Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fuzzy Thinking again

A few days ago I blogged about fuzzy thinking in the debates over global warming. As if on cue, there was an editorial in my local paper on the subject of global warming, and voila! fuzzy thinking. I swear that this guy was not my straight man, and that I didn't pay him to set me up for this blog.
The writer was taking a religious leader to task for denying global warming. However -- Here's what happened. The religious leader (henceforth RL) had in a speech declared that he did not believe that COtwo emissions influenced climate change. Then the writer (henceforth W) said something like, "That means RL doesn't believe in global warming."
Hold on there, W. RL, who, by the way, is a brilliant jurist and past Dean of the Law School of the University of Chicago, had said nothing of the sort. He said that he didn't believe that COtwo was responsible for climate change. Now, that statement may or may not be true. But to say that one believes that COtwo is not the culprit is not to say that one doesn't believe in climate change. And RL is certainly smart enough and well-read enough to know that climate does change.
Having set up his straw man, W goes on to knock it down. I note that he doesn't really add any data to the argument, just flails away at RL.
I have two options about this situation. I can believe that W truly can't discern the lapse in his logic, in which case he is stupid and shouldn't write editorials, or I can believe that he can discern the lapse and thinks that his readers can't in which case he is a charlatan and shouldn't write editorials.
Am I really cynical when I suggest that it might be the latter case, and that W's assumption about his readership is probably accurate?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fuzzy thinking

One thing I am sure of in this life, and that's the fact that public debate is marked by fuzzy thinking. Take (oh no) climate change, for instance.
Is the climate changing? It would be strange if the climate were not changing. After all, the history of the world is the history of climate change. If an ice age is not climate change, then I don't know what is. Yet, much of the discussion assumes that the climate, if it had any sense at all, would stay the same all the time. After all, global warming interferes with so many social activities. The reality of it is that climate will change, no matter what humans do.
So, the next question is: How much responsibility do humans have in the changing climate? The answer is, some. But then, beavers influence climate, bees influence climate, trees influence climate, a butterfly influences climate.
How about pollution? Ah, here we come into the area where fuzzy thinking kind of dominates. The air is actually cleaner today than it was 500 years ago when a cold snap in England called the "little ice age" forced people to burn more wood, generating more pollution, generating more heat, and possibly averting a real ice age.
Notice how nobody talks about the hole in the ozone layer anymore? Reason is, it doesn't seem to be doing much. The hole had its 15 minutes until hard data demonstrated that it wasn't doing the doomsday thing after all. So we passed on to something else to panic about.
So, why are so many scientists jumping on the global warming bandwagon? The cynical answer is that science today isn't about science. It's about grants, tenure, and publications. Proving that there is no appreciable human influence in global warming won't get you an NSF grant of a zillion dollars to study the effects of warming on plant lice.
What troubles me most is that the cynical view is probably the correct one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crime wave

Each Monday my university's paper publishes the weekly crime report, under the headline Police Blotter. Here are synopeses of two of the entries:
- Police responded to a call from some people in an apartment complex who were worried about their next door neighbor, an elderly person. They heard "weird noises" and "a lot of coughing" coming from next door. Turns out the "elderly person" was just singing.
- Police responded to a complaint from a person who reported that his car had been covered in peanut butter. The report did not mention whether it was smooth or chunky.
These two reports were typical. Which brings me to my general premise -- You can live in a place that's safe, or you can live in a place that's exciting. You can't have both. Life in Cache Valley, Utah is kinda dull. On the other hand, if I forget to lock my door when I leave, I don't feel like I have to rush back and lock it.
I've lived in one exciting place: West Los Angeles, and I've visited a great many more. I suppose when one is young and immortal, exciting is better. As one ages and realizes more and more that the end result of life is death, one wants to put that off as long as possible. So, safe becomes more important than exciting.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday musings

On my way to a spiritual experience this morning, I was going south on a small country road. I passed a church with a parking lot full of sincere cars and a chapel full of sincere people. Coming north was a gaggle of motorcyclists. They passed me as I passed the church. One of the bikers pointed at the church and made a circling motion near his head. His fellows raised their fists to show they got it. The biker was saying of the people in the church, "Boy those guys are dumb." Unbeknownst to them, there was someone inside the church looking out at them and thinking piously to himself, "Boy those guys are dumb."
We all need someone to look down on, don't we?
So there I am driving down the road looking at the bikers and the people in the church, thinking about their attitudes toward each other, and I think, "Boy those guys are dumb."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What good is religion

Richard Dawkins, who is pretty strongly anti-religion, says that religions get a free ride. They don't have to prove anything, or indeed, even do anything. They simply profess to have wonderful truths.
So, we might ask ourselves: What can we expect a religion to give us that we honor it, give it money, and spend sabbaths dressed uncomfortably and sitting on hard benches?
After all, the teachings of religions tend to be things that, once someone has thought of them, simply make sense. Take the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to discover that rule or to see that it's a very good way to conduct your life. Which is good, because there were no rocket scientists when the rule was formulated, there being no rockets.
Seriously, what should a religion offer that we should pay attention to it. Clearly, we don't need a religion to live a good life. All the atheists I know are honorable, decent, more than decent, people.
I've thought of three things that a religion needs. There may be more, but these will do. If any religion can offer proof for the following three, I'll sign up any day.
One: The religion has got to offer me information that humankind simply can't get on its own hook. That is, there has to be something that the religion can tell me that science can't. And, it can't be something vague, like, "There is balm in Gilead," or "The streets of heaven are paved with gold." It has to be something verifiable (Aye, there's the rub).
Second: The religion has got to predict things that actually come true. It has to be specific and (again) verifiable. I've had it to here with all the "wars and rumors of wars" that people are throwing up to me. I say, be specific. Put up or shut up.
Third: The religion has to have a real, unearthly power. For instance, in the case of a Christian religion, it would have to have the power to keep me out of Hell. And, as in the other two cases, this would have to be a verifiable power.
Notice, though, that while religions are based on claims of having one or all of the above characteristics, the onliest thing is, you have to accept it on -- you guessed it -- faith.
This irritates the Hell of Dawkins, and I'm not too pleased by it myself. But religion has a cover for that too -- "It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign." So, if I want some sort of logical confirmation, I'm wicked and an adulterer. Where's the fun in that?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stupidity is forever

The other day, I read a column in my local newspaper by Jack Krugman that I agreed with. At the moment that I realized I agreed with him, I had that "the end of the world is at hand" feeling. I mean, one of the constants of life is that Krugman is never going to say anything that I agree with.
On the other hand, think about it. Krugman is smart. He is wearing a set of blinders (just as I'm wearing a set, but mine point right, his sharply left). When he's dealing with data, he's pretty reliable. I hate to admit that.
Shortly after that, I saw a short video of a comedian who noted that we can change almost any aspect of our persons -- eyes, hair, skin tone -- except one. His comment was, "Stupid is forever." I think Krugman is remarkably askew, but I don't think he is dumb. And blinders can be adjusted.
So, how do we adjust them? Or, better yet, what are their components?
I'd like to think that ignorance is one, yet Krugman isn't ignorant either. Lack of education? Nope.
Could it be that my blinders need adjusting? No, I can't buy that either.
Could it be that people of intelligence and education simply can simply see the world in different ways? (Note the assumption that I'm intelligent and educated). More and more I'm coming to the conclusion that this is the case. People aren't stupid because they think differently from me.
Just crazy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Really Bad science

I read a report on my digital news today about what's going to happen in 2012. Seems a Mayan Calendar somewhere south of here has predicted (Maybe. The evidence is ambiguous) that the world is going to end in 2012.
I have no intention of arguing with the notion that there is a prediction. Let's, for purposes of discussion, agree that there is a Mayan codex that states, "The world will end in 2012." Somehow that doesn't give me the shivers. That's because we always have the disparity between what a document says and the reality of the situation. S.I. Hayakawa was fond of saying, "The map is not the territory." A Mayan codex can say anything it wants to. Whether it's true or not is another thing entirely.
I've been thinking of this because I am currently listening to a book on CD that is partially set in an ancient Tibetan Monastery, where the monks meditate and have discovered the secrets of the universe.
May I laugh politely up my sleeve? The secret to the universe is that there is no secret to the universe. At least, none that you can find by thinking about it, Plato to the contrary. Here's what I think happens in cases like this: Everybody thinks that there is a secret to the universe, which, if found, gives unimaginable power. They don't have it, but are convinced that somebody does, maybe the monk in the next cell who seems to know a secret.
I can't claim to have thought this up -- it's the subject of Umberto Eco's wonderful book Foucault's Pendulum, which is, among other things, the finest history of mystic thought I've ever read.
Trust me: The world will not end in 2012. Keep paying those credit card bills.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life

I happened to pass two colleagues in the hall today. One said to the other, earnestly, "Science can't solve the mystery of ..." and I walked out of earshot before that final noun phrase hit the airwaves. But I can guess-- beauty, consciousness, language, life -- you can fill in a couple more, and you may have some of your own.
In my mind, I whirled around and said, in a calm but piercing voice, "Yes it can."
Blank looks (In my mind I get to direct the entire conversation). Then, they ask, "Well, what is the answer?"
I say, "I don't know. Science doesn't know."
Puzzled looks this time. Then, "If science doesn't know, science can't explain it."
I shake my head wisely. "No," I say. "Science can explain it. It simply hasn't done it yet."
Why do people who are supposed to be capable of critical thinking make such a simple error? Hasn't is not the same as can't.
When we consider the things that, over the years, people claimed science couldn't explain and science finally did explain, we have a long list. When we consider the things that, over the years, science hasn't explained, we still have a long list. But the first list is growing and the second shrinking.
I firmly believe that, eventually, science will explain everything. This stand usually provokes one of two responses. Response A: "But that will destroy all the beauty in the world." That seems to me like one of the dumbest statements a human can make. Why should beauty be hooked into ignorance? We finally know pretty much how the northern lights work, something we didn't know when I was a kid. Yet, somehow, those northern lights are just as beautiful to me as they were when I first saw them on a frozen January night in Alaska.
Response B: "There are some things that humankind is not meant to know." Another dumbest thing. This is the driving force behind all the anti-science novels of people like what'sizname who wrote The Andromeda Strain and all those novels about science gone bad. As if ignorance were a passport to grace. Pffffft!
Beauty will remain.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bears will be bears

I read an article in the local paper today about a woman who was killed by a bear she had cared for for years. She was feeding the bear when it turned on her, mauled her, and killed her. Forgetting that the bear might have been sore about being kept in a small cage for years on end, one would ask "Why would a bear kill the person who feeds him?"
The answer is, of course, because bears are -- when you get right down to it -- bears. You can train a bear to balance a ball on its nose, but when the conditions are right, a bear acts like a bear.
From the bear story, I turned to the editorial page and found Jack Krugman rubbing his hands in glee and taking it to conservatives over what he calls "The politics of spite." I knew without reading the story what it was about. We lost the bid for the Olympic Games in spite (because of?) President Obama's efforts. Krugman was blasting Limbaugh et al for gloating.
Let's put aside the obvious fact that Krugman was practicing the very thing he was decrying, and think about bears for a moment.
Liberals will be liberals. Conservatives will be conservative. But being a Liberal today doesn't make one liberal (Note the upper case). Being a Conservative doesn't make one conservative. Liberals are just as pinch-face and purse-mouth as conservatives, and Conservatives are just as prune-face and pucker-mouth as liberals.
It's not about positions. It's about nailing the other guy. It's about getting your kicks by kicking the other side.
Even bears know better than that.