Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Great Katamarchism (Jaywalking) Crisis

Looking back, it seems incredible that our whole society was taken in by The Great Jaywalking Crisis of the early 21st century.  Although jaywalking had always been illegal, psychologists realized that the behavior was a symptom of a deeper pathology since almost all sexual predators, sociopaths, and terrorists had a history of jaywalking.  The aberrant behavior of  jaywalking was labeled katamarching.   So now not only was jaywalking wrong, it was the sick behavior of katamarchism.
Those who claimed katamarchism was nothing but ordinary jaywalking were labeled deniers.  Since 97% of psychologists believed in the insidious dangers of katamarching, the science was settled.
As katamarchism became more evident, the media leapt into the fray.  The internet  displayed graphs showing the growth of katamarchism.  Math experts pointed out exponential growth increases forever and ever faster.  Our cities were about to be inundated with katamarchers.  When scientists applied the random walk theory to katamarchism, they showed that the streets would be so filled with katamarchers that straight walkers would no longer be able to cross the streets.  Pedestrian traffic would be a Brownian motion tangle. As Paul Ehrlich said in The Population Bomb, “The streets seemed alive with people . . . People, people, people, people.”
Activists jumped on the katamarchism bandwagon, yet the matter soon divided along liberal versus conservative lines.  Conservatives who favored social order supported the campaign against katamarchism; while liberals who supported fairness and equality for all called the campaign a vendetta against individual liberty.  There were marches, demonstrations, and protests for and against katamarchism.  When jaywalking mothers were seen leading their children across streets, the anti-katamarchists cried, “They recruit, save our children!” Slogans multiplied.  “This is the last year we have to stop katamarchism.”  “Katamarchism threatens the American family,”  “Katamarchism is a human right.”
Those with katamarching tendencies learned to exercise their proclivities in the dark.  However, when a katamarcher was caught, he was held by the police until he named others of his ilk.  It turned out there were more katamarchers than anyone expected.  These deviants were infiltrating American institutions.  They had to be ferreted out and removed.
An obscure Congressman from an obscure state used the campaign against katamarchism to further his political career.  His committee forced people to answer questions such as, “Are you now or have you ever been a jaywalker?”  If they lied, they were liable for prosecution for perjury;  if they told the truth, they were liable for prosecution for katamarchism.
Lives were ruined.  Katamarchers lost their jobs, became poverty stricken.  They congregated in homeless camps where they didn’t use electricity, own much, drive cars, or heat their dwellings.  They used little water because they didn’t flush toilets or wash their clothes or bodies often.
Radical environmentalists understood that the homeless live lightly on the earth.  These elites joined the conservatives in the campaign to rid the world of katamarchers, thus forcing more people into poverty, thereby saving the planet for their own grandchildren.
Eventually, people crossed streets as the situation required, which led to a workable balance of freedom and order.  Fears of katamarchism faded away as did the fears of Y2K, nuclear winter, eugenic degradation, and New York’s and London’s streets being buried  in horse manure.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Recovering Unitarian Universalist

At my congregation, I used to hear, “I’m a recovering Catholic,” spoken with an air of smug condescension, now that the speaker had seen the light of Unitarian Universalism.  Since UUs are called to honor the wisdom in all religions, why would any religion be something to recover from? Nonetheless, I’m recovering from the current local version of Unitarian Universalism.
My mind stands with David Kipp who writes to the UU World Winter 2015, “. . . a person who dares challenge any central tenets of political liberalism, which masquerades as social justice, is openly scorned, mocked, and made unwelcome by UU congregations.”
Some social justice issues prioritize the planet over the people living on it.  Elite UUs driving Priuses to the Co-op can rail against fossil fuels, GMOs, and non-local, non-organic food.  My values lie with people who need low-cost fuel and food.
My journey away from UU green liberalism began when I did the food miles math and discovered long distance semis use less gasoline per pound of food transported than a family Prius going to a local farm because the semis carry so much more freight per trip.  Details in 12/5/15 blog entry: “A Fine Line.”  If they lied about food miles, what else are they lying about?
With the focus outside the congregation, rather than within it, individuals don’t matter much. Turnover is high.  “[People] find comfort and stimulation while here, then move onto something else,” according to the congregation’s newsletter.  Although the writer was describing, not prescribing, there’s a structural reason why congregations are quick to drop people from the rolls; they are taxed for each voting member.  Congregants are only as good as their last pledge.
My heart stands with Teresa Soto who blogs,  “I’m going to be angry when people are indifferent to barriers keeping me and people like me out of buildings where they are indifferent to our participation.” UU World Winter 2015.
The air is so polluted inside my home congregation’s building that I cannot enter it without suffering a debilitating cough caused by chemical sensitivity that I acquired due to inadequate safety measures while ameliorating a Superfund site.  No other buildings in town give me trouble. A gas mask will protect me from the bad air, but not the gauntlet of stares and rude remarks.
When I offered to help purchase a ventilation system, I was told Board Policy prohibited special contributions.  I appealed to the appropriate committees. The Building Committee was bonding with each other; the Environmental Committee was saving Earth from carbon dioxide; the Accessibility Committee met once.

The irony of a Green Sanctuary in a sick building! The double irony of an organization that professes to be accessible to all but isn’t! The triple irony of an organization that focuses on saving the environment being inaccessible to a person who was injured while improving said environment!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Fine Line

“There is a fine line between numerator and denominator,” says Math Addict’s post on Facebook and my new sweatshirt from SunFrog.  “Only a fraction of you will understand this.”  An in-joke for math nerds who know that the numerator on top is divided by the denominator on the bottom to define a fraction.
Not only is there a fine line dividing numerator from denominator, there is a line dividing numerator thinking from denominator thinking.  Numerator thinking oversimplifies because it leaves out proportionality and probability that denominator thinking accounts for. In other words, sometimes you can’t just add, subtract, or multiply the given numbers to figure out what’s going on, you have to divide.
People who say, “I don’t want to travel abroad, what with all those terrorists,” lack denominator thinking with its understanding of probability.  For instance, your chance of being killed by a gun in our own country is more than a thousand times greater than being killed by an overseas terrorist.

 From CNN:  
Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that from 2001 to 2013, 406,496 people died by firearms on U.S. soil. (2013 is the most recent year CDC data for deaths by firearms is available.) This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident and suicide.
According to the U.S. State Department, the number of U.S. citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2013 was 350.
In addition, we compiled all terrorism incidents inside the U.S. and found that between 2001 and 2013, there were 3,030 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism. This brings the total to 3,380.

Another example of numerator thinking is the warning that chocolate is toxic to dogs!  Yes, but how toxic depends on how much the dog eats, how strong is the chocolate is, and how big the dog is.   As has been known for 500 years, the dose makes the poison.  Ingesting minuscule amounts of a substance is unlikely to be harmful.
Proponents of a cause can use oversimplified numerator thinking to persuade you of claims that are plausible but not true.  For instance here’s how to “prove” just as many vaccinated people get sick as unvaccinated people do. Let’s say 900 people are vaccinated for a disease and 100 are not vaccinated.  The disease affects 90% of those exposed so 90 unvaccinated people get sick.  If the vaccine is 90% effective, 90 vaccinated people still get sick. Therefore, since both 90 vaccinated and 90 unvaccinated people get sick, vaccination doesn’t work! This anti-vaccination argument conveniently leaves out the 810 people out of the 900 vaccinated who stayed well.
My favorite example of bogus numerator thinking is the food miles fallacy.  Fifty miles is less than 1600 miles so it should save fuel to eat food harvested within a 50 mile radius than from 1600 miles away, says the numerator thinker.  However, a Prius that gets 50 miles to the gallon, drives a 50 mile round trip to a local farm, and carries 50 pounds of food uses three times as much gasoline per pound of food transported (the critical statistic) as a semi that gets four miles to the gallon, drives 1600 miles, but carries 60,000 pounds of food. You have to use denominator thinking and divide by the weight of food carried, in order not to be fooled by this claim that’s plausible but not true.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Border Collie Shopping

It’s catalog season – time to shop like a Border Collie!  Border collies and other herding breeds were bred to complete only part of the hunting sequence.  They stalk and herd, but they don’t pounce and kill like wolves and coyotes do.  Herding dogs use their seeker circuit, the part of the brain that urges to explore. Activating the seeker circuit, according to neuroscientist Jaak Pansepp, is reinforcing (feels good) to the animal and helps an animal survive by finding what it needs.
When I browse the catalogs, happily selecting gadgets, outfits, and tchotchkes, I activate my own seeker circuit.  Even so, I don’t order anything. If I actually purchased these items I’d have to pay for them, get them home, take care of them, store them, and get rid of them at the end of their useful life.  To avoid such hassles, I stop at the enjoyment phase of the sequence. I call it Border Collie shopping.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Who Else is in the Doubt Industry?

According to the film, The Merchants of Doubt are pundits-for-hire who say what their corporate masters wish.  These shill scientists cast doubt on genuine scientists who say the corporations’ products are dangerous. The film cites the tobacco industry, the flame retardant industry, and the fossil fuel industry’s climate change deniers.  By now, mainstream science has established that tobacco smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer and that human emissions of carbon dioxide are a major factor in the current warming.  
I inferred from the film that corporations hired the scientists in the Doubt Industry to substantiate the conclusions already arrived at by the corporations. However, in at least two cases the scientists arrived at their conclusions first.  Dr W C Hueper published his findings before the tobacco industry hired him.  The same thing is true of eminent statistician Ronald A Fisher (1890-1962) who believed the statistical evidence damning smoking wasn’t strong.  
Fisher postulated there may have been a third factor linking cancer and smoking, the way ice cream eating and drowning are linked to each other, because they share a common cause – summer.  Or the data could even indicate that lung cancer causes smoking because an inflammation that would lead to cancer would make a person want to smoke, says Jordan Ellenberg in How not to be Wrong.   Fisher, as a eugenicist, believed that genes were a strong factor. Turns out he was right; there are genes that increase susceptibility to lung cancer and genes that protect against the disease. 
A pattern emerges.  Corporations deny the danger of their products, hire scientists to establish doubt about these products, but genuine hero scientists refute the corporate line.  
Two new issues have emerged: genetically modified foods and the vaccination-autism link.  If we stick to the same pattern, the 89%  of scientists who say GMOs are safe, would be part of the Doubt Industry for Monsanto and Syngenta, notwithstanding the two thousand global studies confirming the safety of GM foods.  Moreover, a couple of million children die every year because anti-GMO activists fight golden rice that could save them from blindness and death.
Of course, as the Precautionary Principle claims, nothing can be proved absolutely safe for all people and all species under every conceivable circumstance into the indefinite future.  But if we lived by the Precautionary Principle, we wouldn’t drive cars, use antibiotics, or eat anything. 
Big Pharma pushes vaccinations and denies they cause autism.  So are anti-vaccination activists hero scientists against Big Pharma’s Doubt Industry?  I don’t think so; anti-vaxxers advance disease and death. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Who's in the Doubt Industry?

Dr. Wilhelm C. Hueper, Chief of Environmental Cancer at the National Cancer Institute from 1938-64, believed cigarette smoking was not all that dangerous. Writing in 1955, he claimed, “The data . . . unmistakenly suggest that cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer.”
Dr. Hueper allowed the tobacco companies to use his work for their own ends.   According to Oreskes and Conway in Merchants of Doubt: “When the Tobacco Industry Research Committee learned about [Hueper’s talk questioning the tobacco-cancer link], they contacted Hueper who agreed to allow them to promote his work.”  It looks as though Hueper had joined the evil Doubt Industry.
Digging deeper into Hueper’s past we find that he was one of the first scientists to discover the links between pollution, occupational chemicals like asbestos and cancer.  Rachel Carson in her acknowledgments to Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern environmental movement in 1962 says, “I could not have completed the book without the generous help of these specialists: [including] . . . W. C. Hueper MD of the National Cancer Institute . . .”  Now it looks as though Hueper was on the side of the angels.
The discrepancy between Hueper’s support of tobacco and his struggle against the chemical industry is resolved when we learn that Hueper believed that pesticides and occupationally used chemicals, rather than tobacco, were causing the 20th century increase in lung cancer.
Sometimes people and issues are more complex than they appear at first glance.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being Human Means Overcoming Nature’s Limitations

Scott Gerard Prinster, in his Fall 2015 UU World article “Better Than Human,” discusses the ancient Greek Icarus myth, which asserts that humans deserve punishment for trying to become like gods by overcoming nature’s limitations.  To me, the Icarus myth is just that, a myth, and not one to live by.
In the case of eugenics, the officials who ran the sterilization programs believed they could eliminate hereditary lack of fitness in people to preserve the race.  Since “shiftlessness” was believed to be hereditary, the eugenicists disproportionally targeted the poor and minorities.  Sadly, contemporary Unitarians bought into eugenics with a vengeance. (The UU principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person wasn’t adopted until many years later.)  Unitarian Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr approved the state sterilization programs in Buck v Bell, saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”   Once the Nazis appropriated eugenics and implemented the Holocaust, eugenics “science” got a bad name.
Of course eugenics wasn’t really science because it would have taken several hundred years into the future to gather enough data to test the hypothesis. However, there was a real life experiment happening at the time.  Australia had been settled by convicts and prostitutes, prime material for eugenic sterilization.  By 1900, this riffraff had formed a parliamentary democracy, the Commonwealth of Australia, still thriving.
By the way, a better example than eugenics of earlier lack of scientific ethics is the Tuskegee experiment (1932-72) in which scientists watched the untreated progression of syphilis in African-American men.  
Kalle Lasn, who believes we have too much stuff, says technical developments serve only the interests of corporations and the article says medical advances benefit only the rich.  Both are correct at the time the advances first come out.  For instance, when Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in the late 18th century, contemporary slaves and servants could not have afforded them.  But as Robert Bryce points out in Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper, everything gets smaller, faster, better, and cheaper, for instance televisions, calculators, and computers.  Eventually, nearly everyone has access.  In 2015, reading glasses can be purchased for a few minutes work at minimum wage.
  Although I agree that it takes too long for technological advances to trickle down to the masses. collective technological progress is what separates humans from other species.  We transform nature for our common good.
The article quotes Bill McKibben who says, “Down the path of [technological progress] lies the death of . . . human meaning.” Would McKibben want to keep developmental disabilities like Down syndrome from being prevented or cured in order that the affected families might live more meaningful human lives?  McKibben may be an environmental activist, but I don’t think he is any more of an ethicist than the Rev Thomas Malthus who, in order to prevent overpopulation, denounced “specific remedies for ravaging diseases.”