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.”

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

On the Precautionary Principle

What if we had followed the precautionary principle when antibiotics were coming on line?   We would have asked such question as:  What if pathogens evolve resistance?  What if some people are allergic?  What if antibiotics destroy normal flora?
All these things happened, but guess what?  Millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics.  
We have to consider the consequences of NOT adopting new technology as well as the risks of adopting it.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Green Church, Part III: Fast UUs Overtake Slow UUs

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow discusses fast thinking, our first reaction that saved our ancestors’ lives when confronted with saber tooth tigers.  He then contrasts fast thinking with slow thinking, the kind of thinking that led our ancestors to modify hand axes, invent spear throwers, and sew skin clothing.
Continuing to think slow, people reasoned from principles revealed by sages, but they didn’t test the results. People believed Jews caused the plague in the 14th century, so they threw them down the wells. Nobody questioned the validity of that claim or that witches caused crop failures, making it necessary to burn them.  Life was brutal in pre-scientific times.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the scientific method was formulated. The scientific method works to gain evidence based knowledge about the world.  Phenomena are observed, someone makes a hypothesis about the phenomena, someone tests the hypothesis, someone publishes, someone else test the hypothesis.  When new data need too many fixes to fit the old theory, new theories are postulated, giving rise to more hypotheses, testing and so on and on, from fire starting to FaceBook. Science explores, is pragmatic, goes with what works.
Unitarian Universalism began with slow thinking. Michael Servetus was brutally executed in 1553 for his slow thinking that made him conclude belief in the Trinity wasn’t justified by the Bible.  Using slow thinking, Unitarian Universalism explores to see which beliefs and practices work to make a good life for all, taking its inspiration from the words of the hymn, “To build the common good and make our own days glad.”   At their best, Unitarian Universalists reason like scientists.
Fundamentalist religion on the other hand is dogmatic, since the Word has already been revealed.  Preachers persuade the congregation to choose the right path to salvation.  Services emphasize emotion.
Politics likewise  persuades, using emotional rather than rational arguments.  Its style is fast thinking, more like fundamentalism than like Unitarian Universalism.  Instead of the crisis of going to hell, politics exaggerates any actual crisis and if there aren’t any handy crises, one will be invented. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?
Perhaps because it’s more efficient to change the world via legislation than to help individuals one at a time, Unitarian Universalism is now emphasizing political issues such as immigration and climate change.  This emphasis on political action has changed the association’s emphasis from slow thinking to fast thinking. For instance, rarely are such concepts as the nutritional and moral superiority of those who can afford to consume local organic food questioned.  But Unitarian Universalists should beware of failure to question such claims.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Monday, March 2, 2015

Green Church, Part II: A Marriage Made in Heaven

After the 1961 merger, the Unitarian Universalist Association didn’t create a religion with theology, ethics, rituals, myths, and saints.   Rather, it favored do it yourself credos and build your own theology. Myths and saints were replaced with a preoccupation for historical accuracy.   Ethics were reduced to seven principles that members are not obliged to affirm.  Little was known about nonaligned spirituality because Sam Harris, born in 1967, hadn’t yet written Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.    
  The people that subscribed to this atypical religion have tended to be politically liberal, taking on such social justice causes as racial equality, gay rights, and the environment.  They wanted to get away from sin and guilt, hence original sin was eliminated and salvation wasn’t needed.  Rituals like the Flower and Water Communion arose;  people also began celebrating the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days.   Earth-centered rituals didn’t generate theological problems or bad memories.  The Seventh Principle “respect for the interdependent web of all existence” to “guide us as we protect the planet” was added in 1984, and earth-centered traditions were added as the Sixth Source in 1995.
Since Unitarian Universalism lacked doctrine, these new rituals, principles, and sources paved the way for radical environmentalism to move into the vacuum.  Radical environmentalism has its own dogmas.  Instead of God sustaining the universe,  Earth and its ecosystems sustain us.  Humans offend Earth by polluting, consuming, and mere existing.  (We all produce a carbon footprint just by breathing.)  Opportunities for guilt are rife, but sinners can feel righteous by sacrificing the consumer lifestyle.
The radical environmentalist Greens are a religion looking for a church, the Unitarian Universalists are a church looking for a religion.  Are the two are converging such that the religion of Unitarian Universalism is becoming radical environmentalism?