Monday, April 4, 2016

Ten Books that Modified My Thinking

Members of my book group listed the ten books that had modified their thinking.  Here’s my list:

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 1884. An outcast understood the contradictions of slavery, showing individual conscience can be more discerning than the prevailing mores.
The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 1959.  Darwinian evolution is compatible with Catholic theology and symbolism. Important to me because I was a practicing Catholic when I read it in 1961.
Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor 1984.  Dogs and other animals can be taught without force or violence. Applies to people, too.
Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos 1988.   Innumeracy (lack of facility with numbers and probability) is both widespread and has serious consequences.  Do the math and do it right!
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond 1997.  Differences in technological advancement among cultures are not because of differences of ability among races.   Before I read this book I thought history was factoids about dead people, but history written by scientists reveals interesting patterns.
Non-Zero by Robert Wright 2001.   Win-win prevails over zero-sum.  IMHO, the Force that drives the Universe and human history.
Authentic Happiness by Martin EP Seligman 2002.  Optimists thrive, building on their strengths.
The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley 2010.  Although pessimists are considered wise, they’ve almost always been wrong.
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker 2011.  Masses of data demonstrate that humans have become ever less violent over the ten thousand years of our history.
Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin 2012.  Anti-humanist Malthusians, wrong so far, have hijacked environmentalist movements.

I see  all the titles confirm my bias toward bottom-up evolution leading to peace and prosperity for all.  The moral arc is long but it bends towards justice.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Who Has Enough?

Mother used to tell me, “Finish your vegetables because of all those starving children in China and Africa.”  But how were my veggies supposed to get to the Chinese or African children?  Like Jeffrey Lockwood in UU World Spring 2016, I’d had enough.
        Lockwood says, “[we need to] worry about a species that can’t say enough.”  However, he is concerned that, “In a warming world, we’ll run out of [there won’t be enough] ice caps, arable soil, coral reefs, fresh water, coastal cities, livable land, sea walls, and air conditioners.”
Lockwood says planet and life will be OK because it’s survived high CO2 levels before.   However, he says we should stop emitting CO2 so the planet will return to its “original” temperature.  Which original? The original of the Ice Ages when most of Europe and North America was covered by glaciers? Or of the Little Ice Age when the Thames froze over?  If those originals are too cold, what about the Eocene 55 million years ago when Earth was 10° C warmer?
It’s true that some of us have more than we need, but that doesn’t mean we all have more than we need. Nearly half of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day.  One quarter of all humans live without electricity — approximately 1.6 billion people.  80% of the world population lives on less than $10 a day.
Mother could have sent the veggie money overseas to buy food for the poor children. Oxfam estimates that it would take $60 billion annually to end extreme global poverty--that's less than one fourth the income of the top 100 richest billionaires.    However, redistribution of wealth, generally frowned upon by those who already have it, would be only a partial solution. Also, those that already have barely enough wouldn’t accept the redistribution solution.  Would there be enough for everyone to have enough or will everyone be poor after redistribution?
But what if we can produce enough for everyone to have enough? We’ve done it with food.  Despite Malthus’ and Ehrlich’s dire predictions, there’s enough food for everyone on the planet to have an adequate diet.  Let’s continue the work of the Green Revolution (including GMOs) that has already saved hundreds of millions of lives.  Let’s harness energy from the sun, the wind, the water, the nukes, and yes, fossil fuels to free human beings from backbreaking labor and poverty.
Lockwood claims a better legacy would be a world where we learned to say “enough.”
I disagree.  I say there’s not enough until every human being on our planet has enough.

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.