagine it's probably true for other faiths as well. Once you tell somebody that you don't believe, they assume that the problem is that you somehow don't know the theology. The problem won't be that you've found some flaw in the system. Clearly, it's that you don't know anything about it. Much like in my last point, even when you explain that you were a firm believer, many theists have a hard time accepting that one can sincerely believe and then change his or her mind. You might even find this happening with people you've known your whole lives and prayed next to in church. Prepare for frustration.

4. They will assume things about you. Without even listening to your objections, many believers will immediately start formulating a narrative in their heads about why you feel the way you do. Obviously, you're angry at God. Or, you had a bad experience. Probably the most helpful thing you can do is, instead of debate, simply explain why you don't believe (rather than telling them why they shouldn't believe).

5. They're not interested in what you've found out. For some nonbelievers, coming away from faith feels like stepping out of a prison where you had the key all along. You step outside the bars, look back, and wonder how the hell you could have stayed in there for so long. And then you see your friends and family and you want to yell at them: "Hey! Look in your hands! You have the key! It's obvious!"  Unfortunately, instead of them thanking you, they'll insist that they're not in a prison and won't even look to see what's in their hand. The truth is, many of them are perfectly happy in there. Their families and friends are there. They like the music. They like the camaraderie. For some of them, it's actually pretty comfortable and they have a lot of space to move around and the guards are pretty nice to them.

I realize that any believers out there are probably feeling a bit insulted with this analogy. Please realize that I'm trying to address nonbelievers, and whether we're right or wrong, this is how it feels. Many of us want to help others get away from faith, but the reaction on the part of many is to completely reject what we have to say rather than even consider that we might be on to something.

6. If you debate, stick with conversations about evidence. I think that I've learned this one the hard way. I've gotten into long debates about issues like how the Bible endorses slavery, and ultimately it's just frustrating and pointless. Apologists will excuse anything, no matter how horrific, that's in The Bible. (If I had a nickel for every time I heard the intellectually and morally bankrupt "Slavery was different back then/It was more like indentured servitude!" argument, I'd have a hell of a lot of nickels.) Ultimately though, these kinds of discussions are pointless. Let's say that The Bible clearly stated that owning human beings was wrong. Would that suddenly make the Christian God real? No. You'll find better morals in the average Superman comic, but that doesn't make Superman any more real than Jesus.

Stick with discussing what you both consider to be evidence, and then determine whether such evidence exists. Don't hold your breath thinking that they'll give you something, but be open to hearing about it.

7. Remember that they're not stupid. Don't get all tribalistic about this and assume that those on your side are somehow smarter than the opposition. There are plenty of bad reasons to become a nonbeliever, and a lot of atheists and agnostics aren't very thoughtful about their unbelief.

8. Beware the condescending nonbeliever. If you're the kind of person who likes to debate this stuff, don't be shocked when some of your fellow nonbelievers think that you're somehow doing the equivalent of what the Westboro Baptist Church does. It's funny, because even though I'm very public in my nonbelief, I've found myself making friends with a lot of Christians. It's weird, because they send me friend requests. I even get a few +1's on Google Plus from believers on some of the blog entries I've written.

However, talking to some atheists and agnostics, you're creating the crime of all crimes by critiquing an idea. They act like believers are little children holding on to their teddy bears, and you're trying to tear them away from their beloved toy. Are there some atheists who are obnoxious and insulting? Sure. But even in that case, you'll find that most believers can handle it just fine. They're not as fragile as you think.

The ironic thing about this is that in an effort to be more open and tolerant, these kinds of nonbelievers wind up being the most insulting of all.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Four years of daddyhood

Last Friday, my dad came down to visit, and when he left to take the three and a half hour drive home, he took my son, Logan, (who turned four today) with him to spend a couple of nights up at "Papa's Ranch". I had told Logan that he would be going up there for about a week beforehand. He's been up to my dad's before but always with my wife and me. He's also been away from us (once for a week) while staying with my wife's parents. The difference is that they live close by, so he sees them fairly regularly.

When we finished lunch, Logan started asking when it was time to go. He got into my dad's car and said goodbye to us with no drama whatsoever. When we talked to him the next day on the phone, he was having a great time.

I realize that there's nothing remarkable to all this, but I think that a lot of parents know what I mean that while it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, it's a big deal to me. There were a lot of emotions going through me. First of all, he was finally old enough to go up there and spend a couple of days on his own. Next summer, he'll probably spend several days there just as his older cousins have in the past. Basically, it was a crossing of the threshold as he's clearly no longer a baby or a toddler but a little kid now. I was also immensely proud of him for being so confident - and I dare say that I'm a bit proud of my wife and me, as we probably did something right to have him be like that. Still, there's something kinda sad about the fact that he's so nonchalant about leaving us for a few days!

I've mentioned this before, but the best and most bittersweet advice I received when I first became a dad was that my job was to teach my son how to live without me. While he's obviously not going to be there for some time, it's safe to say that he's on his way. The thing is, I can understand overly-protective parents. At least, I can understand the instinct that drives it. But ultimately that kind of parenting can only lead to harm. They're not puppies who will still require your care when they reach adulthood.

Aside from all these mixed feelings, here are some other random notes and observations from me being a dad. I imagine that some of these are universal.

1. My feet hurt. Seriously. Little kids don't look where they're walking, and if you're not wearing shoes and they are, be prepared to have them step on your feet. Sure, they don't weigh as much as an adult, but when it happens repeatedly throughout the day, no matter how many times I caution him to be careful, it starts to add up.

2. It's like having a little drunk Jack Tripper living in the house. I have never seen a real life human being do as many pratfalls as my son. He's always spinning around, acting silly, and totally unaware of his environment. Try and ask him to stand in one spot for more than three minutes, and he'll fall down somehow.

3. Just when I think I'm about to engage in a conversation and/or explain something, everything gets derailed. He'll ask about something like whether a seal is a fish, and then when I try to explain what mammals are, he'll start talking about how he had ice cream yesterday. Stay on topic, dammit! (Actually, I'm noticing a bit of an evolution on this one - he seems to be able to stay focused on a conversation for at least a couple of minutes now as opposed to half a minute before.)

4. I'm trying my best to let him be his own person. When I was in my early twenties, I took my nephew to get some Star Wars toys. When he saw the Power Rangers toys, he told me that he wanted them, and I insisted that we were there to get Star Wars toys for him. Oh boy. How embarrassing. Good thing I waited until my late thirties, where I gained a little perspective, to have my son. As of now, he seems to be taking to superheroes and Star Wars, but I don't think that's so strange for a little boy. However, he's got some other interests, and he really loves monsters. For his birthday, I got him a Godzilla, which he insists is his favorite present. He also likes this show called Ninjago, and I got him one of those toys not too long ago. I guess there's always going to be some crossover in interests though when your dad is basically a little kid at heart himself.

He's not showing much interest in sports, but if he does, then I'll sign him up for something. As of right now, he doesn't get any exposure to it at home. However, we do have him in a couple of activities, both of which he loves: dancing and swim lessons. He really loves the dancing, and his teacher told us that he's doing a great job and he's always eager to volunteer for freestyle dancing when asked. We even got to see a performance, and only about half of them volunteered for the freestyle dancing, but his hand was up right from the beginning. So long as he remains this enthusiastic, we'll keep him in dance class.

He's also a bit of a ham and a storyteller (that's probably a bit of my DNA in there) so we hope to sign him up for some kind of drama class when we can find one that takes his age group.

Still, I'm not trying to set my heart on anything. If he changes interests and wants to do something else, then I will encourage him to do what he wants. I guess the only thing that I'll kind of push is for him to at least take interest in something, whatever that might be.

5. I have a hard time reading about or watching anything to do with kids being harmed. I think that's pretty self-explanatory.

6. He has a mischievous streak like his maternal grandfather, and he likes to make up stories like my dad. When asked what his favorite movie was at preschool, he said that it was Planet of the Apes. When asked about his favorite T-shirt, he said that it was his Green Lantern one. When asked about his favorite toy, it was his Batman action figure.

And yet he had never seen that movie, and he didn't own that shirt, and he doesn't have that toy. When we asked him why he told his teacher that, he just let out a big belly laugh. Kinda like Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

7. He's well-loved, and he knows that he is. I figure that's probably pretty important.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Conquer the bias

Everybody has biases, and it's foolish to pretend that you don't. Your biases are often a product of your personal experiences, your upbringing, and the society in which you live. They shape your opinions on things, and you like it when you discover things that reconfirm your biases. There's nothing wrong with having them, but I think that they do become a problem when we use them to justify how we feel about things without analyzing the situation even deeper.

To be more specific, I once was in a conversation with somebody about marriage equality. The other person couldn't give a single logical reason for why same sex couples shouldn't be allowed to get married. Ultimately, the other person just went with: "That's just the way I was raised." So, one can justify denying people their equal rights because it aligns with the values that you were brought up with? How does that make sense?

I sometimes get it lobbed at me that I'm "biased" when I reject supposed "evidence" for the supernatural. When I try to point out that the "evidence" that's being presented is either an anecdote, an argument from ignorance, or some other logical fallacy, that's when the accusation of bias comes out. If anything, I have a bias towards evidence-based reasoning, but I don't have a bias toward the supernatural not being real.

I suppose that I am biased against certain forms of supernatural belief systems. I don't particularly like the tenets of the Christian faith, and I not only don't believe them, but I hope that they're not true. However, when one embraces an evidence-based worldview, then one has to accept even the things that he or she doesn't like. For instance, I really, really, really wish that anthropogenic climate change wasn't real, and I tend to have a bias against things that get people all worried and panicky over things that might happen. However, it doesn't matter what my bias is; the evidence shows that it's happening. I also am biased in favor of the idea that alien civilizations are visiting our planet. The evidence doesn't match my bias though, darnit.

It especially doesn't make sense to me when people accuse me of not believing in a god because of my bias. I was raised to believe in God. When I started this journey, my bias was toward him existing. It's not that I decided one day to adopt a new bias; it's that I figured out that my bias wasn't justified. (Because sometimes they are justified. I have a bias against people who don't like The Beatles, and scientific evidence shows them to be untrustworthy.) Are there people who are so biased against any form of faith that they won't even hear the arguments? Of course. Are they so biased that even if God came down and gave a clear, unambiguous, verifiable sign that they'd still hold on to their nonbelief? I suppose so. But it's a mistake to assume that people don't reach the same conclusions as you simply because of a bias.

A bias is something that one should recognize and view as an obstacle toward discovering the truth. If anything, you look for things that would prove your bias to be unfounded rather than things that confirm it. That's easier said than done, and I like having my biases confirmed as much as the next guy, but I recognize that sometimes I need to at least hear the other side out in case my bias is taking me down the wrong path.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sincere advice for the proselytizing Christian

An article on WikiHow, entitled "How to Persuade an Atheist to Become Christian" has been making the rounds on various skeptic and atheist forums these last couple of days. I'm not sure if it's been going around the various online Christian communities, but just in case it has, I would like to offer some advice to any Christian who's thinking of employing this particular strategy. I'm not going to pick apart its various faults or attack Christianity, rather, I'm going to explain why you're probably just going to find yourself frustrated more than anything, and maybe I'll be doing you a favor by saving you some time.

The first thing that I should note is that not all atheists are alike. I can only speak for myself, and I became an atheist through skepticism. This is not true for all atheists. There are lots of reasons why people don't believe. However, I know a lot of atheists who approach the issue of religious faith the same way that I do, so even though this is from my point of view, I feel confident that a lot of atheists will agree with what I'm saying.

Also, I'm not going to go through each and every point. No doubt there are all sorts of people doing a thorough analysis already. I'm just going to point out a few things that jumped out at me.

1. It starts off with a pretty bad premise when it gives the following bit of advice:
Put yourself in your friend's seat. First, they don't have your concept of salvation, as "to be saved from The Law of Sin and Death", or that "all have sinned and deserve judgment".
One thing that I find odd when I debate with Christians is that they often talk about some of its basic principles as though I've never heard of it before. This article assumes right from the get-go that the atheist has no "concept" of some pretty basic Christian ideas.

I think a better bit of advice, especially if you're living in a Christian-dominated country, is that you can assume that there's a good chance that they know the basics. Not only that, but you have to realize that many atheists are former believers. Some of them were fervent believers, and some of them were even pastors. They can talk the talk, and they've walked the walk. Sure, there are some people out there who don't have the faintest clue about Christianity, but don't this idea makes the mistake of thinking that people reject the idea of the Christian God out of ignorance. And I don't mean to be snarky here, but let's face it - Christianity is an evangelizing religion by nature, and it's not like you're the Druids.

And if you're tempted to tell the former believer that he or she was never a "true" Christian in the first place, well, good luck with that. Trust me, it's not going to get you very far.

2. The second point under "preparation" goes as follows:
Before starting a discussion, you must expect that they have a non-religious orthodoxy with their evidence aligned in their favor, as they see it, regarding origins from the vacuum of space, universe and life from a black hole, from nothing but (mindless) energy changing to matter by no plan, yet results so astonishing, with no design -- matter "rattling around" to create all the orderly, interdependent processes -- as the basis of theories of origins (unobservable stuff form into theories of what they believe) may be arguable, perhaps logical, but how so?
If this is the best way that you can articulate the atheist position, then don't be surprised if the atheist rolls his or her eyes at you. Try reading up on what the actual science says, as theories are NOT formed from "unobservable stuff".

3. The fourth point under preparation says:
Verify that the Bible is scientifically correct every time it mentions science, even though it isn't a science text.
Not even all Christians will try and tell you this. As I stated before, I'm not interested in getting into debunking Christianity, but don't expect to find agreement with this premise. In fact, expect to find a long list of refutations with specific examples.

4. The fifth bit of "preparation" advice:
Be prepared to have a genuine conversation with them. Show interest in what they are saying. If you are going to convince him or her of anything one-on-one, you have to first take a genuine interest in that person's point of view.
The article doesn't state this, but a "genuine" conversation and sincere "interest" means that you're willing to consider that the other person is right. If you don't think that there's any way you can be wrong, then you're already failing this step. (And this is probably the biggest failure of the article, as it the writer doesn't understand the premises behind his/her own advice.)

5. I should first note that much of the advice is good stuff that could be useful no matter what you're discussing. However, it starts to assume too much with point number five under "Discussions":
Explain why Christianity helps people to live better lives.
Don't be shocked if the atheist doesn't even accept the premise of this. Has Christianity helped some people lead better lives? Absolutely. Some people kick drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, etc. with Christianity. The same can be said of other religions. More importantly, there are atheists who don't feel as though they're somehow living an "worse" life than the average Christian. In fact, many of us feel the opposite, if anything. Be prepared to have the atheist point out that places that are more religious/Christian (the "Bible Belt" of the U.S.) tend to have lower standards of living than places with less religiosity (Scandinavia).

6. Again, some more good advice is given, but step 3 under "Long Term Goals" is curious:
After their arguments about any advantages of being atheist, say that their arguments are perfectly good points, but not enough to convert you to atheism.
In other words: "Make sure your mind is sufficiently made up and unwilling to change when given new evidence or a different perspective." I don't know about you, but I always assume that I can be wrong about anything and everything. I'm willing to  convert if given proper evidence (I don't care about "arguments" for belief) and I can spell out for you numerous examples of what that evidence would look like.

This relates back to point number 4, as it's not a genuine conversation if you're unwilling to even consider that you might be wrong.

7. The seventh point under "Long Term Goals" states:
As your friend listens (or just allows you to pray), pray that God will bless your friend and draw closer.
Honestly? Go ahead and pray for your friend. But don't do it in front of him or her because they're likely to view that as condescending. It carries the assumption that there's something wrong with them, and I hate to break it to you, but most of us atheists don't feel like we're missing something. Even if you're right, this will likely only turn the atheist off entirely.

Overall, I think that the article comes from a good, sincere place, and the writer wants to help people. However, it makes a few fundamental mistakes that will likely set off several alarm bells for atheists rather than have them consider converting to Christianity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Not to be

There are plenty of tributes to the recently deceased Robin Williams out there that are no doubt better written. I was definitely a fan of some of his work, and even though he turned up in a lot of dreck, he'd still surprise me every now and then and remind me of what a talent he is.

Instead of a tribute, I'd like to add my voice to the growing list of people who are trying to spread awareness about depression, as it's clear that he suffered from it. Some people seem to be under the impression that the man needed to change his outlook, or he needed the people in his life to be there for him and remind him of how loved he was.

The problem is that neither of those things solve depression.

I have only had brief tastes of depression myself, the most recent being a massive mental crash that overtook me at the end of the school year. When I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me, I couldn't pinpoint anything that was making me sad. My wife is great to me. I have a wonderful, healthy, hilarious son. I had a good school year, and through the magic of Facebook, I'm able to keep in touch with many of my favorite students. I had recently officiated my sister-in-law's wedding, and I was overwhelmed by the positive response. I was starting to feel exhausted with everything coming to a close, and instead of coming down for a smooth landing, the plane smashed into the side of a mountain.

I'm much better - even looking forward to getting back in the swing of things in about a week. But I also took the precaution of setting an email reminder at the beginning of June to prepare myself to ease into next summer lest I go through that again.

It's hard for people to understand other people sometimes. Our brains don't all function exactly the same way. Maybe a bunch of compliments make you feel good, and you can hang on to those for months, but it just doesn't work that way for me. When students thank me for doing a good job, my initial suspicion is that they probably don't know what they're talking about, as I'm just moments away from everybody figuring out that I don't know what the hell I'm doing. When I was complimented on my officiating, my mind instantly went to thinking that they probably have pretty low standards and/or they would have said the same thing to anybody.

In other words, I was riding a wave of good feelings and love, but I still felt like the world was crushing me down, and everything was making me sad. I couldn't just shake myself out of it.

I don't know the full story of Robin Williams, but I suspect it's safe to say that his bouts of depression were far worse than mine. I've felt like I was losing the will to live, but I've never started to plan how to actually bring about my demise. In other words, I was a lot like Hamlet in Act I, where he expresses his wish that his "solid flesh" would "thaw and resolve itself into a dew" since the whole world had become "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" to him. What I've never done though is actually start to plan out how I'd end my life.

In other words, I've felt myself losing the will to live, but I've also never found myself having the will to end my life.

People talk about mental and physical problems as though they're two different things. There's something about human psychology that makes us feel like our personalities and our bodies are completely distinct from one another. Yet we all know that's demonstrably false. You don't even have to do anything drastic like remove bits of your brain from your skull to see a fundamental difference in who you are as a person. Have a few beers/glasses of wine/shots of tequila. You won't be exactly the same person anymore, will you? Seriously, imagine if you were to feel the effects of alcohol for the rest of your life - minus the vertigo/dizziness/vomiting/etc. You wouldn't exactly be you, now would you?

Your brain is a physical part of your body, and its workings are a physical interaction of your body chemistry. Just as you can have something wrong with your heart that will make it not beat right or something wrong with your lungs to not make you breathe right, you can have something wrong with your brain that can make you not THINK right.

Anything that would make you take up arms against that sea of troubles that we call life and finally bring about the end of it all is your brain not doing the one thing that it's supposed to do - keep you alive.

We need to start being honest about this if we're going to help people who suffer from depression. I'm not saying that there was nothing that could have been done for Robin Williams. I don't know enough about his situation one way or the other. I do know that if we think that he just "gave up" or took some sort of cowardly way out of his problems, then we're not going to get anywhere near the solution to this problem.

If you want to read some other (probably better) articles on the subject of depression and suicide, I recommend the following:

"Only the Lonely" by Stephen Fry - I share this with my seniors when we read Hamlet.

Matt Fraction's blog, where he addresses a depressed fan.

Monday, August 11, 2014

These lousy kids nowadays

You're tearing him apart!
Anybody else notice that the kids nowadays are different from when I was younger? They're lazier, and they expect things to just be handed to them. On top of all of that, they lack respect. You should hear the way they talk to adults sometimes! It's unbelievable! To think that they're the future of blah blah Blah BLah BLAh BLAH BLARGH BLAAGRRHH.

If you were nodding your head at the beginning of this post, then guess what? You are officially a cliche. If there's anything that's been consistent since humanity has kept written records, it's that the older generation complains about the younger one. I was reading some Peanuts comics from the 1950s, and in it Linus and Charlie Brown were discussing the way their parents viewed the current generation. (Hint: it wasn't anything positive.) I also watched the movie Twelve Angry Men recently for the first time (great film) and in it the characters were complaining about how the kids are "these days".

Ever hear of Socrates? He lived about 2,500 years ago. The following quote is attributed to him:
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.
As a kid, I always was skeptical of this kind of rhetoric when I would hear it from people of my parents' generation and before. (I don't seem to recall hearing it from my parents all that much though.) Too bad I didn't have that Peanuts collection handy or have greater knowledge about how the greasers, beatniks, and hippies were bringing the world to hell in a handbasket. What's really brought it all into perspective is when I hear people my own age talk this way - especially when it's somebody I knew as a kid.

Such disrespect!
You'll hear them complain or see them post memes on Facebook about how the kids today don't understand "respect" the way we did. I seriously want to call them out. "Do you not remember what you were like when you were a teenager? 'Cause I do!" The worst of the memes though are the ones that say that this "problem" that's totally unique to the present generation of kids could be solved by spankings. I dunno - my almost-four-year old is pretty respectful, and his teachers have told me how he often says "please" and "thank you". Just imagine how more respectful he'd be if I'd smack him around a little!

As a high school teacher, I happen to know a lot of young people, and I find them to be as decent and respectful as I find people of every generation. Yeah, some of them are total A-holes. Many more of them are awesome though. Plus, and this is purely anecdotal, but I frequently have them holding doors open for me - even going out of their way to do so. And it's not like I'm struggling with a cane here. They're doing it purely out of the goodness of their hearts.

5th century B.C. kids are the worst!
Another anecdote, but one that seems to match the experience of many of my colleagues, is that if I've
noticed any change over my 13 years of teaching, it's that they're more accepting and respectful of those who are different from them. Sure, bullying is still a problem, but one thing that's fantastic is how much they recognize that it IS a problem. Also, I remember that I would often have to remind the class to not say things like "That's gay" or disparage homosexuals, as it would frequently come up at the most random times. I don't even feel the need to point this out anymore, as I've had classes where it's never even been an issue. (And if you're somebody who thinks that kids being accepting of homosexuals is a bad thing, kindly buzz off and read another blog.)

My point is that if you're going to take a few stories about kids being disrespectful and use that as a wide brush to paint the entire generation, then I can easily play the same game and show you that they're not only not so bad, but they're better than we used to be. It's not that I think that's necessarily the case either, but every generation is going to have its own faults and issues, and there's never going to be one where the older folks will say: "Ya know what? These kids nowadays have got it together! Why couldn't we have been this good?" I'm sure even the "Greatest Generation" had their parents complain about them. And let's face it - does the word "generation" even mean anything more than just an illustrative generalization? (That's a tangent that could be its own blog post.)

Stop romanticizing the past and be a little bit more realistic about how you used to be. And for those of you who are part of today's youthful generation, remember what you're reading here, and don't let me catch you saying the same thing when you get older. Because I knew what you were like, and I'll call you out on it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Why I'm a humanist

One of my favorite things to teach in both my freshmen and senior English classes is The Heroic Cycle. Essentially, it's a series of notes that I created that are essentially adapted from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. I realize that there are some legitimate criticisms of it, and it borders on oversimplifying things, but I find that when it comes to teaching high school students it's a good start for getting them to think about stories in ways that they haven't before.

Even though the school where I teach is not as diverse as others, I like to emphasize that even though we learn about the Greek myths and Norse myths (I go heavier on the Greek with the freshmen and heavier on the Norse with the seniors) that they have elements in their stories that can be found in stories all over the world. I tell my students that it doesn't matter what part of the world their ancestors came from - those ancestors of theirs told stories, hero stories in particular.

I'm also keen on telling them that this shouldn't be so surprising considering that when it comes down to it, we're all the same species and when you go back far enough, we're all related. It only makes sense that if we're all telling stories that we'd find some commonalities in those stories.

I don't just say this as a way to get them to appreciate myths and storytelling though. Sure, it's a way to get those who aren't of European descent to find something to connect to, and that's part of the point as well. For me though, the one thing that I hope seeps in is inherent in the idea that I expressed in the previous paragraph - we're all related. We're all of the same species. Sure, some of us might have a little more Neanderthal in our DNA, but none of us are so different as to constitute a different animal.

I've written in a couple of recent posts that I'm finding myself identifying more and more with being a humanist. I've resisted this label for some odd reason for the longest time. When I finally broke away from my faith, I quickly became so comfortable with the word "atheist" that I practically wore it like a badge of honor. It's not that I've suddenly become shy about that word, as it still fits me. But as I've noted before, it's a word that describes my answer to only one question. When it comes to being a humanist though, that gives a bit more of a description of how I see the world. One of the definitions from Google is as follows:
an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
I've run into disagreements with religious friends who think that somehow as an atheist I'm incapable of finding value or meaning in life because I don't subscribe to a supernatural explanation. I don't see why the explanation has to come outside of ourselves. The key thing is that we can see the "potential value and goodness". It doesn't mean that we ignore all of the screwed up things that humanity has done. It means that we look at the good, and we say: "Hey! We can do it! We need to do more of that!" It's looking at what's there and deciding for ourselves that it's worth pursuing.

Where do we find this goodness? It's everywhere if you just pay attention. It's in the stranger who helps you pick up a bunch of stuff you just dropped (just happened to me yesterday). It's in my son standing up for his preschool teacher when the other students call her names. It's when people work together to help one guy who's stuck in the train station's gap. It's everywhere, and people do these things without stopping to think about it first. There's something decent and worthwhile in us, and it's time to stop pretending that we're inherently corrupt or immoral. Even if we are, we have shown that we can overcome that.

Ultimately what I like about humanism is that it rejects tribalism. Even if somebody doesn't want to think of himself or herself as a humanist, the humanist will still look at them as "one of us" because there's only one criteria to be found worthy and of value. I also am leaning toward this label, if I gotta have a label, because it gives me something to endorse rather than something to tear down (which is what's inherent in writing about atheism).

And if you need a quick reminder of the humanity that unites us all, this is what does it for me. Yeah, you've probably already seen them. Watch them again.

Fear the FEAR!

We humans like to connect the dots - sometimes to the point where we start adding dots so we can make better connections. I've been doing that a bit myself lately, and as I've been able to blog almost every day this summer (expect my output to drop drastically in a couple of weeks) I'm starting to piece together something that motivates much of what I write.

I'm tired of fear. More specifically, I'm tired of unnecessary fear. I have almost a knee-jerk reaction to it - the point where you could maybe even say I fear fear. Or maybe I'm just a huge fan of FDR's famous quote.

It's good that we human beings have the ability to feel fear. Imagine how long we would have survived as a species if we didn't fear all those things that wanted to eat us. One of the reasons why the dodo became extinct was because it lacked fear (as it had no natural predators until human beings showed up in their environment).

Fear is necessary, but just like a lot of our attributes that enabled us to survive, it can be pointed in the wrong direction. We are afraid of a lot of things where our fear either makes no sense or actually does us more harm than good.

How many people fear spiders? Of course, there are some that we know are poisonous and dangerous, but even when a person knows that a particular one isn't harmful, there's still a good chance of that person freaking out. Some people are afraid of bugs in general. I know I am (although ironically spiders don't bother me that much - maybe it's because they eat all of those terrifying bugs). Snakes also freak people out. You can prove to those who fear them that a particular snake isn't poisonous, but it's not going to matter. It scares the crap out of them - sometimes even paralyzing them with fear. (And sometimes people act irrationally when they do come into contact with a poisonous one because they're so scared. My dad lives on a ranch near Redding, and he can tell you some stories about people nearly getting bit by rattlers because their fear caused them to attack the snake rather than do the smart thing - slowly walk away. Crud - now that I think about it, I have a scar on my elbow from when I was a kid and ran terrified by a supposed rattler that was ten feet away from me!)

Looking back on many of my posts on religion, my chief criticisms often deal with its dependence on fear. Considering that no religion has ever been able to demonstrate the truth of its claims, I feel like I'm on safe ground saying that the use of fear (and I realize that some versions depend on it far more than others, but there's always an aspect of it there) based on religious grounds is a warrantless fear. It does nobody any good to fear things that aren't there.

Oftentimes our sense of tribalism creates unnecessary fear. We become afraid of "the other" and think that those who live differently from us are out to ruin our way of life. People think that gay people getting married is somehow a threat to them and their way of life. Men are afraid that women gaining status in society somehow threatens theirs. White people worry that as minorities gain positions of prominence that their entire world will be destroyed. I suppose that this could be an entire blog post in itself, but think of how many people totally freaked out and wanted their "country back" when Obama was elected - even though he hadn't done anything yet? Don't tell me that his foreign-sounding name and the color of his skin had nothing to do with it either. (Insert perfunctory comment about how I'm aware that there are legitimate criticisms of Obama that have nothing to do with race and that I even share some of them.)

I have been writing about the GMO debate lately as well, and I think that much of my criticism of those who are against them is due to the fact that the criticisms are based more on fear than facts. (Actually, it's because I'm a shill for Monsanto, as I'm sure at least one person out there must believe.) I'm ambivalent about labeling genetically engineered foods because although its proponents declare that it's about informing the public, it strikes me as being more about spreading fear in order to benefit the organic food industry, as I'm not entirely sure just how "informed" a person will be. (Just because Monsanto and other agribusinesses have money as their highest priority, why do people seem to act like the organic businesses are purely altruistic?)

Are there legitimate things that we should fear - and more importantly, work toward resolving? I think that there are. Climate change is something where the facts are indisputable, and we need to support politicians and businesses that are working toward dealing with that. (And one of those potential solutions is GMOs.)

If you live in the wilderness, then you should definitely be afraid of bears.

How do we deal with runaway fear? I think that this is where skepticism comes in to play. Instead of just buying into whatever fear and giving into that lizard part of your brain that makes you want to freak out at even the mention of something that seems scary, it's best to calm down, look at the evidence, and then make a decision from there. Even more important, don't carve that decision into stone. Let new information allow you to change your mind.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wonder Woman's not cheesecake

Art: Cliff Chiang
Am I the only comic book fan who's a bit concerned over David Finch taking over as artist for Wonder Woman? I don't actively dislike him as an artist. He can do some great stuff, even though I think he might be a bit overrated. However, when it comes to Wonder Woman, I think that there's something a little bit sacred there, and I'm not sure that he's the right guy for it.

Wonder Woman might not technically have been the first female superhero, she's the one who's lasted the longest. Also, it should be noted that her creator, William Moulton Marston, had a definite agenda when he created her. He was a feminist, and he wanted to create a heroine for little girls to admire. She has frequently been used as a symbol for female empowerment, even appearing on the first issue of Ms. Magazine. Her origin story is rooted in Greek Mythology, and the current continuity has elevated her to goddess status, taking over for the former God of War, Ares.

She's kind of a big deal, and there's a long list of great artists who have drawn her adventures. The current artist, Cliff Chiang, has drawn her as tall and athletic. She looks like she can kick some serious butt. 

When it comes to comics and the depiction of women, there are some genuine points of criticism that people make. Personally, I don't think that it's necessarily so horrible that the female heroes are often depicted as "perfect" women with slender bodies and large breasts. Sure, you can argue that it sets an unrealistic expectation, but superheroes aren't realistic in the first place, and the male heroes don't exactly represent how the average male can hope to look like either. Still, there are artists who draw idealized women, and then there are those who draw pretty much all of them looking exactly the same, the only things differentiating them are their hair and outfits.

Come on.
I'm not sure that David Finch falls in the latter category, but he has been known to do one thing that I think crosses the line and goes into some egregious territory. It's an unfortunate trend with a lot of artists, and it seems to be a leftover of the "bad girl" comics from the 1990s. What I'm talking about is posing the female characters like they're posing for porn.

Check out the picture on the left. Seriously - who the hell runs like that? I'm not a prude, and I have comics that have images that are far more graphic than this, but this is just so ridiculously gratuitous and juvenile. It adds absolutely nothing to the story, and it's simply bad art. I actually read the comic on the left, and that character is The White Rabbit, a villain from Batman: The Dark Knight, a series that Finch was drawing. I was collecting that series and dropped it - part of the reason being this kind of deliberately titillating art. (I might have forgiven it if the story was at least interesting, but it wasn't.) Part of me wishes that I still had those comics, because I seem to recall some examples that made this one seem tame in comparison.
Can anybody stand like this?

Is this what we're to expect from his run on Wonder Woman? His initial promotional piece isn't too egregious, but she doesn't have the same sort of gravitas that Cliff Chiang gave her (an example of his work is at the top of this post). Her chest is strategically thrusted out, and I'm not sure that's exactly the sort of stand one would expect from a skilled warrior like Diana.

There have been some previews of the interiors that fill me with a little bit more hope. Below you'll see the pencils of an action scene with Wonder Woman giving a big old kick in the face to Swamp Thing. That one seems to be the right idea. She looks like a capable warrior, and there's enough motion and power conveyed in the image that you can practically feel it. There's no question that a kick from her would probably take off the head of an average guy.

I'm hoping that's more of a sign of what's to come, as I've really enjoyed the current creative team, and I'll probably at least pick up the first issue of Finch's run. The thing is with Wonder Woman is that there's no reason she can't be beautiful while she's busting heads. She's not a piece of cheesecake though, and she needs to be treated with a bit of dignity.

That's more like it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Questions about GMO labeling

A couple of years ago in California, proposition 37 called for the labeling of all foods that are genetically engineered. It was narrowly defeated. When I first heard of the proposition, I was for it. When I read up on it, I was against it. I think that I may have changed my mind a few times on it, but ultimately I wound up voting against it.

To all my left-leaning friends, this is the part where you can get out your torches and pitchforks.

I'm not going to get into my reasoning as to why I voted the way that I did. I felt that it was the right decision, but I don't really remember my rationale at the time. It doesn't matter that much now because I've changed my mind on this issue.

I haven't become a big advocate of labeling genetically engineered foods (often incorrectly referred to as GMOs, or genetically modified foods). It's more that I'm just not against labeling, if that makes sense.  Why haven't I become enthusiastically on board when it comes to labeling foods? Mainly, I'm just not sure exactly what good it will do.

I've mentioned this before on my last post, but the first thing we need to get straight is the difference between genetically modified and genetically engineered. People freak out about genetically modified foods, and labeling products "No GMOs" has become a selling point. (The folks giving out free samples at Costco are always eager to point out that their particular product is "GMO free".) From my understanding, this is a bit of inaccurate advertising, as nearly everything we eat has been genetically modified. Hardly any of the vegetables we eat grow that way in the wild, and most of the animals we eat wouldn't last very long if not under the care of human beings. (Ya know, until they're killed so we can eat them, anyway.)

These have all been genetically modified through artificial selection, and humanity has been doing this since the advent of agriculture, so we're talking over ten thousand years here. So, unless you're out there hunting wild elk, or you're picking wild plants, you're eating GMOs. (I don't know how many foods you can buy in the store are grown out in the wild, but there is a chef in Denmark who uses wild ingredients. So, it is possible, just not likely.)

So, if we're going to talk labeling, the law also needs to cover accuracy in labeling, and all of the producers of organic products need to start being a little bit more honest when it comes to their labels as well. If they want to advertise themselves as being free of genetically engineered ingredients, then that at least has a bit more veracity. (Hold on though because it's going to get more complicated in the paragraph after the next one.)

I would imagine that most people who are pro-labeling are on board with me so far. Label the stuff that's been genetically engineered and stop labeling stuff as "GMO free" when it's not. (It's almost, but not quite, as bad as advertising something as being "chemical free".)

But what about the third thing? There's a third thing? Didn't I tell you that this would get more complicated? Why didn't you listen to me? A friend of mine brought it to my attention that we haven't been doing this whole selective breeding thing the exact same way for 10,000 years up until the advent of genetic engineering. What about mutation breeding?  (The short explanation is that it involves exposing seeds to radiation and/or certain chemicals to get the desired result.) That practice isn't even regulated, and I don't hear people freaking out about that - even though it's been around since the 1920s. We would need a label for that as well, right?

I realize what some people may be thinking. What's the problem, Lance? All food will be labeled "Contains GEOs", "GEO Free", or "MB" (Mutation Bred). Simple as that. Now the consumer is informed and knowledgeable.

Call me crazy, but I don't think that tells us much of anything substantial. When it comes to genetically engineered foods, there is no evidence that they cause any harm. Even if you think that they need more testing, your opinion is flying in the face of scientific consensus (and that's independent and non-profit scientific organizations). It's akin to putting warning labels on cell phones that they might cause cancer, even though there's absolutely no reason to think that they will.

Okay, that's a bit of a tangent. You can argue that it's up to the public to educate themselves on this issue and the label is simply informative and not a "warning label". I could probably write a whole blog on that, but for now I'm just going to give the voices in my head that particular point.

The GEO/GEO Free label won't tell us anything about the safety of the product. Yeah, I'm not against that, but I can't get upset about them not including it. From there, how would they go about specifying the labels on the GEO foods? Are they going to list which gene got spliced and from where it came? Would that look like anything other than a bunch of technobabble to anybody who's not a geneticist? Again, I have no problem with them making this information available, but I'm able to feel safe eating an organic carrot without being able to list off its genetic code, and if you were to explain it to me, I'd probably drift off into daydream land. Same goes for GEOs - I'm totally ignorant as to what it all means, and I reckon that's the same for most people who don't have a degree in genetics.

Same goes for the MBs. Are they going to list off the type of radiation that was used and the chemicals? When it comes to radiation, that's one of those scary words like "chemicals" and people are afraid that their skin is going to start peeling off or they'll turn into The Hulk. ("They used gamma rays to engineer these kiwis? Screw that! I know what gamma rays do!") The sun emits radiation, and while you don't want to spend hours out there, it's kinda necessary for making stuff grow, and you need that Vitamin D. As for the other scary word, "chemicals", I couldn't tell you what half the stuff is in some of the salad dressings I've bought. Am I really supposed to know what exposing certain seeds to certain chemicals is going to do? You can inform the hell out of me, I'm still not going to know what the flippin' flap you're talking about.

I'm an unenthusiastic supporter of labeling; at least, I'm not too passionate about it when it comes to the "GMO" labeling, as I don't see how much difference it will make. Even with labels, there are ways to be deceptive, like how products will list different ingredients that are all basically sugar but make it look like there isn't that much of it to people who are too ignorant to know the difference (like me). Think they won't be able to figure out a way to bamboozle you - especially when it comes to something you don't fully understand in the first place? (To the geneticists out there, I know, I know, you understand it. Feel good about yourself now?)

I can get passionate about labels in general if every product was required to be completely honest. How about homeopathic remedies with a label that says that there are no active ingredients and that homeopathy has NEVER been proven to work in controlled conditions? How about a notice before shows on "ghost hunting" and "ancient aliens" that warn the viewer that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the bullcrap that they're about to show the audience? How about labels on expensive wine that let the consumer know that most people - even the experts - can't tell the difference between the pricey stuff and the cheaper vintage?

If we're gonna label stuff, we really gotta put me in charge of it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

GMOs and the scientific consensus

Let's make one thing clear before I continue.

Truth is not determined by popular consensus - even when it's a popular consensus of experts in the particular subject.

However, I think that at least, when there is scientific consensus about a particular issue, the layperson should be given pause when his or her opinions contradict that consensus. At the very least, it should be the starting point for further research.

For instance, even though I'm not a biologist, I'm fairly good at explaining the basics of evolution. This is what I try and use when discussing the subject with somebody who doesn't believe it. While I am not averse to bringing up the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists accept evolution, I never make a statement like: "It's true because most scientists believe it!" I just like to bring it up because if a person thinks that it's not true, even if they defeat me in a debate, they might have a tougher time with the people who really know what they're talking about.

I'm not quite as good at explaining climate change, so I have to rely on the point about scientific consensus a little bit more. Of course, you get people who dismiss that consensus, claiming that those who endorse the idea of anthropogenic climate change are only doing so because they have some sort of financial interest at stake. 'Cause, you know, those who deny it have nothing to gain by us continuing to use fossil fuels. Yup. No money in that.

As somebody who tends to get labled as a "liberal", I think it's safe to say that many of my like-minded friends are with me up to this point. However, there is a lot of concern about GMOs, and much of it seems to be coming from the same side as people who normally agree with me on the previous two issues.

I'm probably even worse at explaining GMOs - although I know that we're not really talking about Genetically Modified Organisms, as nothing we eat hasn't been modified in some way. What we're really talking about is Genetically Engineered Organisms. In other words, the crops have been altered in a lab rather than through artificial selection.

I have been suspicious about the concerns over GMOs for quite a long time. It began years ago when somebody tried to get me to sign a petition to ban them. As little as I know now, I knew even less back then, but the nature of his argument only made me question what he was saying. He had absolutely no specific examples of harm when it came to what GMOs can possibly do to us.

I've heard concerns from some of my more sober-minded friends that while they're not saying that GMOs are dangerous, they think that there needs to be more testing. They're also pretty big on labeling. (As of now, I'm in favor of labeling, but I'm skeptical as to what good that would really do.) In other words, they express to me that GMOs are still a big question mark.

If you find yourself in either the "GMOs are killing us!" or "We need to know more about GMOs!" camp, I would ask you to consider the following:

Does scientific consensus matter to you? If it doesn't matter on the first two things, then you're at least consistent if you disregard the consensus when it comes to GMOs. However, if they're enough to make you want to at least research the issue further and question your views, then you might want to consider the following:

The consensus of independent scientific organizations (not scientists who work for Monsanto or some other "evil" corporation) is that GMOs are safe.

There's a great article by Richard Green on the Skepti-Forum about the consensus and how one can avoid sources that are misleading about the issue. Some of the associations that have made statements on the safety of GMOs include the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization. The article (and this graphic) gives the specific statements that have been made.

Of course, this doesn't mean that GMOs definitely ARE safe. However, if you're going to say that they're not, or that they need more testing, and you're really interested in the truth, then you should look into what these organizations are saying and figure out why they're wrong.

As of now, I don't know if GMOs are safe or not. However, I'm humble enough to say that the people who know more than me seem to think that they are. At the very least, I should consider what they have to say before I consider the opinion of some random website that's selling snake oil.

Doubt is a virtue

Oftentimes when a person dies, you'll hear that he or she was a person "of faith" listed along with their accomplishments and virtues. When they say this, they're specifically talking about somebody who held on to some sort of religious faith and/or faith in something that's supernatural. I think that considering faith to be a virtue is a mistake, but rather than criticizing faith - which would automatically turn off a lot of potential readers - I'm going to start by praising doubt.

I think that some folks might get a bit confused by the word "doubt" though. Obviously, you don't want to get so crippled with doubt that you're unable to do what you need to do. In other words, if you have a particular job to do, you don't want your doubt to stop you from doing it. However, there's nothing wrong with the doubt itself. For instance, I'm a teacher, and I doubt myself all the time. I sometimes wonder if I have even the slightest clue what I'm doing. I don't let that stop me from getting out there and teaching the class though. I listen to my doubts, but that's not the only thing going through my mind. To give an example, I had a former student - a particularly smart one at that - thank me recently for what I taught her, as she said it really helped her in college. That's but one example of what gets me through. I also know that I have a pretty good track record of being able to do what I set my mind to doing, and I know that when it comes to teaching, it does depend on some of my personal strengths. Still, the doubt is good, as sometimes I have some bad ideas, and if I never had any doubt, I'd never take the time to get rid of them.

There have been times in my life when I could have used a little more doubt. Years ago, my wife and I refinanced our house. My dad went along with us to listen to the spiel of the lender, and he told us that we shouldn't trust that company. We went ahead and did it anyway, and we wound up getting a pretty crappy deal. It could have been worse though - my dad's initial skepticism wound up getting us an even better deal than they were initially offering. Still, my dad told me to walk away, and I should have listened to him.

The reason why it's important to listen to your doubts is that we human beings have a tendency to believe what we want to be true. I really wanted to believe that some random company wanted to seek me out to give me a great deal. They managed to make it all sound very legit. I also really want to believe that a Nigerian Prince wants to hook me up with several hundred thousands of dollars, but lucky for me, that has all the hallmarks of a scam, so it doesn't require a lot of sifting through the facts to determine that it's bullcrap.

When you feel that doubt coming on, that means that your brain is working, and at the very least, you need to give it some consideration. Also, if somebody expresses to you that they have doubt about something, even if it's something you believe in very strongly, your reaction should be to listen to what they have to say. Why? Because their ideas might lead you to the truth of the matter.

Even within religious traditions, there is the precedent for doubt and questioning being a virtue. What if Martin Luther never doubted the teachings of the Catholic Church? Where would Christianity be today? If you're Catholic, and that doesn't impress you, then take a look at the life of Jesus as written in the Gospels. He questions a lot of conventional thinking at the time. You can find the same sort of thing with Mohammed and even The Buddha. 

Unfortunately, and this is the part where I badmouth faith, the problem with today's religious traditions is that while they praise the questioning that spawned their traditions, they don't think that it should be questioned any further. When a believer tells another believer that he or she is doubting the faith, they aren't met with a "Oh yeah? Why is that? Maybe you have a good reason for it." Instead, they're told to pray or they're told to read something that will reconfirm the bias that they already hold.

The problem with being told to pray about one's doubt is that it assumes that there's something wrong with the doubt in the first place. But if you've followed my train of thought so far, you can see how even in religious tradition doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. This kind of thinking, that one must ask God to "help" deal with the doubt makes it sound like there's something wrong with the person who's feeling the doubt. They've got something that needs to be expunged. What if that doubt is leading to some truth though? The believer isn't encouraged to even consider that as a possibility.

Have a look at the story that I included (on the image with the pumpkin). It lists "doubt" along with "hate" and "greed" - things that are "yucky" and need to be thrown away. (I'm with it on the second two things.) What kind of a horrible message is this to send to children? I told my son that it was a monster that was making gurgling sounds at the swimming pool (it was the filter). He just laughed at me and said, "No it's not, daddy." I couldn't have been more proud of him. Also, the day that he figures out that Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. aren't real will be a cause for (mild) celebration, as it will show that he's got a brain and he's using it.

And if he ever doubts something that I firmly believe, I'll ask him to tell me his reasons. From there, we'll try to get to the truth of the matter, and either I'll be able to show him the error of his reasoning - or he will show me the error in mine.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Who were our cousins?

When I went to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, there was a display on Neanderthal Man. The display revealed that the Neanderthals not only buried their dead but even marked the graves with flowers. This is kind of a big deal because it shows that they had at least some degree of ritual to their lives, and it also indicates that they may have had a primitive sort of religion/belief in the afterlife. It's tough to say, of course, because they're not around anymore (haven't been for about 28,0000 years now) to tell us one way or the other.

What's fascinating about Neanderthals is that they're human beings but not quite human beings like us. They're different enough to be considered a different species, but they're close enough to have bred with us, as has been revealed by studying our DNA. (From what I understand, this is more likely if you're of European ancestry.)

I don't know enough about this subject to have anything profound or original to say about it, but it's a topic that fascinates me. I suppose it fills me with questions, and it gives me a more profound sense of just who I am and what it means to be a human being in the first place. Most religions teach that we were specially created by a deity. The evidence shows us that there was nothing special about our origin, but that doesn't mean there's nothing special about us now.

I have to wonder though, what if the Neanderthals or another one of our cousins from the human family tree became the dominant species on the planet? If Neanderthals had a proto-religion, would they have gone on to develop ones that are more complex like the ones that we have today? Would they create art, poetry, and music? Some of our cousins, like homo erectus, seemed to have the right equipment to allow them so speak at least. Could they have done the rest?

And if our cousins could have done all of this, would they have done it better? Thinking that evolution is about the survival of "the best" is to misunderstand it. It's about the one that's best able to survive. Art and music aren't things that we need to survive (although they help to make life worth living). What if our fellow homos could make art that would put ours to shame? And what about government? Would they have done a better job of it than we did? Would they have figured out that slavery was wrong? Would they have equality of the sexes? I'm sure somebody more studied in this could give some educated guesses, but I'm not sure if anybody can answer for sure.

These thoughts have obviously entered the head of Jeff Smith, the writer/artist best known for Bone and Rasl, as his new series, Tuki, features a homo erectus protagonist, and there's a homo habilus as one of the supporting characters. Obviously, with a work like this, there's a decent amount of conjecture going on, but Smith takes the time to explain some of the science behind the story (like why he thinks it's reasonable to have Tuki speak).  It debuted as an online comic, but the first issue has hit the stands. If you like comics and this concept intrigues you, you should check it out.

I like it because it deals with something that already interests me. When I think about our distant cousins who have long since vanished from the Earth, I have a lot of feelings going on in me at once. I feel curious to know more. I feel sad that we may never know as much as I'd like. I feel appreciative that it was my particular branch that managed to survive and bring me to this point. Overall, I have a greater sense of respect for who I am and what my place is in this world.