Monday, August 31, 2015

I Don't Get Vaccinated in the iWorld!

As I drive up to the intersection, a sensor trips the light green and I sail through.   Perfect! I’ve entered the iWorld where I always go to the head of the line, noisy neighbors move away, and roads I want to drive on are never being repaired.
In the iWorld, everybody but me gets vaccinated.  I benefit from herd immunity because everyone else is vaccinated, yet I don’t risk any side effects from the procedure.  It’s only fair.           Wait a minute! What everyone reasoned like that? What about the seven billion other people in the world who are just as worthy as I am?  As Steven Pinker puts it, “I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not.”*
We can all win, just not all at the same time.  By waiting our turn we can all go through intersections.  By getting vaccinated we contribute to herd immunity and as a bonus, we’re protected from preventable diseases.  
*Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature  p 182

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bigfoot is a GMO!

Bigfoot is a legendary giant humanoid living in the forest of the Pacific Northwest.  There’s no reliable evidence such as skeletal remains that Bigfoot actually exists, only sightings and footprints that could be faked.  Hence Bigfoot is probably a myth, but there’s no way to prove that something doesn’t exist.
I can’t prove Bigfoot doesn’t exist nor anyone can prove GMOs are safe for every individual under every conceivable circumstance.   Twenty years of uneventful GMO use should be sufficient evidence of their safety, but apparently not for some people.  
Maybe Bigfoot is a GMO himself?   Genetic modification with gorilla and Neanderthal genes would explain his great size and strength.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Class matters in Off Course by Michelle Huneven

UU World Summer 2015 says, “[Michelle Huneven] writes real literature about characters who believe that spirituality matters.”   Hoping to meet characters who exemplified UU spirituality, I borrowed Off Course from the library and found spirituality barely mentioned.  Instead, I found Cress Hartley the most amoral protagonist I’ve spent time with since mobster Tony Soprano, who was at least aware that he had moral failings.  Not only does Cress justify her affair with another woman’s husband, “Her sympathies were definitely with the mistress [in Fatal Attraction] who was up against the bland and blameless wife,” she’s lazy, she lies, she judges, she steals, and she’s a snob.
However, maybe Off Course was never meant to be about spirituality or morality at all.  On my second reading I saw the book in another light, namely, that the book can be interpreted as an allegory about class.   Cress, a graduate student, is slated to be an heiress.  In the mountain community where she is supposed to be writing her dissertation, she interacts with working people: waitresses, cleaners, as well as the married carpenter she has an affair with.  She faults his past participles, “Have you wrote much lately?” and sneers at his wife’s taste in decor. “As if [Cress would] sit on the cheap ugly couch with the ever-flowing mill wheel!”   Later, Cress’ perceptive best friend Tillie asks her, “Don’t you think its high time you ended your little love affair with the working class?”  By the end of the novel, our heroine gets back on course by marrying an internist turned hospital director and dedicating herself to environmentalism.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Let's Trust the Dawning Future

The line, “trusts the dawning future more,” from “As Tranquil Streams” (#145 in SLT),  was written in 1933 during the bad times of the Depression and Dust Bowl.  But the sentiment sounds out of place in Unitarian Universalist circles today.  Who can trust a future fraught with the dangers of  climate change, frankenfoods, and pandemic superbugs?   Pessimism, especially eco-pessimism, has become fashionable, nay politically correct, in liberal and Unitarian Universalist circles.
The trend began just after World War II, with books like Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn and Road to Survival by William Vogt, published in 1948, Spaceship Earth by Barbara Ward in 1966, and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, and Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. These books all contended that too many people are using up too few resources.
Unitarian Universalists bought into the Malthusian mind set implicit in these works.  At the 1970 General Assembly, they cited two hundred UNESCO scientists from fifty different countries who in 1968 had come to the conclusion “that within a period of approximately twenty years the life process on earth will be seriously threatened if not in fact dead, unless major changes are made immediately.”   As we noticed, life was still flourishing in 1988.
The 1970 UUs were “convinced that man’s survival as a species is imperiled by his mushrooming technology and his excessive breeding rate.”  They claimed “many distinguished ecologists believe that environmental problems are not ultimately solvable by mere [sic] science and technology.”
The 1970 UUs didn’t understand that technology and ecological carrying capacity are inversely related.  For instance, the Green Revolution saved a billion people who would have starved without its technology.  According to Vogt. “It is obvious that fifty years hence the world cannot support three billion people.” Maybe the world couldn’t have supported three billion people with 1948 technology, but with better technology it supported seven  billion people sixty years later with a smaller fraction of them in poverty than in 1948.  Life expectancy has increased; infant mortality and family size have decreased.  
Instead, the UUs claim, to solve environmental problems: “A new religious emphasis is needed which includes a deep reverence for the diversity of life and understands people’s dependence on the planet’s life system.  Such an awareness would lead to a new life style which is balanced ecologically.”  How this would play out is unspecified.  On a practical level, UUs were supposed to bear no more than two children, as well as campaign for more environmental legislation and support the UUSC in its population control efforts.
Small Is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher in 1971 advocated small local economies to address environmental problems.  Forty-five years later UUs believe the economy should be local based rather than world based even though we have an historical example of local based economies.  These local economies were called the Dark Ages for good reasons: famine, illiteracy, violence, and religious wars.   Belief in the food mile fallacy (buying local saves fuel) is rampant in UU circles despite the math that shows big trucks can transport more pounds of food per gallon of fuel than the family car traveling to a family farm.
Books predicting imminent catastrophe continued to be published by such authors as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Vandana Shiva, and David Korten.   These doomsayers have been so persuasive that a cottage industry to cure environmental despair has emerged, for example Joanna Macy’s Active Hope groups.  However, in these groups the participants are not  confused with the facts of decreased poverty and infant mortality, increased wealth and life expectancy since 1970.
History shows Unitarian Universalists could have trusted the dawning future in 1933 and in 1970.  I believe the future can still be trusted in 2015.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Flynn Effect Defeats Eugenics

Why was the eugenics movement never revived after the Nazi Holocaust?  The goal to create better and smarter people was arguably laudable.  What if something happened that made people smarter without selective breeding?
Something did.  In the mid 80s, psychologist James Flynn discovered that since 1900, everywhere intelligence tests have been given, scores have risen by three IQ points every ten years. IQ tests measure short term memory, spatial recognition, mathematical ability, and abstract reasoning.
The eponymous Flynn effect has created smarter people much faster than selective breeding ever could. Possible explanations for the Flynn effect include better nutrition, smaller families, heterosis, more stimulating environments, and the ability to use logic to work in a hypothetical situation.  The last is the most significant change. In Flynn’s words:   “We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, non-verbal symbols, and visual images that paint alternative realities.
“There has been a transition from using the mind to manipulate the concrete world for advantage toward logical analysis of symbols increasingly abstracted from the appearance of the concrete world and even the literal appearance of the symbols themselves. This is what I call supplementing ‘utilitarian spectacles’ with ‘scientific spectacles’—which does not imply that the average person knows much science.”
An example of thinking using “utilitarian spectacles” comes from Unitarian Universalist minister David Breeden in a description of a visit to his nearly illiterate parents.  Fresh from his first year at college, he tried to explain Spinoza’s argument that we create our image of God depending on who we are.  For instance, triangles would create a triangle god, ants would create an ant god. This idea made no sense to his pre-modern parents.  “How could a triangle think; why would an ant think about God?”
Flynn comments on the mind set of people like Breeden’s parents, “Note how the pre-modern mind refuses to abandon the concrete world and refuses to use logic to analyze a hypothetical situation. Today, we automatically classify things rather emphasize their differences, take the hypothetical seriously, and use logic to analyze both the hypothetical and abstract symbols.”
Breeden believes the ability to think in the abstract is a gift and a privilege.  However, the Flynn effect shows that with education that focuses on abstract reasoning, such as that required to solve mathematical story problems, rather than memorizing, almost everyone can learn to employ logical analysis of symbols.  Breeden’s education was a gift and a privilege, but his parents, raised in rural isolation, never had educational opportunities.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Experiments in Eugenics

Eugenics, the belief that physically, mentally, and morally fit people improve the human stock by having children who inherit their superiority, was rampant in the US from about 1890 to  1940.  It followed that the unfit should not reproduce to avoid the degeneration of humanity.  State laws were enacted to prevent them from doing so; more than 60,000 (mostly poor and disabled) people were sterilized in the United States from 1907 to 1963.
Since eugenics is plausible and sounds scientific, all the best people believed in the new science of eugenics, including the Unitarians of that era, such as David Starr Jordan, William Howard Taft, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.*   According to the Rev John H Nichols,** “[Eugenicists] were “our kind of people . . . smart people with the best intentions . . .  [Sterilizations were] done in the name of economy, efficiency, and concern for the quality of all life.”
But was eugenics science?  Scientific statements by definition are falsifiable.  An experiment to test the eugenics hypothesis would call for a group of people, in which the more fit were prevented from reproducing and the less fit were allowed to reproduce.  Then if eugenics were true, the subsequent physical and mental deterioration of the group would be observed.  If on the other hand, civilization and technology continued to develop, there would be a flaw in the eugenics hypothesis.
Such an experiment had already been done.  During the Middle Ages, the best and the brightest joined monasteries that required vows of celibacy, so the monastics reproduced at a lower rate than the general population. What happened?  Did the Dark Ages get darker?  Were there no innovations such as field rotation and the horse collar?  By the end of the 19th century was all of Europe barbarian again?  Why were the contemporary elite not illiterate peasants like their ancestors?
Not only was there the Middle Ages experiment, a second experiment was nearing completion in 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed.  From the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, convicts, the dregs of England, had been transported to Australia. These worst representatives of society were allowed to reproduce freely with little admixture of  “good” blood.  In a century and a half, their descendants developed a parliamentary democracy that has been sustained up to this day.
The educated elite Unitarians who promulgated eugenics could not help but be aware of these historical experiments, although their class interests would have prevented them from seeing the unsound reasoning behind eugenics science.  In effect, eugenics was an attempt to pare down the numbers of the disabled, poor, and immigrants, a policy that preserves resources for the elite. Not until the Nazi Holocaust, likewise based on eugenics, gave the science a bad name, did the elite cut their ties with it.
“So, what have we learned?” asks Rev Nichols.   “Even the best intentioned, best educated people can have their judgment clouded by assumptions that remain hidden to them – assumptions of race, class, religion or ethnicity.  These hidden views affect all of the information we take in and all that we dismiss.”
According to Rev Nichols, the conviction that every human being is a sacred child of God will save us from abuses in the name of science.  “Absent some sense of the sacred in humanity, the powerful – no matter how nice they are – will always be tempted to use their power to ‘improve’ or control our lives.”

 * “Scientific Salvation” in Elite by Mark Harris pp 77ff
** “Creating Perfect People” sermon by Rev John H Nichols, given at the First Unitarian Church of Providence RI on 2-10-08 and at First Parish in Wayland MA on 11-13-12.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Green Ages

Thousands of years ago, people lived by hunting animals and gathering edible plants.  A few easy-to-catch animals became extinct, but no matter, people lived in balance with Earth.  Over time, they figured out how to grow the vegetables and grains they needed.  These domestic crops crowded out wild ecosystems; thus people lived less in harmony with Earth.  
Cities developed, empires grew and shrank.  The Roman Empire collapsed, possibly under its own weight.  Its excesses, such as indoor plumbing, disappeared.  What I call the Green Ages ensued in Europe.  It was a time of organic farming, local economies, and  local government.  People used renewable energy technologies of wind, water, and muscle power.  Everyone believed Earth was the center of the Universe.
Earth kept the numbers of people at carrying capacity by periodic plagues and famines. Lack of transportation prevented food from being moved from places of plenty to places of want.  The organic farms had to be large enough to grow fodder for the draft animals;  local economies made money and banking unnecessary; and the local governments made sure all knew their place in the rigid social hierarchy.  Constant raids by one local economy on another likewise kept human numbers down.  It was a violent time with homicides up to a hundred times more frequent than at present in western Europe.  Almost everyone was an illiterate peasant, living a short life in abject poverty.
In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus showed Earth revolved around the sun.  It took another century for this idea to become widely accepted, but Earth lost its place as the center of the Universe.
In the 18th century, people discovered coal could be used to fuel the new steam engines which  allowed twenty pounds of coal to do as much work as a hundred horses could do in an hour.  (Two hundred fifty years later Prophet Al Gore* predicted Earth would fry and drown because of fossil fuel use.)  By the beginning of the 19th century, more technology had grown the number of humans to about a billion.
Prophet Malthus** warned that populations rise geometrically, but agricultural capacity rises arithmetically.  People didn’t listen. Instead, they thought of new ways to increase agricultural capacity, such as how to fix nitrogen from the air for fertilizer.  After the ravages of two World Wars in the 20th century, prosperity and population grew.   Prophet Ehrlich*** reiterated Malthus’ warning, predicting famines everywhere in the 70s and 80s.  People still didn’t listen.
By 2012 there were seven billion people on Earth.   Part of the increase was due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1900.  Better public health, medical care, and agricultural technology allowed many more people to live out their natural life span.  The rate of population growth slowed as educated women pursued careers instead of motherhood.
By 2015, instead of almost everybody being abjectly poor, more than half the people in the world were healthier, richer, and longer lived beyond the imagination of the illiterate peasants who practiced Earth-centered living in the Green Ages.

* An Inconvenient Truth, 2006
** Essay on Population, 1798
*** The Population Bomb, 1968