Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Evolution vs Intelligent Design

There is considerable controversy at the present time between the competing “theories” of natural selection and intelligent design. This disagreement has several roots, but I believe one of the most important ones has to do with a misunderstanding of what it is that scientists do. Even many scientists seem to have forgotten.
        When a scientist is doing science, he is testing a theory and reporting his observations. For example, he may have a theory that if he mixes vinegar and baking soda, he will observe that oxygen will be formed. To his dismay he finds that when he actually performs the experiment carbon dioxide appears instead. He must retest and update his theory under all conceivable conditions.
        But when he issues a report of his findings to other scientists, he will not say that carbon dioxide is “caused” by mixing vinegar and baking soda; he will report that mixing the two is followed by the appearance of carbon dioxide. In short, he will say what he observes as a result of his experiment, but he will not hazard a guess as to why. The so-called laws of nature do not state what nature must do; they describe what nature consistently does do. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.
        If an Eskimo and a central African are placed in a room in which the temperature is 40 degrees, they will probably disagree on whether it is too hot or too cold, but both can read a thermometer and agree that it is recording a temperature of 40 degrees. They can agree on what they observe objectively, but may have widely divergent opinions on what they think subjectively. For this reason science advances on the basis of observations and not opinions.
        This is not to say that a scientist may not have an opinion as to why things appear as they are. He may very well believe that God designed the earth and guides its daily activities. However, the scientist will also realize that this is his opinion, not an observation, and thus outside the purview of science. It is as out of place in a Science class as algebra would be in a Sunday School class.
        He may disseminate his opinion in conversing with friends, in his Sunday school class, or anywhere else he cares to, but not in the Science class that he teaches part time at the high school or university. Why? Because as an opinion rather than as a theory, it cannot be tested.
        There is no reason intelligent design could not be discussed in a class on Comparative Religion, History, or most appropriately in today’s climate, Political Science.
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My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It Is Possible To Discuss Anything Civilly

     Despite the goings-on in Washington, it is possible for people to disagree substantially on a given subject, and still discuss it openly and civilly. I know our fractured society indicates otherwise, but I attended two events yesterday which supported my contention.
    Event one was lunch with a small group of men, seven to be exact, with whom I worked many years ago. Most of them lean toward the conservative side, although I do not think any of them would consider himself to be a “tea party” member, although one of them did state that Obama is the worst president that has served during his lifetime of, here I am guessing, 85+ years. Disappointed as I am with Obama, I am not ready to go quite that far, although I was unable to muster any argument which I thought would change his mind.
     But I did mention that I thought Senator Mitch McConnell's statement, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” was the worst statement I have ever heard from any politician.
     Even the most conservative members of the group agreed that the most important achievement for any politician should be doing what is right for the nation – not instigating a vendetta.
     The subject of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination came up, and although there were huge disagreements on the qualifications of Perry, Romney, Bachmann, Gingrich, et al, no one got upset, and no one's mind was changed.
     We all parted as friends, and agreed to meet again in two months.
     Later in the day I attended a community forum on the subject, “Is America An Exceptional Nation?” The group of approximately 35 ranged from pastors to agnostics, from far right Republicans to far left Democrats, from farmers to engineers, and from high school dropouts to college graduates - as to be expected, the opinions ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other. And again I doubt that any minds were changed, although I can't be sure.
     The point is that good people can discuss controversial subjects without rancor or bitterness. All it takes is for everyone to realize that the other guy has come through a different set of experiences, which results in a different worldview.
     As Grey Owl is reported to have said, "Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his moccasins.”
     Smart man, that Grey Owl. I wonder if he could be talked into running for Congress.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Conspiracy Theories.

      Although ten years have elapsed since 19 people from Saudi Arabia, at the bidding of Osama bin Laden, murdered 3,000 Americans in an attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, conspiracy theories about the event still persist. Today I want to examine not only those theories pertaining to the 9/11 attack, but a couple of others which have been around for some time.
     The World Trade Center Attack: The “9/11 truthers,” as they call themselves, claim that the U.S. Government either knew of the attack in advance and did nothing, or else actively orchestrated the attack in order to justify launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, curtail civil liberties, and consolidate and extend the powers of the Bush Administration.
      One of the more vocal organizations has been the group Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth. To support its claims, the group points to the "free fall" pace of the collapse of the buildings, the "lateral ejection of steel," and to the "mid-air pulverization of concrete," as indications that the towers fell because high explosives were placed at various spots within them. Investigations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) have concluded that the buildings collapsed as a result of the impacts of the planes and of the fires that resulted from them.
     Several other organizations have disagreed with the official findings for various reasons, but as Bill Moyers stated, they all "...threw out all the evidence of al-Qaeda's involvement, from contemporaneous calls from hijack victims on the planes to confessions from al-Qaeda leaders both in and out of captivity that they had indeed done it. Then, recycling some of the right's sophistry techniques, such as using long lists of supposed evidence to overcome the lack of any real evidence, the "truthers" cherry-picked a few supposed "anomalies" to build an "inside-job" story line."
     In addition, any government coverup would involve a vast number of people and records. The “truthers” would have us believe that after ten years, not one person who knew about the conspiracy would have become a whistle-blower. But regardless of the facts, 9/11 conspiracy theories will be around for a long time.
     The Roswell Incident: On July 7, 1947, a rancher 75 miles northwest of Roswell, New Mexico, told the local sheriff that he had found a part of a “flying disc.” The next day the Public Information Office of the Air Force issued a press release stating that a flying disc had been recovered. A few days later the Air Force identified the object as a weather balloon with its attached radar target. The fact that the balloon was really part of a top secret US Air Force project code named MOGUL was not released at the time. MOGUL was an attempt to pick up the sounds of Russian nuclear explosions from thousands of miles away.
     In 1984 the Majestic-12 (MJ-12) papers supposedly “leaked” top secret documents indicating that a UFO crash happened near Roswell, and the the government was involved in a conspiracy to hide the saucer and alien bodies from the public.
     The term Majestic-12 had first appeared in a one-page “Secret” teletype message dated November 17, 1980, which came into the hands of author and UFO researcher William Moore. (In 1983, Robert Todd, a competent UFO researcher showed that the teletype message was a hoax.)
     Then in 1983 Moore sought UFO researcher, Brad Sparks', reaction to a plan of his to create counterfeit government reports. Moore told Sparks he believed that counterfeit documents could be used to induce military officers to speak out about what the government really knew about UFOs and the coverup. In 1984 a film cassette with photographs of MJ-12 was mailed to Jaime Shandera, a maker of documentaries. The conspiracy was under way.
     Occam's Razor is a principle that generally recommends that when faced with competing hypotheses that are equal in other respects, accept the one that makes the fewest new assumptions. For conspiracy buffs I am proposing a new principle that I call Macco's Razor, which states that for any event, one should take the simplest explanation and reduce it to its most complex form.
      Marilyn Monroe's “Suicide”: Marilyn Monroe's association with John and Bobby Kennedy is central to conspiracy theories surrounding her death. One scenario claims that the relationship had got too personal, and was jeopardizing the future of the boys, so Joseph Kennedy, or maybe it was Bobby Kennedy, or it could have been J. Edgar Hoover, ordered a “hit” and the ensuing coverup on the blond bombshell.
     Another believes that Bobby went to Marilyn's bungalow for some R and R, only to find her in the throes of a drug overdose. He called an ambulance, but on the way to the hospital, she died. Realizing that his presence would not look good on his and John's resume, he had the ambulance return to the bungalow. The body was laid out on the bed and the room was straightened up, then a call was placed to her psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Greenson, who got official credit for discovering the body. Bobby was long gone by that time.
     There is no doubt that the Kennedys treated Marilyn as a plaything, and there are some unanswered anomalies in the autopsy report that lend some credence to the idea of foul play. But because all the main characters are long dead, we may as well accept the official cause of death: probable suicide. 
     I could discuss conspiracy theories for many more pages, e.g., high-level government authorities were involved in the deaths of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, the New World Order or Illuminati controls all major world events, Lady Diana was a sacrificial Satanic princess, etc., etc., ad nauseum. But you get the idea.
     According to Wikipedia, conspiracy theories generally have several common threads:
  1. They claim to explain what institutional analysis cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. 
  2. They do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents.
  3. They are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.
     I might add that the truth has as much effect upon the conspiracy believer as a mosquito has against a window pane. As someone said, “Belief is the death of intelligence.”
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Not In My Back Yard

      According to an old joke, a Missouri mule-skinner was called in to train a very recalcitrant mule. The first thing the trainer did was to take a 2x4 and hit the mule over the head. When asked why he did that, the trainer replied, “Well, first I have to get his attention.”
     If it served any useful purpose, the “tea party” managed to get the attention of the American public regarding the national deficit. Although the timing is bad, the concept of deficit reduction has been accepted by the majority of people. That's “the concept,” but according to a recent Gallup Poll there is very little agreement on the details. In fact, the only item which garnered a majority of public approval for cutting spending was foreign aid.
     The pollsters asked the persons in the sample to “please say whether you favor or oppose cutting government spending in each of the following areas.” Here are the results:

Category
Favor
%
Oppose
%
No opinion
%
Foreign aid
59
37
4
Funding arts and sciences
46
52
2
Aid to farmers
44
53
3
Homeland security
42
56
3
The military and defense
42
57
1
Anti-poverty programs
39
55
6
Medicare
38
61
1
Social security
34
64
2
Education
32
67
2
     Probably most of us expect the savings to come from areas which constitute a relatively small per cent of the total budget. For example, most of the public believes that foreign aid makes up ten percent of the budget. It doesn't; foreign aid, combined with the entire budget for the state department, makes up only one percent of the total.
     The GOP is planning to save trillions of dollars over the next ten years without any revenue increases. The chart indicates that their favorite programs for drastic cuts, i.e., Medicare, Social Security and Education, are the most popular. Good luck with that. NIMBY.

     The dare and double-dare contest continues between the President and the GOP. House Speaker John Boehner has refused President Obama's request to speak to the House to present his jobs program on September 7. The speaker told the President that several votes were scheduled for that time, but it would be OK to speak on September 8. Historians say no previous speaker has ever refused such a request.
     Several major GOP presidential candidates have scheduled a debate on the seventh, and it is believed that is the reason for Boehner's action. But really, a debate among candidates for an election 16 months away takes priority over the President of the United States speaking about job creation during a recession. Give me a break.
     Of course, the GOP is pushing the President around because he allows it. His campaign slogan was, “Yes we can.” We should have asked, “Yes, but will we?”

      Today's newspaper has another case of presidential caving in: At the demand of the GOP and business leaders he has halted the issuance of tighter smog rules that were unanimously approved by a panel of scientific experts. Please, please Mr. President, grow a pair.

      You may have noticed a recent addition to “Thoughts Before The Alarm Sounds”: a weather gadget in the right sidebar. While it gives the forecast for Lititz, where I live, you can get maps, forecasts and radar information for any continental area by clicking on the links beneath the graphic. I hope you will enjoy its many features.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.