Eyes In The Darkness

A picture of darkness. Who knows what might be in there!!?

My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself.  Even in the day time.  He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc.  He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real.  But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so?  My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him.  He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room.  So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced.  Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters.  There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation.  It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it.  And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further.  This will take time.

As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying.  But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child.  One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon.  Apparently this happened around the age of two.  I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it.  I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed.  Then everything was fine.  Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon.  It

daffy
The menacing Daffy Duck,

was clearly an irrational fear.  When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck.  It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white.  That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out.  In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that.  Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark.  I don’t know.  Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.

All this made me think about fear.  My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water.  We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.”  I think this is a pretty good analogy.  But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears.  The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution.  We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world.  And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers?  So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.

It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears.  And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat.  Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things.  One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce.  As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young.  So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility.  It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear.  And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.

fear_seneca

But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear?  The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to.  Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came.  Things like small pox and influenza.  Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity.  Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu.  Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people.  This would be a reasonable thing to fear.  But T-cell backgroundwhat could one do about it?  The microscope was not invented until 1590.  It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do.  The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems.  When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears.  Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling.  Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems.  I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears.  So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.”  The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear.  To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives.  Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.

1_juqNfuDLxCX-Q6plx7OKbw
Note the “Think! Try Again”

One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative.  Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology.  Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion.  We see the narrative science builds change;  openly and unabashedly.  Yet books remain unchanged.  Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever.  Such is the nature of institutions.

Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well.  Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today.  I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.”  This is also what angers me about fear mongering.  It really might be the worst human behavior.

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Weather Forecasting: What It’s All About

As a meteorologist, it is difficult for me to turn that part of myself off wherever I go.  When people try to make small talk about the weather with me, they usually regret it, because to me weather isn’t just to pass the time, but it’s interesting.  However, for most people it is small talk.  Invariably whenever I go out in public I overhear conversations about the weather, whether in restaurants, museums, the locker room at the gym, etc.  There is a common theme I hear which is that forecasters don’t know what’s going on.  I hear and read things like prediction is not even possible.  I have had people come up to me and jokingly say, “Meteorology must be a great profession because you can be wrong 50% of the time and still have a job.”  Though they clearly are telling one of those jokes that they actually believe to be true, the chuckle I give in return is not nearly as sincere.  To explain would require more time than I often have, so I thought maybe I should write a post explaining some of the basics, and explain some of the most common things people misunderstand about the weather.

Why Forecast?

There is a lot to the history of forecasting, but I think it’s fairly clear why people want to have some knowledge about what sort of weather was coming their way.  Whether you wanted to know when to plant crops, went to harvest, or where and when to sail your ship, having knowledge of the atmosphere, knowing what weather is coming your way has huge advantages.  The beginnings of forecasting as a science were driven by WWI when aviation was added to warfare and they quickly realized that having weather observations and an ability to know what weather was coming was a huge tactical advantage.  The weather forecast is something almost everyone utilizes today, whether you think it means something or not, people will still look to try to make the best guess about what to wear, whether to bring an umbrella, or whether travel or not will be hazardous.

How Accurate are Forecasts and Why Do People Think They Are Not Accurate?

First things first.  Currently the National Whether Service is accurate for 1 and 2 day  temperature forecasts to within 2.5 – 4 F, and has an 82% accuracy rate when it comes to precipitation.  I am not going to spend a lot of time proving accuracy here, you can check out these links as they have already done the work.

What I will say is that it is important to understand how our cognitive biases shape our perception.  The one at work here is that what sticks in memory are the misses, and not the hits.  When the forecast is right, you don’t think about the forecast.  When it’s wrong you do.  This creates a data point in your brain only when there is a missed forecast, but it’s poor way to draw meaningful statistical conclusions.  I think it’s also important to note that I see a lot of click bait type headlines for upcoming weather and this may be what’s drawing our attention.  Extreme gets clicks, but may not be what’s being endorsed by the National Weather Service.  It’s also not clear whether people are staying current with the latest forecast.

Finally I think it’s important to remember that in extreme weather situations forecasters will err on the side of caution.  It is a difficult line to walk.  When extreme predictions don’t happen, the public loses trust in your forecast, and this can cost you lives in the future.  If on the other hand you don’t communicate the possibility of an extreme situation, that can also lose you lives.  So in erring on the side of caution, more often than not people will find that it might not have been quite as bad as predicted.  Erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do, because there is an inherent error to the forecast.  Sometimes in the margin of error, the extreme end of that error can be the difference between life and death.

Hard Rain

Precipitation is the hardest variable to forecast for and some of the reasons for that are given in the next section, but a few points are worth talking about here.  First, many people don’t understand the precipitation forecast.  This has been a criticism of the National Weather Service to change their way of forecasting precipitation, but for now, there seems to be no better way of doing it.  When the probability of precipitation (PoP) is reported, it is reported as a percent.  But what does that percent mean?  This probability is actually the product of two other numbers.  One is the actually chance of precipitation but the other is the percentage of the forecast area that will be impacted by precipitation.  Each National Weather Service office has a specific region in which they are suppose to forecast for and they usually break those down into smaller regions for the purpose of precipitation forecast, but the fact remains that incorporated into that PoP is areal coverage.  So 50% chance of precipitation is not the coin toss that some make it out to be, but it could mean that there is a 100% chance of rain over half the forecast area.  Of course it could also mean that there is a 50% chance over all the forecast area.  But it’s also important to remember that even in the latter case it’s not a coin toss, but rather based on evidence that pegs precipitation as more likely. The difference between rain and no rain can often be very small and requires knowledge of atmospheric properties at high resolution.  A far higher resolution than we have.

Snow forecasts are often worse, and this is largely due to two factors.  One, is that it depends on temperature whether you get rain or snow.  It takes a very slight error in the forecasted temperature for rain to suddenly become snow or vice-versa.  So being 2 F off in our forecasted temperature may make no difference in what you wear for the day, but it can have huge impacts on what driving conditions are like.  The second important factor here is that water expands when it freezes such that the ratio of snow to liquid precipitation is 10:1.  Forecast models only determine the precipitable water for a particular area.  If that prediction is off by 0.2 inches this could be the difference between 1 and 3 inches of snow, which is a rather big deal when it comes to driving.  But it’s not always a matter of the forecast model being wrong in terms of precipitable water.  Across any storm system there is going to be variation in the amount of precipitable water and thus getting the storm track exactly right also matters.  Mix this in with a possible slight error in forecast temperature can lead to a vast difference the amount of snow accumulation for a particular location.  On top of that the 10:1 ratio is more like 7:1 if the snow is really wet, so this adds error into the forecast as well.

Weather is a matter of Scale

Image result for synoptic scale mesoscaleA lot get’s said about the difference between weather and climate, but very little is said about differences among various types of weather systems.  Typically, the average meteorologist separates scale into 3 categories.  Turbulent eddies near the surface to convection currents in clouds make up the microscale (< a few km) A thunderstorm or a system of thunderstorms or series of cloud bands for lake effect snow would be part of the mesoscale (about 10-100 km, several hours), and then things like low pressure systems would be on the synoptic scale (about 1000 km, several days).  Our ability to forecast events along these scales depends largely on our ability to make observations smaller than the scale we are trying to predict in both space and time.  For instance if I am at a station 100 km away from the nearest station, even if I make continuous observation a thunderstorm that happens somewhere in between will not be observed by me.  When you look at the number of tornadoes in the U.S. over a 100 year period, you will see a dramatic rise in the number from a few hundred to over a 1000.  This is no climate change phenomena, but a matter of our ability to observe tornadoes, and the advent of a national radar network that dramatically increased our ability to determine where tornado producing storms were.  Similarly if I make observations only two times a day, I’m unlikely to be able to resolve well the changes that occur between those observation times.

Computer models that forecast weather have similar problems.  Computer models operate by breaking up the atmosphere into a 3-D  grid that then processes the physical equations that describe the atmosphere at equal time intervals.  The size of these grids and the spacing of the measurement network that gives the initial data for these models to work lends itself best to the forecasting on the synoptic scale.  What this means is that we are likely to best forecast the development and movement of low pressure systems and high pressure systems, and forecast widespread rain.  The timing and movement of individual thunderstorms represent processes that occur at the sub-grid level.  In essence, noise.  Obviously a potential hail or tornado producing thunderstorm is not really noise, but this is why your forecaster is pretty good at telling you when that cold front is coming through the next day, but not so good at pinpointing where thunderstorms will be the strongest.  That type of accuracy is usually only made several hours in advance.  Although we’re pretty good at assessing a day or two in advance which day will have a high potential for thunderstorms.

Practical vs. Theoretical

When it comes to the theory about how weather works we are, in general, ahead of the game, but practical considerations take precedent.  For instance we could do an excellent job of forecasting if we had weather data every 10 km over the surface of the earth and sent up weather balloons once every hours.  The cost however of such an enterprise would be enormous.  Especially considering it’s very difficult to get this information over the ocean.  Remote sensing devices like satellite and radar are making strides in provide better spatial coverage, but even those have limitations.  We are never going to have perfect data over as wide a range and as often as we need it, and this is always going to lead to some error.  Computer power is also a practical limitation although it has accelerated greatly since the first model.  Previously, with all the theory we knew, trying to create a model that matched our data network would have taken the computer so long to produce an output that the time we were trying to forecast for would have been past.  This is no longer a terribly relevant problem, but it is if we really want to be able to break into models that compute both synoptic and mesoscale features.  It’s a bit hard to explain but you can think of a computer model as potentially like a nesting doll.  We could run a model at the smaller scale within in each grid of the synoptic scale model.  So a model within a model.  That becomes computationally laborious and can take intense amount of computer processing power.

Image result for sounding stations north america weather
It might look like a lot, but these are all the weather balloon stations in North America. Typically one or two per state and at minimum more than a 100 miles apart, and in some cases more than 500. Canada is worse. Not near enough for getting good data for thunderstorm formation.

Then we have the reality of cost-benefit analysis.  Decisions about weather research and preparedness have a lot to do with what the costs are.  This is hardly surprising.  If snow is rare in your city you might find that it’s easier for the city to just close down for a day than spend a lot of money on snow plows.  As mentioned above, to take ideal amount of measurements would be of great cost and despite the scientist’s love of data, the question must be asked do the gains in forecast accuracy outweigh the costs.  Improved technology can help reduce cost and make instruments more maintenance free, but instruments still need to be recalibrated, replaced and maintained.  These instruments are outdoors and can get pelted by hail, get dirty, or get spiderwebs or hornets nests, etc.  You will find the densest network of measurements in areas where lots of people live.  Sparsely populated areas, areas with complex terrain, will have less measurements and this means they will experience greater errors in forecasting.  In addition to the complex wind flow that occurs in mountainous areas leading to a large variability in conditions, there are far few weather observing stations.  If you live in such a region you are likely less than impressed by your local forecaster.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

The prevailing wind direction in mid-latitudes (where most of the U.S. resides) is from west to east.  Thus even being downstream of areas that have sparse observing stations also are more poorly forecasted.  The best way to know what weather you are about to get is to have good measurements upstream of your location.

Communication Breakdown

Finally, there are also communication issues.  The National Weather Service has put a lot of effort into this area, to think how to better communicate and disseminate weather information.  For instance if we have a particular graphic showing probabilities for where the eyewall for a hurricane is going to hit, is that graphic communicating what it needs to the person who needs to see it, whether that’s an emergency response worker or the average person?

Image result for hurricane eyewall probability map
                          How well do you understand what this graphic is showing you?

In this day and age of instant media and social media, it should in some ways make communication easier, but what I’ve noticed that it’s not always clear whether people are paying attention to the most current information, if they’re getting their information from a good source, and even if it seems whether or not they are aware what location a particular forecast is for and may think a forecast was bad even if it wasn’t for where they live.  As I mentioned at the beginning there is also a lot of clickbait and alarmist language being used.  Things like “bomb cyclone” and other colorful adjectives.  At the same time there has been criticism that the normal scientific tendency to temper their language in communicating important information may make people pay less attention to situations they should pay attention to.  Undoubtedly there are going to be consequences of both extremes.  Overuse of strong language, especially when conditions end up not being that extreme can numb the public to more dire warnings. Trying to find the best way to get people to understand, and pay attention is difficult, but this is a challenge the weather community takes seriously.  In the end, there probably is no perfect way to communicate, and it is up to the consumer of the information to educate themselves as well as to what this weather stuff is all about.

Hopefully this little piece helped explain a few things.  If you have any other questions, let me know.  I’ll add to this so this remains a fixed guide to helping people understanding the challenges in forecasting and why we might have misconceptions about forecasting accuracy.

 

 

Discussion: Privacy – Government vs. Social Media

I was listening to a podcast interview with Nick Bostrom who was talking about his paper The Vulnerable World Hypothesis which looks at how we might avoid certain existential risks that might collapse civilization as we discover new technologies.  It’s an interesting read, but not directly related to what I want to discuss in this post.  He talks about one of the solutions to dealing with such risks is increases surveillance of people.  I am sure that we are all uncomfortable with that, but I think he makes a pretty good argument about why it might be necessary given the possibility of inventing some technology that is easy to use by individuals and could easily lead to widespread destruction.

It was this uncomfortability that I was thinking about and I started to think about the reaction to the scandal that was exposed a number of years ago when it was found out that the NSA was collecting all this information on U.S. Citizens.  I personally didn’t get concerned myself.  I thought about the volume of data they are collecting and it seemed pretty clear to me that the man hours it would take to actually listen or read everyone’s private communications, while solving unemployment, would be an enormous task.  It seems people actually feared that an NSA agent might show up at the door and tell their wife that the husband was having an affair or something.  I don’t know.  We definitely don’t like the idea of the government having our private information, and maybe that’s for good reason.

But enter social media.  We have these platforms that we enter all sorts of personal information into.  We talk about what we like and don’t like.  We post pictures of where we are and where we’ve been.  These companies collect all this information.  We know that they have algorithms that influence what we read, who comes up on our feeds, and try to feed into our political views as opposed to presenting us with opposing arguments.  We know that these platforms have been used by hackers and others entities to directly manipulate people.  100s of millions of people all over the world hand over all this information willingly.

My question is, is our government anti-trust disproportional to our trust of corporations?  Is it even fair to compare the two, or is their an asymmetry here that I am missing?  I mean arguably NSA surveillance could be uncovering terrorist plots that prevent loss of lives, does social media have benefits that outweigh its costs?  Are we being hypocritical about the importance of privacy?  Is it a difference of consent of information vs. non-consent of information?  I mean I might argue that I am consenting by getting a Facebook account and posting things about myself, but they are certainly using my information in many ways I don’t expect or aren’t aware of.

Your thoughts?

Dear New Zealand

At the age of 26 (2000) I was fortunate enough to go to New Zealand.  It was a pit stop on my way to Antarctica where I was helping out with a research project run out of my department at the University of Wyoming to study the stratosphere through balloon launches.  The US Antarctic program launches out of Christchurch, NZ and so I got to spend a day there on the way in, and a spent a week in NZ on the way out.

People say Canadians are friendly, but I have to say this Canadian was humbled by the kindness of the Kiwis.  The closest base to the American base of McMurdo is a Kiwi base.  Every Thursday night the Kiwi base opened theirs to the Americans and it was a few mile trip to go down there to hangout with them in their adorable English style pub on the base, in which the snooker table took up most of the space.  After a couple of visits I got to know some of the Kiwis on the base.  It was a small base and it was the winter season so they were just at a bare bones crew of 17.  When they heard I knew how to make Indian food their eyes lit up as they missed good food badly and said they had all the spices and some onions that were about to turn if they didn’t get used right away and would I mind terribly if I cooked them all some curry.  It was an easy sell for me because they were wonderful people and so me and my colleagues came down on another night, and I cooked dinner and we had a wonderful time.

When I came back to New Zealand I spent a couple days in Christchurch and then went on a hike in their wonderful national park system on the north part of the South Island.  I was not an experienced backpacker and on the first day of the hike, my sleeping bag fell off my backpack without me noticing and by the time I did it was too far to go back and get it.  It was still only spring there and I made it through with just my quilted fleece during the night, but I certainly didn’t sleep well.  So you don’t have to bring a tent, they have these huts along the way of these hikes you can sleep in.  My sleeping bag was returned to the first hut.  When I made it to the hut I was planning on staying in for the night, the lady who was operating the hut said she received word by radio that my sleeping bag had been found.  I told her there was no real way for me to get it.  I was hiking through to another town and then taking a bus back to Christchurch.  I simply expected the sleeping bag as an item I wouldn’t get back.  But the lady there arranged so that the bus I took back to Christchurch would meet a bus leaving from the town close to the first hut at a shared stop by the two buses.  And sure enough it happened.  I was shocked.  The fact that they would make the effort like this to return a sleeping bag that I foolishly lost was amazing to me.

As I wandered around Christchurch one day looking for lunch I found this little restaurant.  It wasn’t really during lunchtime and the place was empty.  A little Maori woman ran the shop.  We chatted for a bit.  She thought for some reason I was a Mormon missionary.  I told her why I had come from the U.S. and I decided to order a burger from her menu.  She was so exciting to make an American an burger and she eagerly awaited my reaction when I ate it.  Other that having meat between a bun it really wasn’t like any burger I had eaten.  It was far better.  Given that she really wanted to replicate an American burger, I don’t think my compliments of it being better than an American burger really assuaged her, but I could she beamed a broad smile knowing that she brought a smile to my face.

When I left New Zealand I had to take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland.  As I walked towards my gate from the check-in counter, I was surprised to find myself suddenly at the gate without having passed through security.  This made me very nervous, and I walked up to a counter and said, “I think I might have taken a wrong turn and walked into an area that I shouldn’t because I’m at the gate and I never went through security.”  The woman just smiled in their easy, friendly manner and said “Oh, don’t worry, there’s no security for domestic flights. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Where am I?  This country is amazing.’

New Zealand is gorgeous.  Rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, lush forests, snow-capped mountains.  I remember seeing snow capped mountains right next to the ocean as a breathtaking sight, one I hope you all get a chance to see if you haven’t.  The people are incredibly warm and laid back.  They are thrill seekers.  They invented bungee jumping.  They have a ridiculous amount of sheep.  I really wanted to move there.  I still do.  It’s the only place I have visited where I just knew in an instant that I could be happy there.

Waking up this morning to the news of the atrocity there was as heartbreaking as anything I could read.  It is the kind of pain you might feel when something that you held is beautiful has been defiled by a vandal.  I sit here, not knowing if that beauty will be restored, or whether this incident will forever change that wonderful country I fell in love with.  One could argue that I wasn’t there long enough to really know that country, but I would disagree.  At least to the point, where I can say with certainty, that this incident does not define them.

Yet I find that I am not surprised.  If there is one thing this modern age has taught us is that these dark seams run through all societies.  We live in a world that has extremism.  The reason such men do these things is the same for all such extremist.  They are driven by the furthest limits of anger, fear, and despair.  The ideology they say they are fighting for is the exact same as the ideology they say they hate.  Just different costumes.  If they succeed at all, it is only because most humans are not like them, and that is important to remember.  I write this letter to you New Zealand to remind you to not let this incident shatter your national identity.  Be who you are, just do it better.  This is a time for introspection, but from the ashes of this horrible incident show the world how your kindness is the spirit that defines you.  Certainly introspection is warranted here, but remember the power of love and unity to combat hate.  For today and for the near future there are families who are grieving.  Grieve with them.  Regardless of skin color or religion, they grieve as humans.  They have lost, children, spouses, parents, friends…there is more that makes you alike than makes you different.   Let all hearts be as one New Zealand.

Discussion: How do we know worshiping the divine is moral?

A recent exchange I had on someone’s blog post about morality and what standards we use to gauge them had me thinking about a question I never really asked before in regards to theism.  In this thread the theist was arguing that God represents an objective standard to what is moral and what isn’t moral, and atheists have no objective standards for morality.  I feel theists are equally subjective and I think atheists can objectively evaluate the morality of actions through non-divine standards.  I honestly couldn’t get through to to this person to convince them, but no matter.  The question that occurred to me that I had asked before is “by what standards to we decide that we should be worshiping Gods and living according to their desires?”

I mean let’s say there is a God, by what basis do we decide that this is somebody we should worship?  If they have a bunch of rules for us to follow do we get to question whether those rules are something we should follow? If we do not it seems following those rules is not based on a decision about the rightness of the rules, but rather a default position to authority.  Are we to follow all those who are more powerful? Is it a duty to a creator to follow rules blindly?  Are we to follow those who promise consequences that make us fearful should we choose not to follow?

Despite the claim by many theists that God represents an objective standard of morality it does not seem that morality plays a role when it comes to following God.  One can’t say, “Following God is the moral thing to do,” unless we are somehow able to evaluate the rules that God wants us to follow.  In which case God is no longer the standard that we judge the morality of the rules.  Can we even say something like “God is good” ? Aren’t we using a separate standard to evaluate God’s goodness.  It seems God is only good because of his power, not his morality.  Thus whatever happens to us or anybody else is because God allows it to be so, making everything simply good.  The punishments, the rewards, the rules, everything.  I guess it’s always bothered me to give anything that much authority.  Even if I had conclusive evidence of God’s existence, I think I would still want to evaluate him.

I mean let’s say God and the Devil stand before you, incarnate in some human form.  How is one able to tell the difference between the two?  How do I measure God’s goodness?  Is it that one sends me to punishment while the other does the punishment?  Surely it’s by one having a greater power over the other.  Because it cannot be by actions of goodness, because according to at least the definition of the Christian God, anything that God does is good.  Because God is the supposed objective standard of morality and my differing is not permissible if I wish to be moral.

It seems to me that what religion then teaches us is that worship is to be given to beings who are more powerful.  If that powerful being is deemed to be the standard good then whatever that being does is by definition good and we cannot question but follow blindly.  The consequences of our actions have no bearing on the situation providing we are following the rules laid out by that being.  What then is the value of our ability to reason?  Isn’t existence then rather empty having to set aside reason to follow blindly that which is defined as the ultimate good?

It still seems to me that someone had to have a pre-defined notion of good to even decide that God met the ultimate definition.  More importantly I think it seems worth asking the question whether the worshiping the divine is even a moral action or an action meant simply to ensure obedience to entities more powerful than ourselves.

Divided We Fall

Recently I had an experience on twitter where I saw somebody posting a link for an article that criticized presidential hopeful Kamala Harris and blamed Bernie Sanders for this criticism.  The thread was full of people with nothing but vitriol for Bernie Sanders going so far to call him both a racist and a misogynist.  My wife has noticed to that criticism of certain democratic candidates erupts into divisive attacks against Bernie Sanders supporters.  When I asked for evidence of any connection to Bernie Sanders and a critique of Kamala Harris I was given none.  This twitter account had 31K followers and had a lot of posts implying dark money and nefarious works of Bernie Sanders to attack the democratic establishment.  The account belongs to Tom Watson and his credentials seem reputable, but for one who claims to be a journalist, he seemed to present no evidence of many of his claims.

But perhaps people like these are a dime a dozen on the internet, but it does make me extremely worried about this future election.  What we need is at least some unity, preferably with people who voted for Trump, but if we can’t get that we have to at least be striving for some unity in the left.  Identity politics seems to be winning the day, and the left has been described some as divided into all sorts of small groups.  The tribalism that we characterize the right with in terms of racism and xenophobia seems to me just as rampant across many groups on the left.  It may not be some of the more obvious ones like skin color, religion, or nationalism, but it’s still there and what’s most worrying is that it seems to be based on very  minor differences in overall worldview.  It seems to me the more that liberals are at each others throats this just increases the odds that when it comes to general election time more people will stay home if their horse didn’t win the primary, or might actually go across the aisle because they are so bitter after all the in fighting.  There is no reason that Bernie Sanders fans should not support Kamala Harris at this point and vice-versa, but more importantly we have to get our heads on straight about why we are voting for a particular candidate.  This isn’t sports and who ever puts on the jersey we like we have to root for.  Government’s goal is to enact the best ideas about how to govern, and this should determine who we vote for.

After the last election I, and I know many of my friends did a lot of research and reflection of how we got to where we were.  As incredulous as Trump’s win was, to suggest that it is the fault of anybody who tried to run for the job who had generally good ideas and who represented more compassion and benevolence than Trump.  Nor should we be accusing each other because we supported who we thought was going to be the best liberally minded candidate.  As a Bernie supporter I was certainly disappointed, but it was clear to me that Hillary was better than Trump and I supported.  Bernie fans who voted for Trump, I think were misguided, but I don’t think this should start casting blame on inspirational politicians who challenge the establishment.  If your vote for a candidate is solely based on gender, or racial identity, or the party they belong to, you are just as guilty of the same behavior as somebody who didn’t vote for someone based on their gender or racial identity.  If you are liberal what you should be for is fighting for a future in which the content of the individual running for office is the reason to vote for them.  And while I think there is enormous value to new generations to grow up in a time with female president and/or ethnic minority president, there is also enormous value in having them grow up with leaders who intelligent and empathetic, and who have good ideas that are going to help people have better lives.

It’s also worth remembering that the Russian interference in the election is very real, and one of the ways it worked is by exploiting division.  I recently listened to this podcast interview on Sam Harris podcast with Renee DiRiesta who has done a lot of research into how Russians used social media to exploit divisions between people.  Not only getting more support for Trump, but trying hard to suppress democratic voters from going to the polls.  It did make a difference.  They are still doing it.  The same tactics have been used by terrorist organizations to recruit, and it can it it also being done within our country as well.  We must resist the temptation to be divided, and while I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t take a stand on certain issues, if you are spending a lot of time arguing with people on social media you are simply wasting your time.  Twitter and Facebook can take all the steps reasonably allowed to try and prevent fake accounts, but people intent on manipulation on a mass scale through social media will find away around us and it is up to use to be aware and responsible users in the end.

The anti-establishment writing is on the wall, and it was for the last election, but the DNC refused to recognize it.  Trump was no anti-establishment answer but it what many people were looking for.  Likely that sentiment is going to be there again and it is going to be a source of contention on the left.  For those of you who followed Bernie his goal was never to actually win, but to shift the conversation.  To stay focused on issues and to address the anger that many Americans were feeling towards an economic elite that were bleeding the country dry.  Not all of his ideas were great, and whoever you end up supporting will probably not have all the best ideas either.   I suggest:

  • If you want to discuss politics, discuss the issues.  Avoid name calling and personal attacks.
  • Stay away from social media for your information and to keep your emotional health in check during this election season.  It’s a ridiculously long cycle in the U.S. and it’s easy to let your boredom lead you down the path of social media, but it is not your friend, and there are entities on there aiming to continue to divide people.  Don’t let it work.  Not only do you share many similar concerns with your fellow democrat, but probably also your fellow Republican.
  • Consider supporting a few newspapers monetarily.  These platform that are free and run on advertising are prone to attention getting not truth finding.  Good information and journalism costs money.  Do some research on what papers have good investigative research and get an on-line subscription
  • Promote empathy by sticking with politicians who demonstrate it, and also be giving it to your fellow human.

Peace out!

Free Speech Crisis? Really???

Although I recently posted a blog about free speech a new line of thinking has crystallized my thoughts a little better on the subject.  There are numerous prominent intellectuals, like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt, who are expressing concerns about free speech.  This is a cause that many liberals are now concerned about.  To the point that they say it is fascism on the left chilling people’s free speech.  I am not fan of disinviting speakers who have views we disagree with, and I think it’s important to hear well researched and thought out points of view.  If we are unable to do that on a widespread basis, then I do agree we have a problem.  But are we are we really at that point and are we, at this current moment, experiencing a free speech crisis in countries like the U.S?  Is the PC crowd really destroying freedom of expression in our society?    Here is the view of one such person who disagreed with my assertion that I don’t think we have to worry about the first amendment being abolished.  Apparently I’ve missed the point:

perhaps through firings for ‘insensitivity’, public shaming based on accusations, grovelling apologies if offence is claimed, speakers being deplatformed and disinvited, ongoing vilification of those who break the ideological group taboo and dare to criticize a protected group, not being politically correct enough, daring to use facts and evidence contrary to an ideological assertion about victimhood and oppression, professional and personal sanctions for not being sensitive enough and so on, encountering a new ‘tree’ each and every time, so to speak, and not addressing the larger issue of the free speech principle. The sentiment raised by Swarn is wrong because this is in fact the rising danger… not because a totalitarian government is on the brink of being elected and canceling free speech by edict but because people by and large are self censoring now, not attending now, not supporting the right of those with whom we may disagree now, cancelling subscriptions now, showing up and disrupting events now, being dismissive free speech for those with whom we disagree now. It is already of such common practice that individuals are curtailing their right to free speech willingly and right now in response to the totalitarian ideology of those who champion social justice through GroupThink and PC, those who stand ready to vilify those blasphemers with the handy labels of bigotry, racism, sexism, ever-ready group smears to be liberally applied as alt Right, fake news, alternative facts, deplorables, and so on. We self censor because of this toxic atmosphere in which we live and the ubiquitous punishments implemented all around us when some people dare to defy it

Besides the fact that obviously any of the people who we are concerned about being “de-platformed” or abused on twitter, or have lost their job still have plenty of platforms to air their views, I’d like to approach the narrative from a different direction.  In a recent interview with Sam Harris, journalist Rebecca Traister addressed the following concern by Sam Harris of what he felt were innocuous comments by Matt Damon on Twitter about the #metoo movement.  She said that every day in this country people are fired from jobs with no explanation given.  It could be their race, their sexuality, their gender, it could be legitimate.  The point is, why do we only get concerned when powerful people seem to be unfairly treated given they really don’t lose much of their wealth or their status.  Matt Damon seems just fine despite getting yelled at on Twitter.  When she said this, it resonated with me because I had thought something very similar in regards to this response to my blog comment above with regards to all of us having to self-censor in this PC culture.  And I thought about  how often women have had to self-censor when they experience sexual harassment?  How often have black people had to self-censor when they experienced discrimination? For those who are the bottom end of societal hierarchies, life is a constant stream of self-censoring.

Now that social media has helped give many people a voice should we be surprised that many are using it say, “you know what, we just aren’t buying what you’re selling”?  Now it’s not to say that there aren’t overreactions, but I would argue that saying “being homosexual isn’t natural” is a far larger overreaction that persisted for quite some time in society.  In an episode of the Guilty Feminist host Deborah Frances-White said that whenever she hears that the #MeToo movement has gone too far she just thinks “yeah but the previous Women-Have-To-Put-Up-With-Any-Shit movement really had a good run.  That went long.  For millennia”.  She goes on to say, in regards to the #MeToo movement, maybe all this PC culture is doing is giving all of us an opportunity (or at least should be) to increase our public empathy.  We are at the very least thinking about the fact that what we do and say could be hurtful to other people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You may think that I am making a two wrongs make it right sort of argument, and I guess in a way I am, but let me clarify.  It’s interesting to me how when power structures are questioned the reaction is always far more knee-jerk.  And why does it largely seemed to be white males concerned about this? I mean has anybody who is worried about threats to free speech even presented data that this is an increasing problem, that there are more concerns today than ever before?  When you approach the narrative from the other side, at the lower end of the hierarchy, the fact that more secular people are free to express doubts about religion, more black people are allowed to express their equality to whites, more homosexuals are able to be openly gay, more women are allowed to be in jobs previously only held by men…I’d say that things are actually far more open.  Again is it possible that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction at times? Sure. But to say that we are in some sort of free speech crisis, I think, is a ludicrous claim.  Even Jonathan Haidt who was the first to take note of this issue of de-platforming speakers on campus has done a lot of nice work in really trying to understand what’s going on here and by no means think that college students are more against free speech today than in the past.  In an article by Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, he argues:

“In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.”

Just because I don’t think we are in a free speech crisis doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with silencing people who have disagreeable views.  I think that we have to always be careful to think whether our actions will enhance or diminish the number of people who hold such views.  Not engaging with people we disagree with can run counter to our goals towards social justice.  That doesn’t mean we should be publicly debating a racist every week either.  Just like I don’t think I need to invite a ‘Flat Earther’ to my class to hash it out in a physics debate, I think a white supremacist is just as fundamentally wrong about the nature of humanity as a ‘Flat Earther’ is about the nature of the universe and I think it’s okay to be somewhat dismissive to such views.  But perhaps punching them isn’t exactly the most helpful thing to do either.   They are all still human, and just like the ‘Flat Earther’ somehow they’ve become misguided and it’s possible to both oppose their views with strength and recognize their humanity.  As writer and journalist Johann Hari said in an interview:

 “It is right to challenge racism, but it has to be challenged in an intelligent way that doesn’t produce more racism, and that’s a fine balance. And I understand why a lot of people say, why should I have to pussyfoot around this?”

And one of my favorite moments in listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast was in interview with Fareed Zakaria, when Harris was going on about the dangers of Islamic ideology, Fareed coolly said, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”

And I think those few words are extremely important to remember.  We need to better at the helping part than being right.  I think it’s possible to do both, but it’s not always the easiest way.  This is a topic perhaps for another post, but let’s not send people into alarmist mindsets about crises of free speech, when so many other problems are still widespread and harmful in the western world.  Let’s try to understand what’s underlying people’s fears and worries and see what we can do to help.  Let’s try to keep some perspective here.  The privilege of the powerful is still far greater than those in the society who have no voice.