I, Science

Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science.  Why should that be so?  We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march?  We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce.  I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.

Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics.  I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs.  I remember learning about the different planets.  I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning.  Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks.  I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars.  I used to capture a variety of insects in jars.  And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures.  When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this.  Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works.  How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides?  How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others?  How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand?  I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are.  And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking.  It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.

From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms.  Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it.  Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms.  My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way.  For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful.  Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun.  To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there.  My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens.  I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years.  Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer.  After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms.  Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”.  Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.

My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers.  In those days it was the library.  How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library.   She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus.  Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion.  Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.

When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic.  Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort.  School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting.  My favorite subject in high school was actually biology.  I loved learning especially about organ systems.  The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day.  So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists.  Not by profession, but just by nature.  I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life.  It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook.  It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before.  I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know.  Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness.  Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?

Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting.  It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist.  I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child.  In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix.  I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child.  I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child.  It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years.  It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.

Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have.  Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous.  Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls.  Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students.  Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding.  Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings.  Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.

These things make me sad.  I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions.  We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable.  It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense.  It helps us ethically and morally.  It helps us fight oppression and inequality.  Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture.  It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.

I see the March for Science as not just a political statement.  It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing.  Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn.  One where opinion is as valid as fact.  One where there is no consequence for lying.  I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time.  The March for Science is a march for progress.  A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.

I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job.  I say this because it is my lived experience.  I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn.  I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods.  Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence.  It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation.  It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis.  It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big.  If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy.  I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.

 

Tin Foil Hats

Hey, Travis, when everybody is out to get you, paranoid is just good thinking!

– Dr. Johnny Fever

 

If there is one group of people that I despise arguing with, it is conspiracy theorists.  I find it even more frustrating than debating someone with strong religious convictions.  Maybe it’s just because I can sympathize better with people with strong religious beliefs because I have been exposed to religion and have had family who have strong religious beliefs.  Now both types of people are belief driven and in many ways there is no difference at least in terms of how neural pathways are formed and how the impact of reinforcing those neural pathways impacts the brain, but there is something about conspiracy theorists that seems more concerning.  Maybe this is true only for religious fundamentalists in the west.  In other areas of the world I would fear religious fundamentalists much more, but maybe it’s because with religion the crux of the debate falls to the supernatural and with the supernatural there is no way to disprove it.  For those who have faith it’s tangible and real and this is what governs their thinking.  A lot of times if you bring into the realm of the real world you can often find common ground and agree on things, even if you disagree on the mechanism.  In fact I’m pretty sure I’d be less surprised if someone found actual evidence of the existence of God than some of the conspiracy theories that some people believe in as being real.

When it comes to conspiracy theorists, the troubling part to me is that all of what they believe is easily disprovable.  There are no supernatural forces at work; it’s a conspiracy that involves this plane of existence.  It’s physical and tangible in a very real sense.  We can actually settle the debate.  With God, you’re never going to settle it, because God cannot be disproven in a strictly logical sense (of course that’s because for something to exist the onus for proof is on those that would assert its existence).

I was talking to a colleague recently who is a geologist.  He had told me before that his father was very conservative and does not think evolution is real.  More than not accepting the scientific evidence he has invented a conspiracy theory in which all fossils are fabricated and made in a factory somewhere and then scientists plant them around the world so that they pretend they have evidence.  It just blew my mind when he told me.  The amount of fossils we have is enormous and the time and energy to make all of those, plant them all over the world, all so that we could tell a false narrative about the origins of life are astronomical for me to even wrap my head around it.  Of course I’ve heard the general theme before that evolution is just a conspiracy to try and disprove the Bible and I literally don’t understand.

As an atmospheric scientist of course the one I deal with the most is the conspiracy associated with global warming.   Thousands and thousands of scientists all banding together trying to get greedy off that alternative energy money and trying to destroy the poor fossil fuel companies who apparently are struggling to make ends meet.  Debates usually go something like this:

Me. “As somebody who studies this and understands how the atmosphere works…” I list a lot of hard evidence, and explain how the greenhouse effect works.

CT (Conspiracy Theorist)  Evidence ignored and the grand retort is “But other people are experts too and they disagree”.

Me. Thinking, ohh they want to try to take that right now  “Actually not really, few people who deny climate change are actually atmospheric scientists, and none of them have been able to publish any scientifically sound papers in peer-reviewed journals on the subject.  Such scientist’s research is always funded by oil companies.”

CT:  “That’s because the journals are controlled by the IPCC and they prevent any contrary evidence from getting published.”

Me: *bangs head*

The back and forths are usually longer, but this was just a glimpse. One thing I have noticed that is common with all these debates is that they never address any scientific evidence you present directly.  So in retrospect, debate is a bad word.  They have no defense on the workings of antigens, the physics behind the greenhouse effect, or the random mutations of genes.  There is always some larger organization involved pulling the strings, shadow networks, cover-ups, secret e-mails, vast sums of money involved.  They post links to sites that reference other articles written by someone with equally little knowledge of what they are talking about.  There are vague references to events that never happen, or if they did happen there is no way to prove that they happened.   And why do these conspiracy theories always involve the government or scientists?

Governments are for the most part, simply incompetent.  The level of organization they need to have to pull some of the shit off that people give them credit for is truly astounding.   The really corrupt ones are so obviously corrupt and drunk on power there is no need of secrecy they do it right in front of your face.  And of course I know many scientists.  They are some of the finest people I know: curious, intelligent, and for the most part noble and compassionate.   Corrupt scientists are few and far between and are easily exposed because scientists believe that what they are doing is valuable and important and have zero tolerance for those that would make a mockery of the scientific process and allow bad science to flourish.

Now certainly you might say at this point, while we have never proven the existence of a supernatural deity, there have been conspiracies.  To that, I say most definitely and in fact that’s what makes conspiracies relatively short-lived and small.  Because people are generally good and if there is some conspiracy that is causing harm to people, and lying to people it’s not long before somebody’s conscience gets the better of them and they get the message out.  In fact, this would seem to put a natural limit into how large a conspiracy can grow.  Once it gets too big or too harmful, whistleblowers will come out of the woodwork.  And there will be tangible evidence of this conspiracy and unsubstantiated hypotheses are no longer necessary.

I have decided that I need to stop engaging such people.  But it’s hard, because there some of the conspiracy theories, if allowed to spread, can cause real harm.  Like ones related to climate change or vaccinations and then I find it hard to keep quiet because lives are literally at stake.  Ultimately it feels like people who purport conspiracy theories enjoy the attention, the feeling of importance that they are part of the minority and they get it and everybody else has been duped.  Perhaps it’s just ego.  Perhaps it’s just pure and utter fear of a world they don’t understand. Perhaps it’s just people wanting to believe in something do badly that they will invent anything to rationalize that belief.  I don’t know.  I’d be curious to learn how some of my other readers deal with conspiracy theorists.

 

Note:  A study was conducted to determine whether Tin Foil Hats really protect your thoughts being read.  Turns out it makes it worse.  At least that’s what “physics” tells us. (That’s the punch line if you don’t want to read the article).

More than Words

The discussion of free speech has once again risen up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  For some interesting reads please take a look at this article on the Ethics of Free Speech and this article that presents a Muslim’s perspective on the situation.  Many of the ideas in these articles are important and so I wanted to throw them out first so that I don’t repeat their points too much.  If you’re too lazy to read them (I barely had time to write blog posts anymore so I understand)though I’ll list some important points that are guiding my thoughts right now:

  • How do we decide what freedom actually means?

    From http://bearingdrift.com
  • The argument for freedom of speech often gets turned into a “Those who want that freedom” and “those that don’t”. This is a false dichotomy because generally the disagreement lies where along a spectrum of “Freedom” we must draw the line on free speech.
  • Is freedom of speech always a good thing?
  • Words have power

When the news broke about what happened in France on January 7th, I have to say my reaction was not one of surprise.  Muslim extremists are nothing new, and given the anger that was sparked when Danish cartoonists depicted the prophet Mohammed in their publication, I just wasn’t surprised.

Now this not to say that I didn’t think it was a terrible tragedy.  Of course it is.  I don’t want anyone to think that my position is that those at Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to them. There is a difference between not being surprised and thinking such an act of violence against them was deserved.  There is no question that these Islamic extremists have got it wrong.  They don’t understand their faith, they will fail in achieving whatever dream world they want to live in, and they will simply cause more harm to others and themselves with time.   I can say that with certainty, in the long run, they will fail to get what they want and it is clear that all good people should and do oppose their aims.

Before looking at Charlie Hebdo let’s take a closer look at this whole cartoon depiction of Mohammed stuff.   Perhaps by putting things into context you will understand why I was not shocked to find that this happened.  First, we can agree that killing somebody over such a thing as a cartoon, no matter how offensive,

From the South Park Wiki. The picture of Mohamed was available, but I chose to show Buddha instead. I’m okay with that. 🙂

is ridiculous.  That being said it is not unreasonable for someone to be offended when their religion is ridiculed.  People do it all the time, they just don’t go all the way to killing somebody.  I am sure there are many other moderate and peaceful Muslims who were offended by Charlie Hebdo or the Danish cartoons previously.  And of course some number close to 100% of them never killed anybody over it.  Satire, comedy and comic depictions of religious figures is not new, but it is relatively new.  Such things quickly got you killed in Europe not so long ago if you tried to ridicule Christianity or religious leaders.  And while I believe the world as a whole, on average, progresses forward in terms of morality and reason, there are pockets of people going in reverse. As an example, I find it interesting that prior to 9/11 there was no outcry about a South Park season 5 episode in which various deities from other religions banded together to save the day.  I guess Mohammed was not ridiculed but still a cartoon is a cartoon.  This episode was even available after 9/11 for a number of years and has only recently been pulled.  I guess it was off the radar for awhile and perhaps South Park Studios didn’t want to take the chance anymore.  The point is that the backlash against Islam post 9/11 seems to have had a more polarizing impact on Islam and the west, such that those who wish to do us harm have looked for more reasons to do so.  Therefore, it seems to me, those who perpetrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo would have likely found another target had they not been drawing cartoons, but their doing so simply added them to a list of possible targets.  Crazy people generally don’t have good reasons to cause such harm, so should we be surprised that in a country with a lot of Islam vs French tension, where a magazine is ridiculing Islam that this simply puts them on the radar of the crazy people?  Personally I don’t think so.

Now let’s get back to freedom of speech.  We can also agree that it’s important, but just because you have the freedom to say something that doesn’t mean you should.  If you’re wife asked you if she looked fat in something, then you would have the freedom to tell her the honest truth, but I think you know how well that will work out for you.  Also having freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t consequences for exercising that freedom, and law may have very little to do with it.  In truth, I have the freedom to go and kill somebody.  But there are consequences to that action.  Those consequences may simply be a fear of getting caught, more often than not though it is our own moral center that prevents us from doing such a thing.  We may even have a good reason to do so, but I also think about what my friends and family would think about me, how I would provide for my child, the times I would miss with my family, etc.  We are free to do a lot of things when you think about it, but our choice to act on those freedoms must be weighed against the consequences of our actions.

One of the Charlie Hebdo satirists said “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat” in regards to whether he was

From http://www.beheadingboredom.com

worried about angering Muslim extremists.  While I can feel a certain amount of respect for someone who lives by their convictions, I do wonder about the value of that conviction.  Of course, the chance of dying from a terrorist attack in the west is extremely small, and perhaps if he knew that there was even a 10% chance of being a target of Muslim extremists, he might not have been so sure of himself.  I am also opposed to religious extremism (or really any kind of extremism) but if I am going to have convictions on the matter that are worth dying for, satirical cartoons seem like a strange way for me to take a stand.  If we want to defeat extremism, are satirical cartoons helping the situation?  I doubt if any extremist has looked at one of their cartoons and said to his fellow crazy Jihadists “Hey guys…you know what…I didn’t get it before but this cartoon has really shown me we’re being ridiculous.  Let’s just relax and maybe talk to some more moderate imams about interpreting the scripture in the Koran more carefully”.  Furthermore it seems one of the best way to quash Islamic extremists is actually by having most of the Muslims who are more moderate on your side.  Doing something that most Muslims find offensive, might not anger them into attacking you, but it doesn’t exactly win their hearts.  Therefore if anybody thinks that drawing satirical cartoons of Mohammed is in any way taking a stand against Islamic extremists then you are quite simply wrong.  It does nothing but divide people.  At best, those who appreciate the cartoons are a group of secular intellectuals who appreciate the wit and who already agree with the points you are making.  At worst, those who appreciate the cartoons are bigots wishing to eradicate all Muslims from their country.  The point is, such cartoons aren’t helping and are most likely making things worse.

What people seem to forget is that 1) being right isn’t always the most important thing, and that 2) even if you want to be right there are multiple ways to make your point.  Richard Dawkins is right about a lot of things, and yet many people, even humanists, atheists, and agnostics think he’s an asshole.  In thinking about these cartoons, I was reminded about my confrontation with the gay bashing fundamentalist Christians who came to our campus.  I asked the main guy point blank “Even if you are absolutely 100% right do you think that your offending and insulting them is going to convince them to your point of view?”  He was sure that they were going to hell and so he felt that what he was doing was the strongest most direct way to get them to change their sinful ways.  Anybody else of course can see that such anger and unkindness would never win the hearts of those they intend to save.  The only people who are supporting them are those who already agree with them.  So even though Islamic extremists are crazy, they don’t understand their faith, they cause harm, and their actions will ultimately cause them to fail to achieve their over arching aim, how we expose the extremists for what they are is just as important.  Being martyrs is one of those possibilities, but the freedom to draw cartoons of the prophet Mohamed just seems like a silly way to make that stand.

From http://thebilzerianreport.com

Freedom of speech is an extremely important one to a free society.  Speech has the power to sway.  As it sways it can raise the consciousness, inspire, and lift men and women to more.  However, speech also has the power to divide, misinform, offend, anger, and mislead.  To quote Uncle Ben Parker “With great power, comes great responsibility”.   I don’t wish for any government to censor publications like Charlie Hebdo.  Taking away freedoms doesn’t help the situation either, and is never an answer to terrorism (i.e. The Patriot Act). Nevertheless, no matter how “in the right” we think we might be, let us also think about how we communicate our message.  Freedom of speech is an important one to fight for, but there are many other good things to fight for and so it’s important to not get so lost in one fight that we start to lose the others.

Do I have to vote?

Let me start by saying that I think voting in a democracy is important.  I never realized its importance when I was younger but as I’ve grown to learn and care more about the importance of governance (notice I didn’t say politics) the more driven I am to vote.  I am finally eligible for citizenship in the U.S. and will become a citizen before the next Presidential election.

Part of learning more about politics and governance has also left me pretty dissatisfied with the choices I have in our political system.  At the national and for most major positions at the state level you have two

A study by two political scientists at Northwestern University. (From http://media.chicagomag.com)

parties to choose from.  As if two philosophies had a chance of representing over 300 million people.  Washington right now is broken as there is no working together to pass laws that will help people.  A frightening statistic I just recently read said that public opinion has no correlation to the passing of laws right now in this country.  This would seem to be an odd thing to find in a democracy where our vote is supposed to represent the will of the people.  It would seem that the people do not control the government.

The media has also highlighted races between candidates where one seems completely incompetent and idiotic, while the other is a happy combination of bigot and religious that you can’t imagine either candidate being someone you’d want in office.  Is it then okay to not vote in that situation?  Is it always more ethical to vote for the lesser of two evils than to not vote at all?

So let’s say you believe government is broken and/or the two party system is broken, and you have terrible candidates to choose from and you wish to let the powers at be know that this is unacceptable, does not voting said that message?  Now a scholar may look at the level of apathy and say, wow nobody really has faith in our government or political system and so that’s why nobody is voting.  But of course that may be right, but it also may be wrong. There are other possible reasons for apathy.  One is that you are person who thinks everything is just rosy and so you really don’t care who is in power.  Or like many, you can’t afford to miss a day’s work to go an vote with everybody else.  Ultimately those in power though won’t really care as long as they are re-elected they just need at least somebody to vote in order for a candidate to be chosen.  Perhaps if everyone refused to vote that might make a difference, but that’s unlikely to happen.

So “not voting” isn’t really effective.  So what might be effective?  One possibility is that you could run for office yourself.  Of course you are likely to get “out-moneyed” by any of the two established parties, but you could still run.  The Tea Party movement, as misguided as they all are, was grass roots, and grass roots movements can grow into something big.  When they got big enough to try and make an impact in government, they got absorbed by one of the established parties and as a result it’s actually weakened the identity of the Tea Party and the Republican Party.  It should have remained its own party.  Anyway, that’s besides the point. The point is that a difference can be made even if you start from the ground up.  But maybe you’d like some encouragement that your movement might be successful.  This brings us to the second possibility of how you can protest and that’s simply to vote.  You don’t have to vote for Democrat or Republican.  You can vote for another party, you can even write in a candidate.  If the amount of people who seem dissatisfied with congress actually didn’t vote for the established two parties many would realize that there is actual need for some other party to establish themselves and that there are a bunch of people who are not apathetic about the process but actually really care, but think that the current two party system or current set of people we have to choose from are unacceptable.  So the answer is still to vote, but don’t feel like you have to vote D or R.  The right to vote means you have the right to vote for who you want and who represents your views.  You don’t have to always vote for one party, you don’t have to feel like you have to just vote for the other guy, because the current guy wasn’t great.  So your research, get informed, and vote for somebody you think will do the job well and represents your views.

The only true way to waste your vote is by not voting. Because if the current system of government is truly broken, then doing nothing changes nothing.  And remember that voting is only one way in which your voice can be heard, so don’t forget that caring doesn’t need to only happen at election time.

Crime and Punishment

On Dec. 17th, Ethan Couch, age 16, was sentenced to 10 years of rehabilitation after admitted to driving drunk and killing four people.  The reason for his light sentence according to the judge was that the defense successfully proved that he suffered from affluenza.

If you clicked on the Wikipedia link I provided for this condition (a condition which doesn’t even pass my spell check), I think that one could conclude that if someone was suffering from this condition, this could certainly impact their decision process greatly and make them likely to be reckless and careless.

Now I am a strong supporter of psychological treatment and the impacts our parents have on our development and decision-making processes.  We over-incarcerate far too much in this country and I am especially for providing our young with psychological treatment over incarceration because study after study shows how the earlier we recognize a behavior (whether due to a traumatic event or crappy parents) we can correct that behavior.

Ethan is a rich, white kid.  Worst-case scenario his parents are selfish assholes who spent little time with him, who enjoyed the privilege that money has given them.  They probably flouted laws themselves knowing that as an upstanding member of the community they probably wouldn’t get too many speeding tickets if pulled over, and even if they did they could pay any fine.  Remembering, I’m sure, to mention to the cop that they might have a talk with some politician of theirs who is a friend and talk about possibly reducing the budget of the police force after a generous donation to that politician’s re-election campaign. When you have ridiculous sums of cash, the law is always on your side.  After 16 years of seeing such behavior and without your parents giving you the time a day, I would say that your sense of right and wrong would be screwed up.  Your attachment to reality would also be screwed up, because you literally don’t understand how most of the world lives when the only other people you know are also filthy rich.  So I support the idea that it is at least possible that bad, extremely rich parents can screw up their kid so badly that he would do something so terrible.  I mean there was no intent to kill here, but this is always the danger of drinking and driving, and punishments are often quite harsh for most people.  Now most people are outraged by the judge’s verdict of affluenza, and for good reason.  I am among one of those outraged, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

The case raises numerous philosophical questions for me.  At what age do we become blameless for the mistakes of our parents?  Should parents ever be made responsible for crimes their children commit?  How long does the psychological impacts of things that happen in our childhood last? How long can we use them as an excuse for poor decisions that we make?  A child that is raised to hate African-Americans will probably hate African-Americans, but will he ever commit a hate crime? Who knows, but if he did, would it be an acceptable excuse to use the fact that your parents taught you to hate as a defense?  If the kid committed the crime at 13, is that adult enough?  Would we still all be as outraged at the verdict?  What about traumatic events like sexual abuse or physical abuse?  These things have definitely been shown to do psychological damage for possibly the rest of one’s life.  It seems reasonable that if you reinforced from childhood that a certain behavior is acceptable, you will likely feel that way as an adult.  The condition of affluenza, however, is perhaps not as legitimate as one thinks, at least according to one of the co-producers of the 1997 PBS documentary on the subject.   As John de Graaf points out, that in a capitalistic, consumer based society such as ours, we may all suffer from this to a certain degree.  Furthermore he says it is not a psychological condition, but rather a societal criticism.  Affluenza is not a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association.

But let’s say that even if we accept that bad parenting seriously messed up this kid, a whole host of other questions come to mind.  How often can we use psychological conditions as a defense?  Are such rulings equally applied to all such cases?  If there is a psychological condition that can be contracted by rich kids, what psychological condition does poverty cause and can these not be made for their defense when they commit crimes?

The same judge gave a 14 year old African-American a much harsher sentence for a much lesser crime the previous year.  One only has to look at the amount of minorities and poor people in the prison system, who commited crimes that did not lead to anyone’s death, to be convinced that such defenses as affluenza or any other defense based on psychological damage in their upbringing has not been successful.  The impacts of poverty on children, in fact, is a far greater reason actually for “deviant” behavior as young adults and is actually well researched within the psychological community.  Ultimately this is why I am so enraged.  There is probably no greater slap in the face the legal system could give to the poor than this verdict.   A compassionate sentence is either deserved by all or by none.  Whether you think incarceration helps society or not, there cannot be any true justice when it does not apply equally to all citizens.    If prison isn’t the answer for Ethan Couch then at the very least he should be made to volunteer and live in an inner city neighborhood.  If society truly believed in his correction then he won’t receive the education he sorely needs which is compassion and understanding for how the rest of society lives, especially since he hasn’t been punished in a way that the rest of society is punished for similar crimes.  His parents are paying $450,000/year to go to this swanky facility in California.  I shudder to think how many lives could be made better with that money instead of teaching one kid a lesson that would perhaps be better taught in other ways.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about Ethan Couch than any other youth who has been sent to a juvenile detention center or jail.  As income disparity mounts every branch of our government still continues to help the smallest minority ; the rich.  How long can we live in this illusion that we are the best country when we incarcerate more people than those places we consider our enemy and backwards in thinking?  How long can we live in the illusion of trickledown economics?  How long can we live in the illusion of the American Dream that all you have to do is work hard and that dream will come true?  This case is as much about racism and inequality as the George Zimmerman case and it is even more of a reason to be outraged at where our country is headed.  Don’t confuse the meanings of money and value.  Nobody is better person just because they have money and it’s time the government and the justice system stopped acting like this was true.

Society. Fixed. Done.

There is one solution that really solves all our problems.  It’s just two words.  In these two words there is no more hunger, no more war, no more cruelty, or rape.   There is equality amongst gender and races.  People can have guns and don’t have to have taxes imposed on them.  Everybody makes smart decisions about their health, about sex, about when to be a parent, about how to be a parent, and raise their children well.

You probably know people like this, and you know people who advocate it because it’s so obvious and easy.  It’s called Personal Responsibility.  I capitalized it because it’s so important and because it is the answer.  Alright, I’m done blogging.

…hang on…nope…I just remembered something.  We don’t live in a utopian fantasy.

  • You shouldn’t need to have a law that tells you to wear a seat belt or text while driving I know this is important so I drive safely
  • You shouldn’t need a law that forces you to get health insurance or makes you be a responsible employer and take care of your employees by giving them a living wage
  • You shouldn’t need to have laws that force you to hire women and minorities as it should be self evident that gender and race don’t matter and that ultimately it boils down to who is best for the job
  • You shouldn’t need to have gun control laws.  One can be trained how to use a gun and keep it in a safe place away from children
  • You shouldn’t need to impose regulations on corporations.
  • You shouldn’t have taxes imposed on you.  If something is important I’ll be happy to contribute some money to someone who will do what needs to be done.
  • You shouldn’t need to get welfare because you can work.
  • You shouldn’t need money as an incentive to work.
  • You shouldn’t get raped if you are personally responsible about what you wear and how you behave (umm…how about being personally responsible and not raping someone?)

These are just some of the common complaints you hear from people in regards to laws, governance, and “responsible” behavior.  Anyone can see how sensible these statements are, theoretically.  Yet one wonders why indeed do we have laws or talk about imposing such laws and regulations?  If everyone was as awesome as you, who feels so injured to have something imposed on you when you already know you should do it, what’s the point of government sticking its nose in your business? Why is society dictating my behavior when I already know better?  You know your business and conduct yourself responsibly.  Right?

For now I am going to pretend that nobody is willfully ignorant (which is also pretty utopian).  The problem of course is, that personal responsibility is kind of like the nature of God.  Everyone has a different definition of what it means.  If every citizen in the country had the same definition of personal responsibility things might be alright.  Although this in itself would be hard for a big country, in which everybody lives in different regions and by definition the regional disparity requires different needs.  It only takes a handful of farmers to feed a lot of people, yet those farmers are just as important as the whole lot of people they feed.  So the first step would be for all people to accept within a country at the very least that people in all parts of the country have value and we may have to contribute some of our income to them.  This might include roads, education, and protection.  Protection itself can come in the form of a police department, fire department, or military.  One could argue that if everyone was personally responsible the need for a police department kind of goes away.

A personally responsible society however also recognizes their place in the world and in nature, and so realizes that the decisions they make might adversely impact other countries and wants to make sure that it is nice to other countries.  They recognize the value of preserving wildlife and rare species and is responsible about what it hunts and where it builds.  They recognize the true cost, not only in monetary units of drilling, mining, extracting.   This type of responsibility also costs some money because sometimes we might have to do things a little more expensively to preserve ecosystems or protect the environment.  This personally responsible society doesn’t mind.

And accidents do happen.  There are infectious diseases, natural disasters, etc.  Society pays for things in which nobody is to blame.  It is the personally responsible thing to accept that and contribute to help mitigate damage and help rebuild and repair.

Most of the people in this personally responsible society don’t feel too much stress, because the very rich realize that they don’t really need all that money and are quite happy to use their massive wealth to help out the person who doesn’t make too much of his own.  As a successful head of corporation he is extremely happy to contribute more to society because he has a lot of excess.

What a great place to live, but of course it doesn’t exist.

So perhaps the first question we might ask,  “Is everybody capable of this broad set of requirements for personal responsibility?  Of course the answer is no.  Nurture plays a big role in this.  We have belief systems, disparity in education, disparity in resources.  Even if nurture could everywhere be equal, we still have genetic differences.  Some people have physical and mental disorders.  Trauma happens in people’s lives that impact their ability to function at a high capacity.  Even when it’s an accidental event, and not something like murder or rape.  The free market ends some businesses, causing people to lose jobs.  Theoretically new jobs are created, but those might be in some other location.  Another country even.  Also as time goes on we make new discoveries in science and technology.  The industrial revolution has brought about climate change, but it seems unlikely that we started building all these factories knowing the harm it would do in the future.  As we become aware of things, new areas of responsibility become apparent.  So there is going to be a natural evolution towards winners and losers, new problems to deal with as old ones become understood and more cost efficient, and the personally responsible thing to do would be work together to continue fighting that imbalance.  It requires vigilance.

The next question we need to ask is “What can be done to make people more personally responsible?”  There is no quick fix, and there is no one answer.  Education can make us better aware of problems that impact society.  Of course knowledge and wisdom are very different.  In Plato’s famous treatise on love he talked about agape and love of humanity; a brotherly love for all mankind.  We need more of this kind of love, but people fear (and perhaps with good reason) that it comes at the cost of a loss of individualism.  I’m not certain that is completely true, but it might be.  But this love must extend to more than just to our fellow human, but to life itself.  The planet.  Our home.  We must also be humble and lose our conceit.  It may have served us well in our evolutionary past, but now survival is not so difficult when we are working together.

Love for the humanity and the planet, however begins at the individual level.  It begins by showing compassion and love to those in our lives and those we meet.  Helping those who need help and also thinking about how best to help them.  Being personally responsible is a journey within our own lives and does not happen overnight.  It is journey that doesn’t end when you’re 30 or 40 or 50, but continues your entire life.  And it is everyone’s job to be personally responsible but always keeping in mind that some people simply don’t have the ability to contribute as much as you, often through no fault of their own, and when you help raise them up and show sincere concern for their well-being they are likely to reciprocate that generosity.  Finally we must value happiness over wealth.

And even after all that…it’s a struggle.  The great thing is though if we do a better job of keeping these virtues in our heart we will never struggle alone.