Categories – where do you belong?

I have been messing around with the concept of categorization lately, and have decided that it has dangerous consequences.  So I’d like to investigate the topic a bit more and perhaps offer a solution as to a perhaps a better way of thinking about things.

 

First of all let’s look at why we categorize.  It is clear that putting things into categories is an inherent quality of how we think.  And there are a lot of good arguments for categorization.  Let’s face it.  The world is a noisy place.  There are a lot of: people, other animals, plants, types of weather, places to see, dangers to be aware of, things to learn, beliefs, truths, languages, cultures…well you get the picture.  The list goes on and on.  What we can gather is that the world is a noisy, chaotic place.  Quite honestly we never would have started to walk upright if we didn’t categorize, because the sheer volume of information alone would overwhelm us.  I would argue that we probably had to rely on categorization more as our intelligence grew because we became aware of so many more things.  But I maybe wrong about that and it is beside the point.  Categorization makes sense, it is useful, and it is natural and evolutionary.

 

So that’s great.  But now let’s look at how it can get us into trouble.  In my previous blog entry (it feels good to say that now!) I talked about placing things into the category of normal, which by default causes us to put things that don’t fit into a category as abnormal.   I argue how this might impacts our thinking and it certainly does.  I think this type of simple categorization does harm in other areas of thought as well.  In fact I am going to argue that the more simply we try to categorize the more difficult and harmful it is.  We can think of many simple categorizations we do every day; bad and good, good and evil, tall and short, smart and dumb, etc.  Any system of categorization has two inherent problems in that, firstly, it does not take into account all the points in between, and that secondly it requires us to have a good definition of the each category and an appropriate context.

 

Let’s take something simple like tall and short.  This is a physical quality.  Calling things short and tall can be difficult if we include let’s say all animals and then try to separate tall ones from short ones.  How do you compare a giraffe to a koala bear to a microbe?  There we will reduce the sample size to just humans, and to eliminate gender differences in height, human men.  Now we all know well the definition of tall and short in a general sense, but for the purpose of our problem we need to come up with a boundary for the category.  Now we hit our first real problem.  This separation point is subjective.  But let’s say we do some statistics and find that the average height of all men is 5’9”.  This may not even be a good way of doing it, because it is more relevant to determine what tall and short mean amongst men of different cultures.  It would not be a very good average height likely if we were only talking about Scandinavians or Chinese.  But since we’ve decided to make “all men” the context here then let’s just roll with it.  So now we can start going around to other men and telling them “Hey, you’re tall” or “Hey you’re short” because they fall below or above a certain criteria that we’ve decided is meaningful.  Well of course the problem is that the range of heights amongst men starts at the shortest man to the tallest man, and about 3.5 billion points in between.  So there is a guy, who if we measured very carefully is the barest fraction of an inch under, and one that is over, and likely one who is exactly 5’9”.  What do we say of these men?  Do we label one as tall and the other as short even though we can see no difference with our eyes?  And what if a taller man hunches most of the time, and a shorter one has good posture, or bigger hair, thus changing our perspective.  I am sure you can find many more other problems with the categorization, and this is only for a simple physical quality, and even this physical quality often has associations that can lead to stereotyping.  “He’s short, he’ll never play basketball.”  “Ooh he’s tall dark and handsome.”

 

The problem gets even worse when we start to look at things like good and evil.  As an atheist even I have beliefs, so maybe I need to be careful of just saying believers and non-believers.   If I lay out the criteria well, I might be able to get away with it.  But even then I would be hard pressed to make every person fit into one category or the other.

 

Things get a little bit better when I try to go into more categories.  As a professor I actually like having greater grading resolution.  This means that I like to have the ability to be able to differentiate more acutely with one students’ work or grade in comparison with another.  A better way might be to categorize heights might be to say, less than 5 ft, between 5 ft and 5’2”, between 5’2” and 5’4” and so on.  Often by tying numbers to our categorization we don’t have positive or negative associations, but of course we usually end up associating meaning to those numbers.  Nevertheless by increasing the number of categories we get closer to the truth which is that there is a whole spectrum of sizes that is nearly continuous from shortest to tallest.   This type of categorization for height once again is relatively easy.  How do we categorize something like good and evil?  Are those even realistic categories?  Is there an ultimate in good and evil? In the world there is definitely a shortest and tallest man, but good and evil is not so clear.   Is there even an agreeable definition to those things, especially as it applies to humans?  Many religions have this ultimate concept of good and evil by having a God and a Devil.  Of course even the definition on the nature of those extremes of good and evil cannot be agreed upon.  In the bible God does some terrible things, which according to the writer’s perspective are good because from the perspective of his culture it’s good.  I am sure the other culture is not too fond of their God at all.

 

Categorization is extremely challenging and yet we still do it.  I re-watched the movie Hotel Rwanda recently and I began thinking about these things even more strongly.  Whether you’ve watched the movie or not doesn’t matter (although you should watch that movie), but it is about the civil war and attempt at genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda.  The difference in appearance between the two people are subtle if even there, yet one side was willing to eliminate the other.  Of course we don’t need different colors of skin to hate or to have prejudice and so it made me think about the futility of categorization.  Because even if you are a white supremacist and clear all those colored people away, over time you will still start categorizing people who are different even if those differences are slight.  And I think this is especially true in a culture that is centered on intolerance.  You will only breed more intolerance into your culture which will eventually cause you to even hate the same group of people who were your brothers in the fight for “white power” not too long ago.  Even Christianity has fractured from its beginnings into many denominations, many of who have fought wars and still fight today in one way or another.

 

So I think the best plan of action is to remember first that categorization is a tool and not truth.  While it might help you organize things in your mind, your division is likely subjective, arbitrary, and insufficient in understanding any truths about the world.  I think it also important to let your categories be fuzzy or living.  What I mean by this is recognize that there is likely no absolute and that things do not fit very neatly into any one category, and that as you grow and learn your categories may change definition or even lose their meaning altogether.  In the end one must accept that the world is chaotic, that it is noisy.   Beautiful harmonies do not occur when everybody is exactly the same.  The best harmonies are woven together by a range of keys and octaves.  That unifying voice of humanity can only be heard when we accept that there is no amount of force, fear or violence that can make everyone the same.  We will only hear this song when we have tolerance for diversity and truly try to get to know one another to find out what things we truly all share.

What is normal and natural?

The following is a complete rewrite of something I posted on Facebook before about natural and normal.  I wanted to be a bit more comprehensive in my arguments.  Which also means its much longer.

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I remember when I engaged the gay basher that came to our campus last academic year, one of his many arguments included the idea that “being gay was not normal, that it was not natural”.  I am the type of person who thinks a lot about even what I know to be incorrect.  This is because I accept that what I know might actually be wrong and so I want to be always asking questions.  At one point in the argument he even claimed victory because he had got me to admit that it’s not normal.  It took me some time to understand exactly why he hadn’t won his argument and that I had not proved his point.  It comes down to the way in which I see normal, and the way he sees normal.

The word “normal” is one that I’ve come to see as a rather dangerous word and I think that I even need to be more careful about how I use the word.   The first part of the dictionary definition describes it as conforming to the standard or common type.  However it also defines normal as being “not abnormal” and “natural”.  This is where the problem lies.  Allow me to try to make the argument for what “normal” shouldn’t be, before making the argument for what it should be.

The word abnormal has a negative connotation to it, and anything that we define as normal implies those things that do not meet the defined criteria for normal, by definition are abnormal.  And since normal and natural are often used synonymously that thing becomes also unnatural.  Once we’ve reached this place in our mind we have created two categories.  In one is the category of things that belong in our world, and in the other category are things that don’t belong.   And once we decide what things don’t belong in our world, it becomes a very dangerous notion.

Now as a quick vocabulary aside, by definition I believe normal has a broader definition than natural.  Natural does only pertain to things that happen, well, in nature.  So normal can apply to nature, but it can also apply to a lot of other things.  For instance one can say “It is normal for Jim to be late to a party”.  Unless we were sort of being sarcastic or funny “It’s unlikely we’d say “It is natural for Jim to be late to a party”.  So all things natural could also be said to be normal, but the reverse is not true.  And the dictionary definition supports this line of thinking.

I argue that this categorization into normal and abnormal is not only dangerous, but also faulty.  Many of the things that people consider abnormal and normal are actually better served by using the word probable and improbable.  For instance,  only about 10% of the world is left-handed.  Now 10% is still a decent percentage in my opinion, and for a long time in our history even though 1 out of every 10 people were naturally left-handed those people were often oppressed and demonized as being unnatural.  People who are left-handed still are often inconvenienced today, and it wasn’t that long ago before parents actually let their kids be left handed (and I am sure there still kids being forced somewhere in the world to use their right hand).  I was actually a natural lefty, and my dad, not knowing any better forced me to use my right hand (I could have been an artist, or at least a much better writer!).  Language and culture favor right-handedness so much that it’s not surprising that left-handedness was looked down on for so long.  Therefore if we didn’t have this concept in our mind of what was normal and abnormal perhaps we could have avoided this type of discrimination.  Of course the truth is that being left-handed is just as normal or natural as being right-handed.  It is simply the fact that one is more probable than the other.  If we are going to use the term natural we might be better served saying that, “it is natural for humans to have a preference to use one hand more than another.”  Of course then we still might be lumping ambidextrous people into the unnatural category unfairly.  Because about 1 in 100 people are ambidextrous, this too is also natural.  Thus I would argue in situations like these that probable and improbable are the preferred words to use.  Something that is improbable is hardly something that we would consider sinful, bad, evil, or even something that didn’t belong.  It may be that we don’t want an improbable event to occur, but by looking at it as an improbable event means that we don’t have any inherent “wrongness” of the event, but we can study it and its effects and then make a decision about what if anything we need to do about it.  Some events are very improbable, but they happen, and that makes even the improbable events both normal and natural.

One could also make the broader argument that everything can be considered natural to a certain degree, even the things that are purely human products.  As a natural species on this planet, anything that we might do or construct could be said to be natural.  Since it all lays within a realm of probability of what we are capable of and what we can become.   One might be able to get away with saying, “It is unnatural for an object to not fall to the ground once it is no longer suspended in air”.  But using the word “highly improbable” would just be as acceptable and probably safer because hey you just never know. J

In Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain he makes the argument that we believe first and rationalize to support our beliefs rather than use rationalization to form beliefs.  Without an objective tool such as the scientific method we are left to trying to make sense out of the world as quickly as possible and then doing our best to preserve that world view through the process of rationalization.  Thus it could also be that things we learn to fear might lead us to rationalize those fears and label things normal or abnormal.  People who are religious and are belief driven tend to do this more often, but we are all capable of it from time to time.  It’s important to remember here that while I think letting belief dominate your life is dangerous, belief is also natural.  It is normal.  But so is science.  It is also normal.  While some scientific advances happen accidentally, most processes require refinement and attention.  If it was not for careful testing and experimentation one could not make the bow and arrow shoot farther and more accurately, let alone make a better iPhone.

So if fear can lead us to categorizing things as normal and abnormal, what do we fear?  I think that humans do naturally fear improbable events.  For most of our evolution, improbable events were probably a bad thing.  A natural disaster, the occasional lion who developed a taste for human flesh, an unknown disease or sickness.  Like all animals we want to feel safe.  Safety means survival.  Improbable events reduce that feeling of safety.   Even if an improbable event didn’t pose any real danger, such events are also harder to predict.   Humans through most of our evolution lived in small groups.  Events that had a 1/1000 chance of happening would not have happened very often, giving even early man very little chance to try to understand why it was happening and what to do about it.  It is only a luxury of large populations and sophisticated technology that we can study low probability events and still have a statistically significant number of cases to reach some good conclusions.  Therefore I also don’t deny that our tendency to categorize things as normal or abnormal is extension of what we fear especially when it comes to improbable events.  This too is something we naturally do.

Finally I think we also, regardless of the probability of an event, tend to regard negative things as unnatural.  Violent  behavior, sexual abuse, genocide just to name a few.  At an emotional level I have also heard many people refer to feelings, for example, like lust, anger, and apathy as unnatural.   Unfortunately science reveals that all these things are quite natural, not only to our species, but to other species as well.  Now, so what do we do if we say it is natural?  The naturalness of something, however, is not necessarily the basis of morality.  I think there is this feeling that once we accept something as being natural that we have to let it happen because there is nothing we can do about it.  We know from our studies of chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, that they also practice genocide.  Does this mean we should just let genocide happen?  Of course not.  In chimpanzee societies the practice of genocide often is triggered by competition for territory and resources.  However, we have the advantage of coming up with other solutions to resolve differences, make resources and territory available to everyone without the need for killing.  Even primates realize that through cooperation they are better at surviving than without.  If they had the intellect to come up with other solutions, they would perhaps choose alternative solutions too, instead of ones that can end in their own deaths, and reduces the power of cooperative growth.  Therefore all these terrible things that we do should not be evaluated based on whether they are natural or not.  They should be based on what harm they actually cause.

To argue that homosexuality is not natural, or not normal is simply not a valid argument.  And if you are going to allow only natural things in the world, then you have to accept that things like abortion is normal (since even anthropological evidence even shows the abandoning and killing of one’s young when resources are limited).  For humans to kill each other is also normal.  The boon that is granted by the day we live in and the civilization we have built is to understand the reasons for behaviors that cause harm and find alternatives to that behavior when dealing with problems, or to learn how to change our behavior so that we can all live peaceably together.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I’ve put into the category of natural and unnatural, or normal and abnormal, and it has certainly changed how I look at the world.  I am sure there are many other thoughts that I have that need revisiting that could use a glance through a different lens.  Do yourself a favor and spend some time thinking about how you use those words, how you think about those concepts and what things in this world you tie to them.  It’s worth the effort.

My first wedding ceremony

So I was fortunate enough to be asked by two former students and friends to perform their ceremony.  As both atheists themselves they wanted someone who would give a more humanist ceremony.  They are both steeped in science and both educators so I wanted to create something that was both expressed my heart and incorporated why I knew about them.  I am thankful it was well received.  I will leave out their last names so that there is at least some anonymity that is preserved. 🙂

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Today we are gathered to celebrate the love between Matthew —– and Christina —–.  For their union to last love must be shown to be more than just an abstract idea.  They are in love,  but how do we know love exists?  If we present the hypothesis that love is real, how do we go about proving such a thing?  The answer is research. As with any good research, we must first conduct a literature review and see what previous studies about love have found.

Literature Review

Many words about love have been written.  We can find metaphors such as Voltaire’s words “Love is a canvass furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination.”  But words like these often leave us with more questions than answers.  Love inspires imaginative gestures such as Alfred Tennyson’s words “If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk through my garden forever.”  However, such words are often intangible, since they paint pictures of unrealistic situations that do not touch our actual lives.

We also find in literature many who question whether love can be effectively described at all.  The genius physicist and co-inventor of the first laser Ali Javan said “Love can sometimes be magic.  But magic sometimes can just be an illusion.”  The 17th century French Writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld supported this idea when he said “True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about, but few have seen.”  From this we may at least glean that true love is rare and that we can call into question whether written words of love come from a source that has truly experienced what they claim knowledge about.

When it comes to words, many doubt that they are even useful in matters of love. Shakespeare recognized that “One may as soon go kindle fire with snow, as to seek to quench the fire of love with words”. Additionally, 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais said “Gestures, in love, are incomparably more attractive, effective and valuable than words.”  Finally, American writer Zelda Fitzgerald points to the difficulty of our quest when she says “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold”.

Love becomes easier to understand when we define it in terms of our actions.  Van Gogh said “The way to know life is to love many things.”  This is echoed by Mother Theresa who said “Love begins at home and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in that action.”  We can connect further to this idea of love when we consider how love exists even in those actions that seem routine.  Marilyn Monroe said “The real lover is the man who can thrill you by kissing your forehead, or smiling into your eyes, or staring into space”.

But even as we feel inspired and positive about love, listening to what great minds of the past had to say, what tangible evidence do we have for its existence?  Experimentation is the next step and thus we must decide on what methodology will help us demonstrate how real love is.  For love is not just a concept in our mind, or a feeling in our heart.  Love has no value if only kept, it must be shared.  And if it is shared than we can observe it.

Methodology

In matters of love our best way of observing is through our 5 senses.  How do we see love?  How does it taste?  Does love have a smell?  What does love sound like? And finally how can we truly feel love?  These questions we must try to answer in the next section.

Data and Analysis

Visual evidence of love can be seen in many places.  It could be the sight of an object that you built for your loved one to compliment the home, or in a gift prominently displayed demonstrating its importance and appreciation.  It may simply be the sight of the table set and dinner ready after coming home from a long day.  It is the sight of the other person looking especially beautiful or handsome as they put in extra time to make themselves look nice for a night out.

As we turn to taste, we can find evidence when eating at a familiar restaurant where the menu holds some of your favorite foods, and with each bite you are reminded of past memories with each other.  It can be in the taste of a good wine on a romantic evening.  Or, more simply, it can be found in the taste of each other’s lips in a passionate kiss; a flavor that is unique and unlike any other.

Often overlooked is the sense of smell, but it is the one most closely linked to memory.  Love may be found in the smell of breakfast cooking in the morning as you wake up; the aroma of coffee drifting into the bedroom.  It can be in the fragrance of a shampoo in the hair, perfume on the wrist or cologne on a piece of clothing.  But even these things are not required, for just like the unique taste we have, we also have a unique smell that permeates those things that we interact with most closely.  Often it is the quickest way to bring to the fore the memories of the one you love when they’re away…causing you to miss and love them all the more.

Love delights in sounds, for when you are together, sound is what fills the air.  It is in the sound of the voice when sharing feelings and thoughts you would only ever express to each other; knowing that while it makes you vulnerable their love for you is greater.  It is in the familiar sound of sarcasm as you mock republicans together, and it is in the sound of laughter as you both experience good times and joy.  It is the sound of new music that is played for you because the other person knows your tastes so well they instinctively know what you will enjoy.  And sometimes it is in the sound of words “I love you”.  And though we have shown that words are not all, there is never harm in such an expression.

Touch is last because touch is the unique sense that can be experienced by both simultaneously.   And though making love might be an obvious one here, over the course of a lifetime it tends to be the part of touch that gets missed the least.  What we feel when we embrace or hold hands often means so much more. Or that half asleep warm feeling we get when our partner, coming home late after an exhausting day, or maybe a night of carousing, wraps their arms around us as they slip into bed.  It may be in the feel of a comforting caress on the cheek when we are sick, sad, or hurting.

We must remember that grand gestures of love such as this wedding are but a day in the life you have pledged to share through marriage.  Love is experiential, and iterative, and here we have recounted some of the many ways that we can find love in our day to day lives.  Though these days seem ordinary, with careful observation, we can see how filled with love they actually are.  And over a lifetime these simple things grow into something even stronger. This is emphasized by American author Lawrence Durrell, who said: “The richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time”.

Conclusion

The evidence you can collect about love in your life is plentiful and thus we can safely conclude that love is real.  And no conclusion would be complete without a look to the future.  As you grow older, so your love grows as well.  Let that love move you to actions not only for each other, but spread that love outward always.  Nineteenth century women’s rights activist Lydia Child said “The cure for all the ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows, and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word ‘love’. It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.”

Our research is complete, and now as you say the vows you have written for each other, reflect on how those words translate into experience.

Vows

Exchange Rings

Matt and Christina, I’m honored to pronounce you husband and wife.

Christina, you may now kiss the groom.

Finally, no research would complete without peer review.  Those that have come today, do so out of that love which we have worked to define.  Therefore I ask everybody here today to applaud in approval of that love which our research has shown to exist for the happy couple.

Ladies and gentleman I am pleased to present to you for the first time as a married couple Mr. Matthew —- and Mrs. Christina —-!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Science is your friend (written August 13th, 2013)

A little while back I posted a quote from Carl Sagan about how we live in a world dependent on science and technology, but yet few people know very much about science and technology.  I wanted to say some more about the importance of science to kind of address some of the other things that worry me in regards to the attitude about science I’ve encountered in people.

First let me say that science is difficult but it is natural.  From a very young age we clearly have scientific principles within us that guide our learning.   You can watch young children play and manipulate objects and see that they are simply learning how those objects move, sound, feel, etc.  This is at the heart of experimentation.  Of course science in practice is far more sophisticated, but every child is a little scientist.  Of course every child is also a believer. A defenseless life form who is trying to survive and doesn’t know that it has the luxury of taking its time to think about things, the luxury to reason.  For even as safe as the world might be for some young humans it doesn’t know that.  And keep in mind for many humans even today it is not that safe.  So we have this scientific side that demands we pause, reflect, test and make conclusions based on this evidence.  Then there is the side of us that takes on face value what our parents or other authority figures tell us, we tuck it away and move on to something else.  Believing has evolutionary advantages because it’s quite simply faster.  Both types of thinking have their value up to a point, but in many ways the believer is most valuable to the self, where as the scientist is perhaps most valuable to the larger population and over a longer span of time.

Of course you actually don’t need to learn about science to survive.  One could argue that you don’t need to learn about science as a member of society if you simply accept that scientists are as right as they can be, based on the evidence that the community analyzes and thus trust the decisions and recommendations that they make.  This would work, except that, at least in the US, everybody still has an opinion about scientific issues and feel that it is of equal value to that of the scientist even when they are illiterate about the subject material and how science works.  No issue makes this clearer than when you look at the attitude of many towards climate change.  Though almost every researcher in the natural sciences find evidence of man-made climate change there are many who find the issue to be one of belief, bias and conspiracy.  So it’s not only a problem that few people know about science, but that many of these uninformed people will form an opinion based on pseudoscience, pundits, or even in some cases intellectuals who are not scientists, and then not support legislation that is based on the recommendation of the scientific community.  The issue of evolution in this country is another example, and it bothers me when people say the phrase “believe in evolution”, because evolution does not require belief.  It only requires an objective analysis of evidence and this is the natural conclusion that anyone would come to based on that evidence.

I have even learned that there are many people who don’t understand what evidence is.  What they consider evidence for something is not evidence and this is where math comes into the equation.  No pun intended.  Part of the reason why science is difficult is because math is at the heart of science.  And I don’t mean just complicated equations although sometimes to really understand a certain area of science it helps to understand some complicated equation.  The heart of math is logic.  Math is in fact cold, unemotional, and doesn’t care one iota about your passions.  This makes mathematics actually quite unique in our world which is actually why I’m passionate about it.  Math doesn’t care what you want, it’s there to tell you what is.  When you try to have a debate with someone about an issue you can see that most people don’t know how to make logical arguments.  Hey I make plenty of mistakes too, and logic, reasoning, math requires us also to be humble.  When someone points at an error in your logic it can be a blow to the ego.  Math may be perfect, but we are not. It’s something you have to get over if you want to continue to learn and grow in this world.  You are going to make mistakes, but you need to keep trying to understand where flaws in your reasoning might lie.  Often this is because you are missing pertinent information.  Logic is also dangerous because entire logical frameworks can be built on faulty premises.  The example I always use is the logical argument:

All A are B

All B are C

Therefore all A are C.

Few can argue here as this is a logical truth.  But let’s put actual information in there now.  All cats are black.  All black things are hats.  Therefore all cats are hats.  This is a silly example of course, but logic can lead us down a road when the premises we use to draw our conclusions are faulty.  However, we can test the truth of “All black things are hats” and “all cats are black” through careful observation and science.  As silly as this argument sounds it could be that any individual might come up with this conclusion if they really had not seen anything black other than a cat.  An authority figure in their life tells them now that “all black things are hats”.  You’ve never seen a hat, but you trust this adult.  So your brain makes the logical conclusion that all cats must also be hats.  The error is not your conclusion, but rather that you A) have seen only a small portion of the things that are black, and that you took at face value what the authority figure said about black things and hats.  Thus what the example actually shows is how easy it is to draw incorrect logical conclusions through having incomplete information about the world.  This person may even begin to argue with other people on the nature of cats and black things, but always remember to be humble and realize that you may not know as much as somebody else in regards to a particular subject.  This extreme example also demonstrates why religion fails to explain how the world works effectively because it generally suppresses the investigation into the truth of promises and relies heavily on simply trusting in what an authority figure as truth.  This is why religious texts have numerous contradictions and outdated information.  Any community which purports a text or set of guidelines that are not open to question, scrutiny, and testing that is a dangerous community.  That community is the exact opposite of a scientific community.

Any individual scientist can also fall victim to his/her own gospel and this is of course why I don’t advocate that a society simply trust what scientists have to say, but rather is educated about science themselves.  Questions are what drive scientists, and any one scientist would easily admit that they may not have seen all the evidence, interpreted it correctly, or may be subject to bias.  This is where the value of community comes in.  The greater the volume of scientific literacy in a community the more likely we are to arrive at correct answers about how the world works and most likely more quickly.  Any researcher always faces some criticism from others in their field.  People who disagree with them and ask them questions that they may not have considered, which eventually makes them more careful researchers in the future.  Scientists make use of peer-review for their research, as well as the fact that numerous scientists may be working on a particular problem independently but attempting different methods at solving the problem.  This can reveal holes in an individual scientist’s research and this is extremely valuable because once again we can save time and energy by learning which methodologies are inefficient, which question shouldn’t be asked, and which questions we should ask.

Science is most successful when both old questions are re-asked, and new questions are asked.  A continued investigation of old questions that are attacked from new angles and with new information allow us to make sure the foundation in which we tackle new scientific problems are sound.  Science does this all the time, which is why occasionally you find out that something you learned in school may not be true anymore.  Science makes mistakes, but continually marches forward self-correcting along the way.  If you start trying to move forward on a faulty premise you find that you hit a wall. Forward progress can sometimes stall, sometimes even by the ego of a big scientist in the field, but eventually something that isn’t right will fail.

And even if you become scientifically literate are all your problems solved?  Certainly not.  There are a lot of things to know in the world and it is time consuming to be knowledgeable about the all.  There are plenty of areas of science I know little about.  Microbiology, organic chemistry, atomic physics are just a few.  So when I read something that a community of those scientists has said, I have two choices.  I can trust them.  Knowing how scientists work I can feel pretty confident that within their own community they are doing exhaustive and rigorous research to come to the conclusions they have.  However if I’m not satisfied, I can start learning.  I can start reading.  There is a lot of information on the web now so even the simplest of terms in a particular field I can find definitions for.  I could read a few books of course too.  All this takes time.  But perhaps it is worth it.  What seems surprising to me though is all the people who would argue against something like climate change having very little understanding of the subject and spouting off incorrect information from articles which actually prey on the scientific illiteracy of the reader to convince them to a certain point of view.

We live in an age of information.  But as a consequence there is also a lot of misinformation out there.   Science can be most powerful in just helping you understand the quality of the information that you are being given, and help you separate the bad from the good.  I see many people getting their information from terrible sources.  As a scientist here are some of the steps I take when trying to learn about something (this is also how good research is done):

  • Look for consensus.  Try to find independent sources that say similar things.  This can be hard on the internet as sometimes one person’s words get republished (and uncredited) on other sites.  But usually the wording will be very similar.
  • Try to find the author.  Who is he or she?  Do they even have a degree in the area of science they are writing about?  Many critics of something  like climate change do not come from people who actually are knowledgeable about the physics that apply to climate.
  • Does that author publish journal articles on their findings?  Before any science becomes mainstream it always first or at least simultaneously published in a journal.  But also important is the nature of that journal.  Does that journal have anonymous peer-review?  Does that journal seem to fit the subject of the article?  Is the journal regional, national, or international? Many weaker studies that represent bad science or relatively inconclusive findings will be published in small journals, journals without peer-review or in journals only loosely related to the subject area to avoid it being reviewed by other appropriate experts.
  • The best sources of information often site numerous studies and try to culminate those findings to build a logical narrative.

Finally it doesn’t hurt to try and read other contradictory articles, provided that those articles meet some or all of the criteria mentioned above.

A democracy is only effective when its people are intelligent and well informed, and there are plenty of issues that are important to our future and future generation.  Climate change is only one of them.  Learn about biochemistry and understand more about vaccinations, diseases, stem cell research, genetically modified foods.   Learn about Earth Science and understand more about water quality, soil and water conservation, climate change, natural disasters, and pollution.  Learn about physics and understand important issues related to radiation, heating and cooling, lasers, and of course physics is such a fundamental science that it is the root for understand many other scientific disciplines.  Learn about biology and understand how life works such as: the similarities and differences among species, the human body, wildlife conservation, and evolution.  And don’t forget that scientific investigation is used to try to answer many questions in the social science.  Fields like sociology, psychology, education and communication.   For instance we can learn with science that if we want abortions to happen less and less than imposing one group’s morality is less effective than education, good health care, and easier access to birth control.  Learn about math and statistics so that you can understand when numbers are significant, what probabilities mean, and what uncertainties might be associated with a particular finding.

To conclude I would be remiss if I left out all the other amazing things that add color to this world.  In your quest for scientific literacy don’t forget about the humanities and arts.  Get lost in those things that inspire and excite the imagination.  Tell stories and listen to stories because there is insight interwoven into the narrative.  Learn about history and understand the process of discovery through the ages, learn about change, and the rise and fall of civilization so that we can learn well the lessons of the past for a better future.  Lose yourself in music, whether it is by dancing or just letting your mind and heart get carried away by the melody, or even just singing at the top of your lungs in the car.  I don’t expect everyone to get their sense of wonder from science, so make sure you are doing things that keep making you wonder about the world.

Forgiveness (written April 24th, 2013)

I’ve been very caught up in the idea of forgiveness lately as a result of the Boston bombing.  As everybody knows I am an atheist so when I see the many “prayers” go out to victims and their families I try to simply see it as people wishing good things for people.

What one never sees however is prayers for the person who committed the horrific act.  In many ways you can sympathize with this.  As human we feel anger, outrage, hurt.  There are many reasons not to forgive.  However, what’s interesting to me is that if you believe in the power of prayer, then the perpetrator is just as worthy of prayer as any of the victims if not more so.  The victims likely have support of friends and loved ones, whereas the perpetrator is likely quite alone.  Again, I’m not saying that perhaps we can be morally okay with feeling that way, I’m simply saying that, especially as Christians, if you believe in prayer, you believe in miracles, and you believe in redemption then there is no one who needs redemption more than the person guilty of great crimes against his or her fellow man.  If what MLK said is true, that only light can drive out the darkness, then there is nobody with more darkness in their soul than someone who could try to murder a large group of people.  Does not the divine light drive out darkness even better?

It brings up the more important question.  Can any of us be saved?  Many Christians talking about how they felt saved by giving their heart to Jesus, but can we ever truly believe in someone like the Boston Marathon bomber’s true repentance or any other person who commits a horrible crime for that matter?  Most people call for the person’s death, the hate is strong as you watch comments on social media.  Is there a certain level of violence that we can tolerate and still believe that person can be redeemed and do good in this world?  Is it the nature of a crime?  What I thought was interesting was thinking about the question, “Well what if it was someone who was dealing drugs?”  I have in fact heard testimony (in the Christian sense) from drug dealers who turned their life around by becoming Christian.  Everybody feels inspired.  However it may be quite likely that drug dealer was responsible for many more deaths from people who overdosed on drugs he or she sold.  How inspired would anybody be by the Boston bomber if he said he found Jesus, cried, and got down on his knees and prayed?  Even if he was completely repentanthow many people would buy it?  Christian or non-Christian?

I was watching the news yesterday and they addressed this topic to a certain degree and had two pastors on the news (as if pastors know the most about forgiveness) and asked them what do you do to comfort people in these times?  How do you get them not to abandon God when these things happen?  Not surprisingly they said well you have to make peace of the situation by becoming closer to God because that is where your loved ones who were killed are now.  With God.  (Of course they could be in hell but ignore that).  But he also said that forgiveness was important.  When the news anchor asked “How do you forgive in a situation like this, because I struggle with this”?  Both pastors responded that by forgiving you let go of the anger, and that you should forgive for your own benefit not for anybody else.

This struck me as odd.  In the Christian doctrine forgiveness is big.  Forgiveness represents compassion as well, which is also big.  If they are going to argue that getting closer to God is the answer in these times because your deceased loved ones are with God, then shouldn’t another way of getting closer to God be by being merciful and forgiving as God (or Jesus does…well they are one in the same…I think).  But more than that forgiveness is not supposed to be just for you.  When you say “I forgive you”…YOU are forgiving someone else.  Thus the act of forgiving must truly benefit both.  Someone has caused you harm and you let go of your anger and they have the benefit of your compassion.  And it’s possible by your compassion they are shown the true beauty of humanity (and if you’re religious… God’s grace) and will mend their ways.  That is the hope, and a hope that does happen even if it is rare.

If you want to know what this atheist believes, then it is that we can change, we can learn and grow.  It may take a long time, but you are more likely to make the world a more peaceful place with forgiveness and compassion to all creatures that walk upon it than you are through violence and hate.  As I’ve stated before, this is the only existence we can be sure of, and to erase somebody from existence is a very serious measure, especially when it is our hate and anger that has ruled our hearts.

To quote a Genesis song we “kill what we fear, and we fear what we don’t understand”.  This is human nature perhaps.  When these things happen it is so hard to understand, we feel fearful, and so killing is what many people feel is the best way to deal with it.  I think there are other solutions however than killing, even when people would try to kill us.  Finding compassion in the darkest of moments is one of the hardest things in life, but I think it is a worthy goal.

Peace all.

Evangelicals gay bashing on campus (written April 22, 2013)

So these two brothers who apparently go around to various campuses to tell gay people they are going to hell were back today.  The crowd was much smaller this time, for obvious reasons as few people would have any reason to pay attention to what they are saying.  So I decided to engage one of the brothers for awhile.  He is loud and doesn’t let you interrupt him.  But as I was discussing with a good friend recently I think it’s important to engage people with different points of view to try and understand why they believe what they do.

The first observation I made was that he knew very little bit about science, scientific knowledge, or how the scientific method works. He was using some fairly old arguments to support his claims against evolution.  One is questioning carbon dating, when carbon dating is only useful for dating things on the order of 10’s of thousands of year.  Also he claimed the missing link was never found.  Which is actually untrue as well.

Oddly enough we did find common ground in regards to us believing there are absolute truths.  Of course he felt that he is found that in the bible, I say that humans strive towards it, but we never really know whether we have reached it. We entered into this conversation however on the grounds of the topic of logic.  Both us also believe that logic holds certain truths that cannot be broken, however I argue that our understanding and ability to apply logic correctly may be flawed so we can’t know for sure whether a logical contradiction itself has occurred.  Our understanding of what is logical also evolves.  He claimed that logic has a standard and therefore must have a standard giver.  I asked him how he reached that conclusion.  Why does a standard have to have a standard giver?  He has no answer other than belief.  He says logic cannot be changed by man.  I said there are many things that can’t be changed by man, or can’t be changed yet, so why does that imply God’s existence?  Again no answer other than a response that is full of beliefs.

I think the most interesting part of the exchanged happened when one of my Christian students came in to defend me and accused him of judging me and that I’m as God made me and that it’s not up to him to decide. The student said “I pray to God, I do not pray to you”.  I thought it was a wonderful argument myself but his response was more telling “I think it’s perfectly okay to judge.  Who said it’s wrong to judge?  I judge what shows are good or not good for my children to watch.”  I thought this was extremely telling.  He believes that he understands God, so much so that he has the right to judge others on his behalf.  His comparing us to his children, to me, indicates that he thinks he is much wiser than any of us.  Even when other students who claim to be Christians and believe in God.  What happened to being humble before God?

So on the drive back home I was thinking of all the things I should have said, but ultimately I knew I wasn’t going to change his mind.  I simply want to understand how people can believe in anything so fervently knowing how unlikely they would be believing that if they happened to be born in a different country, and in a different community.

He gave met he standard “If I’m wrong then nothing will happen, I’ll just die.  But if you’re wrong you’ll spend eternity in ever-burning flame”.

So I responded “That’s true.  But if you’re wrong and I’m right than you’ve made a lot of people in this world feel bad about themselves and caused them fear about something that’s not even real.  You’ve made this world a worse place in the only existence that we can really know about.”

He responded “So what’s worse, offending a few people, or the fires of hell”.  I agreed that if hell were somehow provable as being real then hell would be worse and that I understand wanting to save people from that eventuality but that he was using a tactless way of convincing people to his point of view.

And here’s the one thing I regret not saying to him, “The problem is, maybe it’s not you, but people like you not only offend people when you speak your hateful words.  In many cases you make homosexual people feel so bad about themselves that they take their own life.  Or you inspire so much hate in others that they attack people who are different than they are with violence.  So if I’m right than you’ve more than just offended people, you’ve helped end the only existence they had; their only chance to experience joy and happiness.”

I would say in terms of crimes his becomes way worse. Because there are other ways I can come to know God if there is one than being told I’m an abomination, but there is no coming back if this is our only existence.

Enlightenment, inequality and bias (written on Feb. 19th, 2013)

I think one of the most important traits we can have is humility.  It is a good thing to be humble.  It’s sometimes easy to forget as I grow older, smarter, and hopefully wiser.   Things that seem to help me remain humble are to keep learning and to not be afraid to step outside my comfort zone.

A number of years ago I went to hear a talk by the Guerilla Girls (http://www.guerrillagirls.com/).  They talk about the gender inequality in art and film.  I remember being a little dubious about this before the talk.  Because through school and growing up it was always the girls who were more encouraged to creative things like art and drama.  Being into those things as a boy often meant a lot of typical jeers from other males about the fact that you might be too effeminate.  Sure enough though there is not only gender inequality, but massive gender inequality in art and film.  It took only a mention about Kathryn Bigelow being the first female director to win best director, and all of a sudden all these things that I thought I knew suddenly appeared in a different light.  I couldn’t recall any females getting up on stage to collect director, writer, screenplay type awards.  I already knew that female actresses often didn’t get to play very strong or dynamic roles, but now all of sudden the reason why was perhaps clear.  Few of those roles were written by women, and women are extremely scarce in most creative aspects of popular films.  Art museums turn out to be much the same way in the percentage of female artists that they display.

On Valentine’s day my wife and I went to the Darwin Day talk at Duquesne university.  The speaker was Marlene Zuk who is a biologist (I believe entomology is her specialty) and feminist.  Her talk was illuminating in much the same way as the Guerilla Girls.  The talk was about the bias that exists in biology that is male and human oriented.  Males are considered the norm when studying animals.  This is revealed in how biological research has historically been done (for instance the fact that male lab animals are chosen preferentially over female ones for experiments), it is revealed in illustrations and photos of animals (the male is most commonly depicted, and even in pop culture.  For instance think of how many animal movies you can think of (animated ones too) where a female is the main character and protagonist.  Dr. Zuk was particularly annoyed by the animated movies featuring insect leads, because the males actually don’t do any work at all in bee and ant species and yet they are being featured in popular animated movies.  She brought out examples of what people would draw if they were asked to draw a scientist (always male), she showed us examples of studies where people were asked to describe a healthy human, a healthy male, and a healthy female.  The description of a healthy human always was close to the description of a healthy male.  A healthy female description seems to not match a healthy human at all.  I sat there and once again realized that all these things in my brain were still there but had a new light cast upon them.  And I wondered how much my thinking had been modified by these biases without my knowledge.  It’s not one of those things I think you can know in an instant, but at least now I can pause a little bit and think more when a situation comes up that might be impacted by this societal bias.  Just as I did after seeing the Guerrilla Girls talk.  A couple months after their talk I went to the Alberta art gallery in Edmonton on a trip back home, and in fact counted the number of female vs. male artists and made a comment to an employee there afterwards (it was at about 15% female, 85% male).

The movement towards gender equality is working.  Things are changing.  Some places more slowly than others, but it is a wonderful thing.  I think in our society we have made enough progress that we are starting to notice the more subtle and deeper seeds of gender discrimination.  And I think we should take some pride in this.  I think when inequality is so surface based, it’s the thing that is easily noticed and the most immediate thing that action should be taken on before we can even find other seeds of inequality.  Talks like the ones I describe above are good reminders of how far we still have to go.  And the more subtle things run deep in society and are in some ways more dangerous because we don’t notice them as easily, they seem more ingrained, and perhaps are even harder to change.  These ingrained biases affect both men and women alike.

Although this is a little off topic of gender equality I wanted to write about the other interesting part of Marlene Zuk’s talk, which was the bias towards human supremacy in biology.  Dr. Zuk is a big proponent of detaching ourselves from human conceit when we study other species.  We often rate other animals on their similarity to us; giving more sympathy to life that shares more of our genetics, physiology, and behavior.  We have built evolutionary ladders from the time of Aristotle that place man at the top and everything else below.  As I was listening to her I was reminded of a statement from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel where he was talking about microbes and said “The microbe has just as much right to life as we do.”  It was a humbling statement to read and Dr. Zuk’s talk was an important reminder that not only was evolution not trying to produce us, but that all life survives in its own way, in its own environment and that there are many things that animals can do that we can’t.  Of what value is all our intelligence if we do things like destroy the planet, rape, murder, sexually abuse children?  It may be natural that life consumes life to survive, but all life should be respected.  After the talk, one woman asked her if she felt that we should be doing more to protect more intelligent animals and I really liked Dr. Zuk’s response: “Evidence of suffering is part of our bias to favor animals more like us.”  She gave the example that new evidence shows lobsters may also experience pain.  Why should they be any more or less favored over chimpanzees (the woman who asked the question used a chimpanzee as an example of cruelty to animals)?  The woman seemed quite upset that anybody would consider a lobster equal to a chimpanzee.  I completely understand why we would have more sympathy to animals more similar to us.  Our natural empathy to others suffering is clear.  But when you turn off your empathy chip for a moment and look at life, it’s all marvelous and it all has value.

The lesson here to me is that, no matter how enlightened you think you are, there is always some more enlightening still left to go!  Keep learning everyone.

Religion and Models

I was thinking today about models.  No, not supermodels, as a nerd I was thinking about computer models.  Computer models such as those that try to forecast the weather or forecast climate change take our understanding of how the world works and try to look at what is happening now and test that understanding by trying to predict what will happen later.  Then I thought about religion and how it is also a model.  I truly think that religions, at least at their inception, have the same intent as the models we use in science.  That is to look at what is happening now, to try and understand the world, and come up with an algorithm for how to live better lives.  To take way the unpredictability of life, which often causes great stress and fear, and replace it with a set of principles which, if followed, can help one feel more peaceful about the future.  That feeling alone can give great comfort and lead to even great success.

What is also similar is the fact that there are often numerous models that try to do the same thing.  If we look at general circulation models that try to forecast climate change we can see that there are several in use today.  They have many similarities as there is much we universally understand about the climate, but then there are different assumptions that different groups of scientists might make that lead to differences in the outcome of the model.  This is not too different from religion since religions all have many similarities, yet enough differences that each one does not necessarily produce the same results.  The main difference here is that in science when we look at the results and they do not seem to do a good job of representing a true understanding of the world we make adjustments.  We reevaluate our understanding and we make changes.  With religion however changes are general not made.  Instead brand new religions crop up, or denominations split off from one religion to produce a similar religion but with slight changes.  This may not be completely unlike computer models either to represent natural processes either, however if a model was made to the point where it was completely accurate, everyone would use it.  And overtime computer models do get more and more accurate as understanding increases and constant testing allows us to make appropriate adjustments.  Another important difference is that a computer model can only be a useful tool if it produces meaningful results.  Religious models can be used as a tool regardless of whether they are good or bad models, sometimes to terrifying consequences.

As I child I had a Christian mother, and a non-practicing Sikh father.  But much of his family and friends practiced, and what was clear to me is that there were good people on both sides, who grew up with completely different faiths.  Either both sides were right, or both sides were wrong; meaning that either two different stories were true, or that neither story was the whole story.  It seems to me that the latter must be the case.  If we look at religion as a model and test its validity based on its intent, which is often to rise up against repression and gain freedom in the way of life you choose, to give purpose, to give peacefulness, to act generously and compassionately to those around you, religion might do pretty well.  We all know religious people that are good people and if you pay attention you will see good people of many faiths.  Faith has been proven scientifically to be a good thing and we should all recognize the benefit for it in our life. It seems to me that if God is an explanation to the universe at all and it is the correct model for our existence and purpose then the model should converge.  However after 10,000 years of civilization convergence does not seem any closer.  Perhaps there are fewer religions in some way, but human history shows that religions have been more often forced on to others as nations have been conquered rather than people flocking to it because it looks like a better way to live and that it looks like a better explanation for our existence.  And in some ways even if there are fewer religions they are replaced by denominations and different groups of people pick and choose parts of the larger dogma that make more sense for their particular circumstance in their part of the world.  And we must also recognize that there are plenty of secular humanists, atheists, agnostics who are also good people, who don’t prescribe to any religion and yet manage to have compassion, kindness, and generosity, thus demonstrating that peacefulness and happiness are not contingent on using a religious model.

It is proven, time and time again, that cooperation is what makes us better and more successful.  Therefore, we should be focusing on things that unify us as people and as a species.  Let’s not cling to what makes us different, but concentrate on what things make us similar.  Maybe we fear the loss of our individuality, but I submit that it will always be there.  Because successful cooperation might require some redundancy but it also works best when it is made up of a mosaic of people with different strengths and ways of thinking.   We can thus appreciate the differences that make us individuals, but take comfort and be peaceful in the things that bind us together.  I don’t believe this thought to be utopian in any way.  I don’t know what the future will look like or should look like.  I am no model.  I only recommend a direction or path; something new to try.  Who knows where It will lead, but it’s a pretty good direction to head in don’t you think?

My thoughts on guns (written July 20th, 2012)

So, the shooting in Colorado makes me angry and sad, as I am sure it does a lot of people.   It leaves us with many questions.  I think more so because we are in general a fairly orderly society and peaceful despite differences in ideologies, few of us would ever do something so heinous.  If this was South America where gun deaths happen so often we might still be angry and sad, but it still wouldn’t be too surprising.  I think after the many shootings that have taken place though now, even I have become less shocked by this.  As I read comments on articles, it also makes me angry because the argument erupts in to gun control.  I don’t know if this is the right answer, but what I do know is that faulty logic largely drives the debate; on both sides.  So I thought I would deal with some of the common errors in logic.

1.       Banning guns would end these types of incidences.

This of course is not true completely.  Guns can be obtained illegally.  Crazy people still exist, and often clever ones who can find different ways of ending a lot of lives if they so choose.  There is no denying this.  The correct solution to understanding these issues is not the knee jerk reaction but to understand why people like this exist.  What can be done to help them?  What are the warning signs?  Do they exist in other societies?  And in those societies does access to weapons of deadly force make them more likely to cause harm?  To my knowledge when these incidences have happened in the U.S. the media never really brings up these questions.  It always goes to gun control.  I can understand the knee jerk reaction though.  We all do it.  Let’s say you’re a parent and you can now start feeding your kid the food you eat and not just mashed up peas and carrots all the time.  So let’s say you give your child a soft taco with chicken, cheese, lettuce, onions, and tomato.  The kid likes it, but feels sick right after eating it.  The immediate reaction is to have your kid not eat anymore.  But this doesn’t mean he can never have a soft taco.  You’d start to say…hmm…do I feel sick…since you have a higher mass it might take longer for you to feel the effects and maybe the chicken was bad, not cooked enough.  Then you might take him/her to the doctor later to see whether they might be allergic to one of the ingredients because there were 5 foods in the taco that they had never had before.  So once again it comes to asking the right questions in the end, but knee-jerk reactions are natural.

2.        Banning guns is unconstitutional  because of the Second Amendment.

This line of reasoning is faulty on many levels.  For one, unless someone can provide me with more definitive resources there is debate as to the intention of the second amendment and this debate has yet to be resolved.  Pro-gun people will say it was so that we could defend ourselves against a tyrannical government and anti-gun say it was for development of militia.  If one imagines what life was like in the early days of the U.S. it makes sense that guns would be made a right, because population densities were very small, and law enforcement would have been extremely difficult.  And it clearly was on the American frontier.  Yet it is also quite handy when you have a tyrannical government, which I don’t think we’ve had in over 200 years as a nation.

What is often left out of this argument as well is that the 2nd Amendment says “Well regulated militia…”, because are a bunch of homeowners in the suburbs with guns a well regulated militia?

The flawed logic though is holding to a 200 year old amendment like it was flawless.  Just like the bible which has things that pertain to the time it was written, so does the constitution.  Did the forefathers really think the constitution was perfect and timeless?  Undoubtedly no.  That’s what an amendment is.  The way society and technology has changed since then is immense.  It makes no sense why we should be held to a document that old.  We should in fact constantly be modifying it to help solve problems faced by our society.  When it was written the population was less than 1/100th of what it is today and the most dangerous weapon you could have was a musket, that took a few minutes to load, you got one shot, and it wasn’t overly accurate.  Would the founding fathers have made the second amendment if there were laser guided sights and semi-automatic weapons?  I don’t know, but I ask this question merely to point out that the logic one uses may depend on the times for which the decision was made.  Too many people in this country tend to hold to the constitution like it’s a bible and should be unchanging.  As a person who has become active in my faculty union on campus I see both the benefits and negatives of being bound to a document which is nearly as hard to change as the constitution.  It can be very binding in a way that doesn’t help solve problems that are different or new from when the contract was written.

The other faulty line of reasoning here is that the founding fathers were geniuses or something.  They were human, they made mistakes, and maybe some of them were brighter than others, but they fought, and came to compromises.  Now when a compromise is made it could be that both sides of an issue have merit, it could be that the other person was just plain wrong, but compromise was needed in order to just finish the thing and get an overall product that everyone would agree with.  The value we should take from the constitution is not so much its substance (although there is still a lot of great stuff in it) but the work ethic that was involved in putting it together; cooperation, idea exchange, and coming together to solve problems of the day.

3.       Gun deaths are higher in countries where guns are banned.

Nobody ever quotes some actual figures.  A very worthwhile site to go which has data collected by an international collaborative group, but based out of Australia is http://www.gunpolicy.org/

When you look at countries that have a lot of deaths by firearms and have restrictive policies, these are always third world countries with poor economies.  There is a huge educational gap, and a huge income gap.  United States has the highest murder rate and firearm death rate of any industrialized nation with a similar standard of living.  As a comparison between the UK and the US, there are about 4-5 times more homicides per capita in the U.S. than in the UK, and firearm homicides are 100 times more likely.  Now anti-gun people might excited by this statistic, but if firearms were the only thing to blame, we would expect the homicide rate per capita to also be about 100 times greater, but it’s only 4-5 times more likely.  So we cannot say that banning guns would make the homicide rate go down significantly in the U.S. Nevertheless if restricting firearms even reduce homicides by as little as 10% which is supported by figures from other countries similar in standard of living to the U.S., isn’t 10% a good thing?

4.        Banning guns only makes people look for them illegally because that’s what happens with drugs.

Comparing drugs and guns is difficult.  On one hand I do think that if guns are legal, all drugs should be too.    If it really does all come down to personal choice, then the same argument can be made for drugs.  Some drugs however are habit-forming.  Guns are not (well of course anything can be habit forming to a certain extent, but I’m talking about a physiological addiction).  However making drugs legal would save a ton of money that could be put into education.  The need for meth labs would probably disappear, because you could just buy a hit of something at the grocery store.  You’d probably have cleaner drugs that don’t poison your body quite as much also.  What the UK v. US comparison does show is that high gun restriction does not lead to a high amount of unregistered firearms.  There are only 6.7 per 100 people with guns in the UK, with 100 times less firearm homicides.  While there are still a high amount of homicides in the UK, it is clear that those wanting to murder aren’t going, “Bah I can’t get a gun legally, I’m going to get one illegally!”.  Comparing guns with drugs, or say that illegally obtained guns will rise in equal compensation in simply untrue.

5.       Studies show that homicides through other means increase when you ban guns, so nothing changes.

This is true, but only in part.  Of course if you take away a gun, and you really want to murder someone you can find a way.  So knife deaths increase, piano wire, the list goes on.  But there is a big difference killing someone with a gun as opposed to other methods.  You cannot just throw a knife into a crowd and expect to kill anyone.  It is also a lot easier to avoid being killed by a knife wound.  In general the person has to get close, it takes longer, and it’s brutal.  You have to listen to the person suffer, the blood will certainly spill on to your hands, perhaps more depending on whether you cut an artery.  If it wasn’t a fatal wound you may have to grapple with the victim.  Thus the size and strength of the victim compared to you is important.  With a gun you can stand at distance.  You can be behind them.  Size isn’t as important.  The psychology of the two acts is different.  It’s hard to rob a bank with a knife.

6.       Guns are necessary to protect us from people who come in to our homes/person with the intent to cause harm.

How often does this actually happen?  According to www.fbi.gov the number of violent crimes (murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) in the U.S. for 2010 totaled 1.2 million.  If we assume that all these crimes were committed by a different person (which is likely not true) but it’s a reasonable assumption to make, given that we must take into account violent crime that may not have been reported, that means about 0.35% of the population of the U.S. are those who would commit violent crimes.  Not a high percentage, but let’s say any percentage is too high.  And remember that compared to other countries with a similar economy and standard of living the U.S. is the highest, then the 88.7 guns owned/100 people don’t seem to be making much of a difference.  The high number of firearms is not a deterrent at all to violent crime, and yet we are told that we are safer with one.  And of course the percentage is not uniform across the states…it is highly regional, so the idea that we are always in danger if someone assaulting us, robbing us, raping us, etc with the threat of force is pure fear mongering when you look at it statistically.

7.        Guns are necessary to protect us against our government.

This is the worst bit of fear mongering.  Once again we look at www.gunpolicy.org and see that there are many countries (again comparing only to ones with strong economies and a comparable standard of living and education) that have restrictive gun laws and the government has yet to start massacring their people.  The UK government hasn’t.  In 2001 Belarus passed legislation to increase restrictions on firearms.  Guns there are only for military or law enforcement.  Citizens cannot own handguns or revolvers, and to get a gun you need to show you need it for hunting.  Homicides went down by 50% since 2000 and firearm homicides by 80%.   The Belarus government has yet to show any signs of enslaving its people.  Yes this is not a comprehensive list of examples and my point here is that there are plenty of counter examples to the claims pro-gun people say, and so their logic does not even follow in general and then few rarely do their own research in order to come to any conclusions.   Think what you will of Michael Moore, but his thesis in Bowling for Columbine that we live in a “culture of fear” seems to be spot on.

8.   Automobiles cause more deaths every year so we should make automobiles illegal too.

There are many other anologies of this sort including the use of spoons, because people get fat and die of heart attacks, soda, etc.  For better or for worse it took me awhile to spot the flaw in this type of analogy even though I know it was a false analogy.  The reason has to do with the intention of the object.  Automobiles and spoons were not created as objects to commit crime, acts of violence, or to kill.  An extreme analogy might be to say that life is the chief cause of death, so we should not make babies.  The gun was invented to kill.  To kill from a distance, to kill quickly.  It struck me as ironic that pro gun arguments would use this logic and ignore intention.  Since much of their arguments involve the intention of the writer’s of the 2nd Amendment.  Showing that intention is pretty important to them.  Laws have intentions, as do objects.  Why create an object if it has no use?  Automobiles, spoons, guns all have uses and their inventor had an intention for those objects.  Only one out of 3 of those has the intention of deadly force.

9. Criminals don’t obey laws so what’s the point in making a gun law.  If criminals always break laws, then what is the point of having laws?  Nobody who is pro-gun has been able to answer this for me yet. If we always adopted the attitude that laws do not deter criminal behaviour, then all laws have no value.

Well if you’ve read this far, perhaps you are willing to read a bit further.  Yes, I’m a liberal atheist and I know facebook friends who are going to argue with me, but I know many who own guns and am not scared for my life at all.  But because I refuse to give in to fear is also the reason I don’t own a gun.  I am much more interested in the psychology.  I also know myself and I know that shooting a man dead who just wanted to steal my computer so he could afford his next cocaine fix is not something I could easily live with if I did that.  I try to be a good man, and yes even good men die too, but I don’t feel like a gun significantly helps increase my chances of protecting myself against the low probability of being effected by a violent crime.  And yes I do lean towards stronger legislation.  I don’t think anybody who passes a background check should be able to get an AK-47.  Stronger restrictions to firearms might not prevent all of these senseless deaths, but if it stops even one crazy person gunning down 12 people a year.  I feel it’s worth it.  But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying to stop them all together, and that is going to take investigation and understanding beyond banning guns.  They are in our world and they are not leaving, so we do have to understand ourselves better so that we don’t need to use them.  Firearm homicides in general are decreasing in the U.S. and in general the world is less violent than it has been in the past.  May we continue on this trend.  Peace out all.

Check your morality (written March 25th, 2013)

I went to sleep last night somewhat disturbed by a now former Facebook friend’s comments on story he posted.  And I should point out that to use the word friend here somewhat cheapens the word as this was simply a former student who friend requested me on Facebook.  And while there are many students current and former I consider friends, I truly hope I never cross paths with this person again.

The story was a fake actually, but this did not seem to deter him.  I suppose it was a pro-gun story, and while I am sure many of you know my views regarding this issue, and I have had many fruitful debates with friends about the issue, because there are meaningful arguments to be made on both sides, this was not a debate.  This was not even really about gun control actually, but I was exposed to a disturbing sense of morality.  The most unfortunate part is that this persons shadow is cast by many others in this country as well.  Often when one is disturbed by something deeply, it can take some time to put it into words, but I wanted to do so before I forget.  The story itself was about a woman who upon having her purse stolen shot the thief 6 times while trying to make his getaway.  The woman was arrested, and then acquitted.  In the story she asked on the stand why she shot 6 times, and her answer was that after 6 times, the gun would only click.  As I said the story is a fake.  This person posted the story with the word “ ‘Murica!” posted along with it.  Not telling for sure whether he was being perhaps sarcastic I simply posted the Snopes link.  There was no response to that.  Another of his Facebook friends posted that “this was nothing to celebrate”, indicating that she believe he was being serious and thought that this was a good thing.  He responded by saying that if he could “he’d give that chick a merit badge”.  So I responded with the obvious, well the story is a fake and besides no one deserves to die just for taking a purse.  His arguments devolved from there, also in conjunction with his other friend’s comments.  This other friend by the way is pro-gun as well, but also a morally reasonable human being.  Basically he believes that guns are a form of empowerment and that anybody who tries to take a material possession from another, that person has the right to gun them down.  I have seen comments from others in the gun debate that reveals that this attitude is not unique.

The initially disturbing part was how much this person celebrated that the person was shot 6 times, and that the person would have been shot more had there been more bullets in the gun.  If it was somehow morally okay to do such a thing, the fact that anybody would then have so much hate and anger to shoot 6 times or more for such an offense makes that person a much greater danger to society than a purse thief.  That being said of course I find it morally reprehensible to shoot anyone for theft of material items.

And even though it’s a fake story, both the person who posted and many others in this country, and perhaps this world, think that this is okay.  It left me wondering where the compassion and empathy has gone.  Where is forgiveness and understanding?  There are many possible back stories to a purse snatcher.  Perhaps hungry, perhaps has an addiction.  And we don’t even know what circumstances led to his behavior.  Child abuse, poverty, drug addicted parents, etc.  The idea that all of us as individuals can play jury, judge, and executioner for any crime no matter how minor simply because a personal possession has been taken is appalling.  It’s worse than supporting even the death penalty.  At least that person gets a trial.  Whether society is safer with guns or not is a different debate than the attitude displayed here.  Without empathy and compassion society is definitely not safer despite the assertions made by the person who posted this story.   I was finally able to reason why as I thought about a video I watched on the Qualiasoup YouTube channel that talks about how we develop morality in a society.  They talk about the fact that in a society the punishment for crimes must be tiered.  He uses the example of rape and admits while this is a horrendous crime if the punishment for rape was death, then the rapist loses nothing by killing his victim if the punishment is going to be the same (although sadly in our society rape is hardly punished at all).  Anyway, so even if it isn’t officially a law, that those who commit theft are put to death, in a society where this is seen as a morally justified is problematic.  To simply kill because of burglary, this would actually act to promote violence.  If you are likely to be killed by someone you assail, you are better off committing a greater act of violence against them in order to get what you need.  You might kill them or at least follow them until they are in a more secluded area and rob them with a gun.  You might make a wrong move and get shot, you might try to reach for your gun now and get shot, or shoot them.  In this society people die for invalid reasons.  In a society where gunning down someone for a petty crime is not seen as morally justified.  No one dies.  There is the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption.  Who knows the purse snatcher may later feel guilty about what he has done and return the purse.  I find this to be a better and more moral society.

If you find yourself agreeing with the person who posted this story than I implore you to please remove me from your Facebook friend list.  I have ZERO place for you in my life.  I would sit down with the purse snatcher any day over you.  It chills my heart to even know you exist.  Where does such hate come from?  Perhaps I’ll never know.