Ignorance Is Not A Sin, Pride Is: Climate Science and Congress

I am not a Mexican. I have ever even been to Mexico. If you were to ask me about the authenticity of a particular restaurant, I couldn’t help you. What if, on the other hand, you asked 20 Mexicans, and 10 of them said “Absolutely authentic,” and 5 said “Pretty close,” and 4 said “Well, not from my part of the country,” and one said “No”? I would trust that it is authentic, wouldn’t you?

I am not a coder. All code looks a little random to me. If you asked me if a bit of code were efficient or well done, I could not answer you. I would ask a few friends. If I asked 50 friends to evaluate it, and 25 of them said it looked great, 15 of them said “I think it looks good, but that’s not a language I am really skilled at, so maybe it could have been done better,” 7 of them said “It will defintely get the job done, but it could be more efficient,” and the last three said, more or less “No”. I will still use that code with confidence.

Like so many members of Congress, I am not a scientist. Like members of congress, I have not really studied the issue of climate change and I could not hope to make reasonable predictions about the effects of greenhouse gasses and global temperature shifts. Like Congress, I am not ashamed to say that I don’t have the expertise to make predictions or reasonable hypotheses  about the effects of energy or economic policy on the atmosphere and how that will change the habitability of the planet. That isn’t my job.

Honestly, that is what should be great about having career politicians; we should elect people who know about policy and law and economics to handle those things for us because we can’t all be experts in all things. Like us, politicians call for plumbers when they have a leak or doctors when they are ill because, like us, their job focuses on a different skill set and knowledge base. Like us, they shouldn’t all be scientists, because they need to know the legal system, the financial system, how our highways are built and repaired, and many other aspects of creating policy to make the country run better.

The problem is that many of these politicians are looking at the science, reading the conclusions of scientists, and, not understanding it for themselves, they are ignoring what the professionals are trying to tell them because the truth is comfortable.

The federal government has several divisions that are paid to do research and make predictions. Those divisions have helped us prepare for tornadoes and hurricanes. They have helped us target missiles and fly aircraft into dangerous situations. They have taken us to the moon and landed a robot the size of a small SUV on Mars. They have proven that they are good at science, and they warn us that climate change is real, and that humans are impacting it in a substantial way. That means that we could change our actions and have an impact on the course and rate at which this change is happening, and that certain actions will improve the stability of the countries and infrastructures currently in place.

When it comes to war, the Republicans are on the record saying that the government, and especially the current president, should trust the generals. They believe that the people who have fought in and risen to lead our military are trustworthy on issues of national security. The Pentagon has had military scientists looking at this, and the US military has concluded that Climate Change is a threat and that renewable energy needs to be a priority in national security. Why aren’t we listening?

When it comes to atmospheric science and the ability to look at the big picture here on Earth, few human institutions come close to the resources of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They put most of our satellites in orbit, and they track weather patterns and changed to geography. We pay them to do it, because we need that information. Their mission is the advancement of science with the intent to “benefit all humankind“. They have been tasked with the non-partisan job of making the world a better place for people. They warn that climate change is a real threat to human civilization as we know it.

Over 97% of the papers taking a position on the cause of global warming agreed that humans are causing it.

97% of scholarly papers from scientists working on the issue take the position that humans are driving climate change.

More importantly, as with the examples I opened with, we can trust that the people who know what they are talking about agree that human activities, especially the release of carbon that had previously been trapped underground in fossil fuels like oil and coal, back into the atmosphere, are making the problem much worse. Scientists who are working in the field of climate change overwhelmingly agree that it is a problem, and that we can make changes that will lessen its impact.

Now, of course there are some who look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. That happens in every field. Literary scholars argue about author intent. Music scholars may argue about the historical value of certain composers. Biblical scholars are the reason that there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity. And, this is a really good thing in science, as the point of peer review is to be skeptical and make sure that the facts point to the conclusion reached. We need curmudgeons and malcontents to keep everyone on their toes and honest. Sometimes, the facts available require a change to the conclusions that science has been working from. That is how we discovered climate change to begin with.

What we see here, though, isn’t scientists arguing about methodology or conclusions. What we see here is an overwhelming consensus of professionals who are being ignored anyway because what they have to say is inconvenient. We have lawmakers admitting that they are not scientists, in the same way that the President of the United States is not a general, and instead of listening to the experts and taking the advice of the majority, they are choosing to do nothing on an issue that threatens us all.

“I am not a scientist” should be a bold statement of ignorance and willingness to listen to professionals. Instead, it is being used as a smoke screen to dishonestly claim that no one knows what the facts are. The folks doing so should be ashamed of their hubris.


Chalica Day 7: The Interdependent Web of All Existence

First, I am sorry that this is late. It is hard to write on the weekends, and I didn’t get ahead of this project like I had hoped. This was a hard one to write, because the subject is both engaging and broad, and because my weekends are full to the brim with family. If I have complained at all about the imprecise language or the lack of explicit meaning in any of the other Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, please know that my dislike for the wording here is greater, even as (or perhaps because) I love the Principle its self for what it means to me.

Today, we ponder our respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. This seems to me to be either far too simple, or worse, deliberate ambiguity. See, there is a web. A web of “existence”. We are part of that. *sigh*

This is a really important Principle, and one that stands the test of both ethics and science. The idea that humanity is a part of creation, and neither above it or below it in some grand plan of damnation or salvation, is crucial to the Unitarian Universalist message. It grounds us in the reality of both our reliance on the creatures, plants, and ecosystems of the planet, and our collective ability to alter those ecosystems, whether through intent or carelessness.

Some people view this Principle from a human-centric view, that all of humanity is one species that must find a way to live together to make the world more livable for future generations. Some people look it from an ecological view point, and will speak of human responsibility and stewardship of the greater web of life on Earth. Some will take an Earth-Centered view, where everything must be balanced and all life is deserving of respect. Each of these views is, in my opinion, lacking.

For one thing, you and I are not humans. Not entirely. There are as many cells in your body which do not carry your DNA as there are those that do. You have the host to a whole ecosystem of bacteria that are needed to regulate things in our bodies, thousands in your digestive tract alone. Many estimate that you cells make up as few as 10 percent of the cells in your body over all.

The web exists within us, and it is interdependent with us.

We must take our environment, the whole of the biosphere, seriously. We cannot predict all of the impact of the changes we make to the course of a river or the leveling of a hill, much less from the intentional splicing of genes. It isn’t wrong to use technology and to shape our world, but we have to be ever aware that these changes can have long reaching consequences. Technology must be used with care and deliberation.

We are, ultimately, not above or below the realm of nature, but a part of it, though one that has become partially aware of the ebb and flow and is figuring out how to change it. Beavers create dams that reshape rivers and valleys and even the lowly ant builds mounds and tunnels to house the hive, inadvertently aerating the soil and improving the dispersal of water. Our capacity to shape our environment is unique primarily in scope. When we alter the landscape, we reshape the very forces of wind, rain, and sunlight on the environment. Truly, when I think of the web of all existence, I know that it encompasses the whole of creation. That doesn’t make it unnatural to be a human. We simply have to be conscious and conscientious in the use of our technology and how it effects the other animals and plants with which we share the planet, our mutual home. In fact, so many of those advances have come from, or at least been inspired by, our fellow earthlings that we would not be the creatures we are today without agriculture, animal husbandry, and the medicines and engineering advances that we’ve gleaned from our studies of the rest of creation.

It is important to keep all of this in mind, because every species that passes away leaves us with fewer clues to the great mystery. Every bug exterminated destroys a link in a chain that we may not be able to predict. Again, this is not to say that we don’t sometimes have need to rid our homes or businesses of pests, but it should always been done with thought and, hopefully, a bit of remorse.

We live in a complex system that has grown ever more reliant on our exploration, our technology, our refuse, and most importantly now, on our discretion. Our willingness to shape the world for our own needs has been short-sighted in the past, and some of the choices we’ve made have been irreversibly detrimental. There are plants with medicinal value that will never bloom again. We allowed that of our fellow humans. We owe it to the future generations of every species to avoid that whenever possible.

There is a web, and through it we are connected, and interconnected, with all life on this planet. We have to respect that for our own good, as humanity is far from self-sustaining. We need the plants and animals, we need the rivers and the lakes. We need this rock full of biochemical reactions. Humanity evolved as part of this world, and we are a long way from leaving it behind. We have to make peace with our place in it, and we have to accept that we need it as intact as we can keep it in order to secure our own future.

Abortion: Everyone is “Pro-life”. Are you anti-choice?

I have been trying to convince a “pro-life” UU that a woman is a person, and that a fetus is, at best, a special class that requires special consideration when we look at what rights we ascribe to it.

Let me start by saying that I am Pro-Life. I am in favor of not only life in simple terms, but in quality of life and the fullness of life and in life being something to celebrate. I was adopted as an infant. I have 2 children of my own, and I assure you that the first was a surprise. I wish that bearing a child didn’t come with social stigma and economic burdens. I wish that Maternal Mortality weren’t still an issue all over the world, more than 1 women in every 50,000 births in the US. Even if we managed those social and medical achievements, it can’t be ignored that having a child changes a woman’s body and brain chemistry, and not just the first time, but with each child that she bares. Every pregnancy requires a commitment to a real and unpredictable alteration to your way of life. It requires something akin to ego-death and accepting that you may not come out the same person. That isn’t something that we are likely to overcome any time soon.

I am Pro-life. I am also, out of necessity, pro-choice. Let me explain why, and how I rationalize that with my own past, my principles, and modern science.

Let’s start with a look at what it is that makes a person. It can’t just be genetics: a cancerous tumor is genetically human, and yet, differentiated from its host. It cannot live outside the host, even as it drains resources to fuel growth. It is alive, and it is human, but it is not a human being. The crucial distinction, then, is in the potential for a fetus to outgrow that specialized dependency and become an individual. I can accept that that potential is important, but it is not the same as a promise.

This is something so obvious that no country that I am aware of treats the fetus as a person. No industrialized nation issues “fertilization certificates”. Fetuses are not counted in any census. They are neither taxed, nor dependents to be claimed. If we are fighting for the “rights” of the fetus, what rights is it capable of exercising? It cannot have liberty from its womb. It cannot own property. It cannot believe, speak, read or write, or assemble freely. It cannot do these things, not for a defect in its development or an injury it has sustained, but due to an inherent and obvious lack of ability ensuing from the fact that it is not, as of yet, a person. It is not reasonable to describe the fetus as a whole person, and certainly not one that has the right to reside within an unwilling woman.

Why is it so obvious to all these secular agencies? Why has science been able to change our definition of death so clearly, but left the beginning of life so obscure? In part, it is because people will believe what they want, and that, generally speaking, the idea of when someone gains “humanity” is not a scientific question; it is generally held that a zygote is human, but that only something that has been separated from its egg, its mother, or (in the case of seahorses at least) its father’s womb. Before that, it is “alive”, but it is not a qualified individual member of its species.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why the promise of the embryo is not the same as an individual, much less a person:

Up to one half of all fertilized zygotes never make it beyond the 3rd week.  Many women will have at least one miscarriage in their childbearing years. Some of the critical errors that can cause a miscarriage are:

* Inheritance of a defective set of chromosomes. Errors in meiosis (called nondisjunctions) can produce an egg or sperm that has an abnormal number of chromosomes or broken chromosomes. This is almost always lethal. About half of the early miscarriages in humans are afflicted with this kind of random chromosomal defect.
* Errors in mitosis after ferilization. A nondisjunction in a dividing blastula may produce one abnormal cell — but since the blastula has so few cells, that means a significant fraction of the embryo is defective, preventing further development.
* Implantation errors. Human embryos have to nestle down in a good home, in the uterus. If the mother’s hormones are not just right, that can prevent implantation, and the otherwise healthy zygote may be sloughed away. In addition, 0.5 – 1% of all pregnancies are ectopic: the zygote tries to implant in the wrong place, most often in the fallopian tubes. This is always fatal for the embryo, and has the potential to be fatal for the mother.

Plenty of zygotes never implant in the uterus, and plenty of embryos are ejected by the host’s body for a variety of reasons, and this is possible at all stages of gestation.

At around 16 days after fertilization, we see a process called gastrulation, the point in development when the genetic code of the father first becomes truly involved in the embryo’s development. Until this point in development, even interspecies hybrids are possible, though most will die off once gastrulation occurs. This shows that simple fertilization does not promise a viable member of any species at all.

So, there must be a point in development where we are certain that we are going to get a person. Arguably, this happens around 20-23 weeks along, when we can detect actual brain activity above just the brain stem. That parallels the common medical definition for brain death, which is where we commonly declare the end of life, or at least hope for quality of life.

Even after that, though, many premature births still result in a being that is incapable of living more than a few weeks, even days. At least at that point, though, the fetus has a chance at life, outside the womb, in the care of someone other than the woman in whom it implanted. And that is the earliest point at which I can hold the argument for real personhood.

That still doesn’t explain clearly why women need to be able to choose to evict this mass, if they choose to do so. I feel I have established my position of the fetus as a non-entity, but why does that matter? Let’s cook up a ridiculous analogy; ridiculous because any attempt to duplicate the strain of an unwanted pregnancy with a relatable  situation is doomed to seem silly to anyone who has been through even a planned and welcome pregnancy.

I am adopted. No member of my family is genetically close to me. I need a kidney. I, therefore, insist that everyone in the US be screened, and that a random person with a proper DNA profile who has 2 good kidneys be forced to give up one. My need of their body is life or death, where as the risk to them is slight to moderate. We must also make them pay for the operation and drastically change their lifestyle for 9 months to prepare for a potentially deadly (one woman dies in the US for every 50K live births) medical procedure that will take months to recover from and alter their own brain and body chemistry for the rest of their lives.

Oh, and they have to wear a silly hat for those 9 months that opens them to public ridicule and even scorn for having been a viable donor. That is the real problem I have with a prohibition on abortion.

We can change the world such that a woman knows that she’ll have food and medical treatment. We can ensure that she will still have educational opportunities. We can continue the work of medical science, though I don’t know what kind of breakthrough would make delivery any safer outside of some sort of teleportation. We can do all of these things, and some women will still refuse to share their body with that child at the time the child needs it. She should retain that right, even as we work to reduce the chances it will be exercised. She is a person, actual and whole, and she has a right to control what and who has access to her body.

Unitarian Universalism is a forward looking religion

Unitarian Universalists don’t have a creation story we cling to. Almost all of us hold to theories that have been created based on evidence and scientific research, though we may weave mythic elements into our personal theologies. We rely on science to tell us where we came from and how the universe spins and pulses without coming apart. That is what Science is good at: it tells us what has happened, and why things work.

UUs seek religion to help us shape the future. We seek a moral compass in fellowship and personal study. We seek truth and meaning in the physical world, as well as any spiritual realms we embrace. We seek truth, but more over, we seek to put that information to good use.

It is not an easy thing to give up the pretense of insight or absolute knowledge. In fact, a great many people count on religion to provide them with the sense that the Universe can be known, or at least that some supreme being knows all, and that there is a plan that can be traced through the ages, whether or not any such plan can be deduced from the holy texts. Many people rely on religious tradition and doctrine to lay out history for them, as if it were an unbreakable chain of events, predictable as clockwork from the point of view of the enlightened.

Ours is not an old religion, though it has deep roots . Certainly, we have traditions, some of our congregations having existed since pre-revolutionary America, but each congregation adopts those, or creates new traditions of its own. Ours is a young religion, devoted to evolving and committed to truth, even if it means admitting that we’ve been wrong in the past. Certainly we will make mistakes, but the only way to ensure a perfect record is through lack of any bold or courageous action.

It is important to realize this, because it is one thing that causes us to stand out amongst the mainstream in religious thought. We are not concerned with dictating the past or pretending at mystical insight. We are concerned with this time, and with our shared future. How we got here matters, but it is the work of science to give us the details, though we may search ancient texts for clues that science cannot deduce. It is how we move forward to a more just, compassionate, and equitable future that we dedicate our religious life to, and not just in some Summerland or Nirvana, but right here on Earth for ourselves and whatever we leave behind.

Ours in not a religion of the past. Science can sort out where we came from. Our religion is about guiding us to a future where peace, liberty and justice are seen as the birthright of every living thing. Ours is not just a religion for today. Unitarian Universalism is a religion for our future.

Our Science is often imperfect: Why we shouldn’t rule out God.

I have heard so very much lately from militant atheists claiming that anything that science hasn’t devised a method for testing cannot be rationally considered in one’s word view. My personal experiences, and those of the billion or so other people throughout history claiming some contact with “the divine” in same way, cannot be validated, and continued assertion that the experiences have value is some sort of mental defect.

One man even went so far as to claim that faith cannot survive rational examination, because no one who has faith can be rational. This relied on him equating the words “rather than” to the words “in spite of” in the definition of the word Faith.

Certainly, science requires a lot from the world in terms of proof. Direct experience is often discounted, and rightly so. In law enforcement, witness testimony is widely held to be the weakest form of evidence. People see what they are looking for rather than what is there, focusing on details rather than looking at the big picture.

The mountain gorilla was detailed in a paper published in the Boston Journal of Natural History in December 1847. The official date of the “discovery” of the species is in 1902. Science didn’t trust the skeletal remains and first hand accounts until a corpse was provided.

The story of the platypus is, not surprisingly, very similar.

Science has had a long history of denying things that they just haven’t found a way to test subjectively. There are many advances in neuroscience that are, in essence, proving the mind to be capable (on a small scale) of things that would have only been dismissed as magic 50 years ago. Precognition, telepathy, and other forms of extra-sensory perception are being given a lot of consideration in modern scientific journals. In most cases, the conclusion has been that the results are significant to warrant further study.

To get to my point, finally, science is too hard on God. And, yes, I am being serious. I don’t think that it is unfair to say that no less than a billion people though out history have had an experience that seemed supernatural. Personal accounts of hundreds of thousands of people can be read right here on the internet.

Science demands proof of God, which is fine, but there cannot be proof, because of the supposed nature of God: Something beyond time and space as we know it. Nothing which can be adequately measured by science can be God. If a miracle happens, like a disease being cured, then science explains it away as having been remotely possible, and that is fair enough; medicine has a much better track record than prayer. Even if a creature showed up and cured the disease in some direct fashion, science would, again rightly, postulate some advanced technology that we don’t understand. Just as any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, so would our understanding of technology always lead us to rule out magic. Again, science is not religion, and it should always strive to distinguish its self from superstition.

It is important to remember that science rarely comes up with neat explanations that account for all data, though. No image of massive ramps will ever satisfy the human need to see wonder in the building of the pyramids. There is no scientific explanation for the annual occurrence of the Naga Fireballs, or the honest-to-god raining down of a single type of animal on a geographic area. Sure, science can speculate, but they can’t even satisfactorily explain the water damage on the great sphinx, presumably build long after the region had turned to desert.

Millions of people alive today have had experiences that they describe as “divine”. This is not to say that none of these claims are exaggerated or misinterpreted, but they also should not be so quickly dismissed. The personal experience of others is all the proof most of us have for the existence of wild mountain gorillas, the the roundness of the Earth. We accept the mutual consent of scientists that some things are true. We recognize that the methods they use could be duplicated, indeed have been, in order to reach the same conclusions. But many reject the idea that the plethora of personal experiences with the divine could also teach us anything important.

No, I am not saying that I think any one prophet has ever understood The Divine Plan. I’m not even saying that there is one. But I am saying that denying the very concept of God, simply because you have not had a personal experience with it, is intellectually dishonest. Science is constantly expanding the horizons of what we know about the universe. It has found that particles can exist in 2 (or more) places at once and that things both cannot, and do in fact, move faster than the speed of light. We live in a strange universe. A super-natural entity really isn’t that much of a logical leap compared to what we already think we know.

Personal stuff, and rethinking a schedule

My girls were in town this weekend. About 2 years ago, their mother moved north of Houston, which is a solid 4 hour drive from here (I live in a huge state). I get to see them one weekend most months. It hard, as they are the only 2 blood relatives I have, and the time I have with them is precious. When they are here, I spend any time I’m not sleeping or doing those things necessary to keep the house running making sure that they are included in whatever is going on. I really try to make sure that they see this as their home, too. It isn’t all trips to Six Flags, though we do try to plan the fun things for when they are here. They also help with chores and other mundane family things. They don’t always appreciate that, but it seems like the right thing to do. I’m trying to make sure that I never stop being their father in an attempt to be more fun than their mom. I’ve seen it happen, and I really don’t want to be that guy.

Why am I posting this? Well, first, it has been a while since I’ve gotten into my personal life here, and I think that’s ok. I do want to connect with people, but I don’t want this to become about what I had for lunch (Unless I take on some interesting dinning challenge!)

What I realized this weekend is that it will be nearly impossible to write and publish a blog post for Monday after my girls have been here. I am still to self conscious about my writing to not go over it a few times first, and those few times need to be spaced many hours apart. So, I am totally rethinking my schedule after less than a month.

From now on, I will make an effort to post something on Tuesday about my personal faith, my chosen religion (Unitarian Universalism), or religious life in general.

On Friday, I will post something based more in politics, science, or general culture.

This is, in effect, switching the 2 categories. My blog will always have at least 2 sides, but I am trying to organize and distinguish, if not completely separate, the major division that currently exists. I know I have a few readers who prefer one topic, and now they know when to look to see if I’m writing about it this week.

April had been my busiest month to date in terms of page views. May exactly doubled that number. Thanks so much to everyone who is following my progress as a writer. I welcome comments, and I hope to get more feedback in the future.

Mormon Faith isn’t an issue; Mormon dogma could be.

A lot of people are asking if Mitt Romney’s faith is a hindrance to his bid for the presidency.

For this discussion, I will define faith as:

2. belief that is not based on proof

3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion

Let me saying now that I don’t care at all what Romney believes about God. I care very little about his superstitions or supernatural doctrines.

The problem is that the Mormon faith goes far beyond more mainstream Christianity in its denial of the facts of history. While many Christians will argue about the age of the world, or a presumed global flood some 4000 years ago, Romney’s faith requires him to disbelieve things that we know about the later part of the last millennium.

The Book of Mormon has its own, completely unsubstantiated version of the history of North America. They believe that Humanity originated here, in fact, but this would qualify as “Antediluvian” and no more silly than many other Young Earth theories. The thing is, the Book of Mormon, as written by Joseph Smith, taught that the Native Americans were descended from Jewish refugees who arrived on a reed raft. Newer versions (and they do “update” the scriptures, even though the source materials vanished, not so mysteriously) now list the Jews as being “among” the descendants, rather than the primary source. The Jews arrived here to find a land already teaming with herds of horses, and put them to work pulling chariots full of men clad in gold and silks.

This is where I take umbrage: We can prove that none of these things are true. We knew that most of this was fiction in Smith’s day. Horses arrived from Spain after Columbus, and no precolumbian civilization ever made use of the wheel, in part, due to a lack of appropriate animals to pull a wagon. There was no silk, and no Golden City anywhere in the Americas.

If they want to believe that we are the product of some extraterrestrial intelligence, even the direct offspring (spiritually, you understand), then that is fine. I cannot offer them any proof that this is not so. But they found their belief on lies about the real world. When the scriptures that introduce this Divine ET also claim that God spoke directly to Joseph Smith, even though He was never recorded as speaking to Jesus himself, that is questionable, but no one can disprove the encounter. But when the same book claims that there was a large Jewish settlement in North America, one that looked a lot like Egypt from my reading, then we have a problem. There is no section of North America left to search. We’ve disproved this fairytale.

I don’t have problems with Mitt Romney’s faith. I have problems with his anti-intellectualism and his Church’s disdain for equality; they didn’t accept black people as full members of the church until 1978, and have led campaigns for the suppression of LGBT rights.

I have no problem with what Mitt Romney believes, despite a lack of evidence. I have a very big problem with what his church teaches in defiance of scientific knowledge and human decency.