Monday, September 26, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 4, Patriotism / Holidays

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. Today, I'm going to look at patriotism & holidays. I know they're not exactly related, but they both stir up similar emotional reactions.


Symbols of American and Texan Heritage- We call upon governmental entities to protect all symbols of our American and Texan heritage. We oppose governmental action to remove the public display of the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols. We support the Pledge Protection Act. We urge that the national motto "In God We Trust" and National Anthem be protected from legislative and judicial attack. Penalties should be established for any form of desecration of the American or Texas Flag...

Well, I've already criticized their injection of religion into politics earlier in this series, and this plank contains yet more examples. There's also another example of their wanting to do away with checks and balances, by proposing the Pledge Protection Act that would deprive all courts jurisdiction over constitutional challenges to the pledge - a law that would itself be unconstitutional and liable to be overturned by the Supreme Court.

Worse than those is their disregard for the First Amendment, wanting to take away people's freedom of expression by making it illegal to desecrate flags. Granted, it upsets me personally to see people desecrate the U.S. Flag, but like I've said many times before, only totalitarian regimes try to outlaw symbolic gestures against inanimate objects.

The most hypocritical part of that plank is talking about wanting to protect American symbols 'from legislative and judicial attack', when that's exactly the reason why many of those symbols have the form they do now, and Republicans would consider it an 'attack' to restore them to their original forms. For example, E pluribus unum had always been considered the de facto motto of the U.S., up until the Red Scare and McCarthyism when 'In God We Trust' was adopted (personally, I much prefer E pluribus unum and the unity it expresses). And even though the Pledge wasn't part of that particular sentence in the plank, it offers another good example of a secular symbol that was corrupted by religion, again during the Red Scare and McCarthyism. And ironically, when 'under God' was added, it broke up the original phrase of 'one Nation indivisible'. So in both examples, you have religious sentiments messing up the original messages of unity. (And as an aside, I'll just note that the Pledge was originally written by a socialist, Francis Bellamy.)


American Identity-We favor strengthening our common American identity, which includes the contribution and assimilation of diverse racial and ethnic groups. Students shall pledge allegiance to the United States and Texas flags daily to instill patriotism. Students have the right to display patriotic items on school property.

I've said this for previous years, and I'll say it again. I never realized how creepy pledges were until I walked in on my daughter's class reciting the Texas pledge (I didn't grow up here). Hearing a pledge in a context where you're not desensitized reveals it for the propaganda method it is. It's not that I dislike my country, but forced loyalty oaths are for totalitarian governments, not the land of the free.

It's also odd to see a specific statement defending students' 'right to display patriotic items on school property'. Is there some movement afoot to ban miniature American flags on school grounds?


Resolved, that holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Columbus Day, St. Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Good Friday, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and the 4th of July as a historical holiday should remain on our governmental and public school calendars.

You may think that I'm going to rail on the religious holidays mentioned above, but I actually don't mind them so much as they become more and more secularized. I mean, I have secular Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas, and most of the symbolism that goes along with these holidays is pagan, anyway. Hell, they didn't even change the name for Easter. And how many people really care about the religious aspects of Valentine's Day, St. Patty's Day, or (unmentioned) Halloween? So what the hell, let's just go all the way and make them secular national holidays.

No, my big problem here is Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus was an absolutely horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just that he was a crackpot who lucked his way into discovering a continent (practically all educated people of the time already knew the spherical nature of the Earth and the approximate diameter - Columbus underestimated the diameter by nearly a factor of 2), but the horrible way he treated the American Indians and European settlers in his newfound colony. His actions were so cruel that other Spaniards arrested him and took him back to Europe in shackles (he received a pardon from the crown - seems the 'Good Old Boy' network was just as strong in the 1500s). I see absolutely no reason to have a holiday honoring this wretched person. (related entry - Happy Exploration Day 2015)

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So, this was a rather short entry in this series, but I still think it's important to call out some of the authoritarian streaks in the platform, what with mandatory loyalty oaths for school age children and outlawing symbolic acts against inanimate objects, and how those planks run counter to our nation's ideal of Freedom of Speech guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 3, Politics & Government

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. The title of this entry, Politics & Government, might seem awfully broad, since, after all, a political party platform is all about politics & government. These planks are mostly about the mechanics of politics & government itself.


Pursuant to Article 1 Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, the federal government has impaired our right of local self-government. Therefore, Federally mandated legislation, which infringes upon the 10th Amendment rights of Texas, should be ignored, opposed, refused, and nullified.

They had similar language in the last platform, and it's simply illegal barring a Constitutional amendment. As I've written previously, the Supremacy Clause makes it clear that federal laws are "the supreme law of the land", and states don't get to ignore them when they don't like them. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this position (more info - Wikipedia).

And as I've also already written, there is a system in place to challenge laws that you think are unconstitutional - the Supreme Court. States don't get to willy-nilly ignore laws they don't like.


Term Limits: We support term limits for Federal Judicial and Congressional offices and statewide offices to three terms, or twelve years maximum for any single office.

As I've written before, people with experience at a job do better than inexperienced people, and legislating is no different. Here's a good article from the Washington Post, The folly of term limits, that echoes many of my thoughts on the matter. He used California's existing term limits as an example, noting "Virtually everyone I interviewed for that piece named term limits as a contributor to California's fiscal crisis." The people in office simply hadn't had enough time to learn how to effectively deal with statewide budgets, and by the time they finally did get that experience, they only had a few years before they were forced out of office because of their term limits.

We already have a process, voting, to get rid of the elected officials we don't think are doing a good job. There are several issues giving incumbents too much of an advantage that should be addressed, but a measure that guarantees inexperienced legislators isn't the solution.


Elimination of Executive Orders- We oppose the unconstitutional use of executive orders. All orders lacking Congressional approval become null and void after four months.

Do they understand what executive orders actually are or how they work? The president is the head of the executive branch of government. In effect, he's the boss. And as the boss, he issues directions, or orders, to his subordinates on what he expects them to do. So, when the head of the Executive branch issues Orders, they get called Executive Orders. Why should the president have to seek Congressional approval for each and every one of these executive orders? Doesn't that seem like way too much micromanagement from Congress, and an attempt to give Congress too much power in our nation's checks and balances system? Granted, presidents could screw up and issue unconstitutional executive orders, but that's what the Supreme Court is for. It just seems odd to actually want for Congress to interfere so heavily in a separate branch of government.


Census- We support an actual count of United States citizens only, and oppose Census Bureau estimates and the collection of all other data.

Because more data to help make more informed decisions is bad? This really seems like the anti-intellectualism that's become a stereotype of the Republican Party, or possibly the conspiracy theory paranoia that's become another of their stereotypes.


Preservation of Republican Form of Government- We support our republican form of government as set forth in the Texas Bill of Rights. We oppose initiative and referendum. We oppose socialism in any form. We support the Texas Legislature and the United States Congress in enacting legislation that prohibits any judicial jurisdiction from allowing any substitute or parallel system of law, specifically foreign law (including Sharia Law), which is not in accordance with the United States or Texas Constitutions.

This one's just all over the place. They start off talking about a 'Republican Form of Government', which is fair enough. If you don't like straight democracy, then you wouldn't like initiatives or referendums. Personally, I tend to prefer a republic myself, since the knowledge and skills for governing are a specialty that not everyone is qualified for, as I pointed out above in reference to term limits. Or, just look at the Brexit disaster in the UK.

But then it throws an economic system into the discussion, socialism, that's not at odds at all with a democratic republic. And they say the oppose it 'in any form', which seems pretty extreme. I mean, fire departments are a form of socialism, since they used to be private in their early days and don't strictly have to be public services. Are the Republicans saying they're against public fire departments? I don't think most of them are, but that illustrates that they don't actually understand what the term, socialism, means.

Then there's paranoia over Sharia Law. I mean, sure, just about everybody is opposed to Sharia Law being implemented in the U.S., Democrat and Republican alike, but we're also opposed to kicking puppies or stealing candy from babies. It's just not something that deserves mention in a serious public policy document since it's so far outside the realm of possibility.


Judicial Restraint- We support adopting the Constitutional Restoration Act and the principle of judicial restraint, which requires judges to interpret and apply, rather than make the law. We support judges who strictly interpret the law based on its original intent. We oppose judges who assume legislative powers.

This is one of those weird rallying cries of conservatives - that somehow judges are making the law. The buzzword used to be judicial activism, but I guess now it's evolved into it's counterpart, judicial restraint. But nearly all the cases I've seen cited as examples of judicial activism are simply judges doing their jobs as they should (more info - The Economist - Those "activist" judges).


Remedies to Activist Judiciary- We call on Congress and the President to restrain activist judges. Congress should adopt the Judicial Conduct Act of 2005, and remove judges who abuse their authority. Further, we urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights. We support the repeal of all Federal statutes regarding lifetime judiciary appointments, and call for periodic reconfirmation of all Federal judges, including Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justices.

Ahh... Now we see why the Republicans are so against an 'Activist Judiciary'. It's because the Supreme Court justices made decisions that they didn't like. But that's the nature of the checks and balances of the U.S. government. How else are we supposed to reign in Congress or the states when they pass unconstitutional legislation?

Just for example, what if in the upcoming election, the Democrats take control of the House, Senate, and Presidency, and subsequently pass some very strict gun control laws. Would the Republicans be against someone taking that issue to the Supreme Court, even though it would be a case involving the Bill of Rights? Of course not, because that's the very function of the Supreme Court.

It's just absurd to try to carve out certain issues that are outside the jurisdiction of the highest court in the land.

It's also problematic to want periodic reconfirmation of all Federal judges. The judiciary is supposed to be independent from all the politics of the legislature, and pass judgment based solely on the law. That's the whole point of lifetime appointments, so that judges don't answer to the legislature. And there is a system in place to deal with judges who make egregiously bad decisions or overstep their bounds - they can be impeached. If judges were to face periodic reconfirmation hearings, they would lose their independence, and the judiciary would become even more politicized.

And as an aside, given Republican obstructionism in the Senate and how few federal judges they've confirmed under the Obama administration, just imagine how bad reconfirmation hearings would be in practice. More info: Washington Post - Waiting for next president, confirmations of federal trial judges stall


I'm going to deal with these next two together.

...assurance that each polling place has a distinctly marked, where possible, separate locations for Republican and Democrat primary voting.
Closed Primary- We support protecting the integrity of the Republican primary election by requiring a closed primary system in Texas.

I have mixed feelings about primary elections. In one sense, I find them objectionable. Political parties aren't official government entities. They're private organizations, basically clubs. They can choose which candidates to endorse in the same way that other clubs and private organizations can choose which candidates they want to endorse. But other organizations don't get the state to pay for an election to decide this for them. Why are my tax dollars going to support the process for these clubs that I don't belong to?

On the other hand, the reality is that political parties do have huge influence over politics, and one of the candidates that either the Republicans or Democrats endorse is more than likely going to end up winning whatever office they're running for, with near certainty for the presidency. So, having an open election is certainly better than the old days of party bosses picking the candidates in smoke filled back rooms.

The other issue is that political parties don't have to use the results from the state primary elections. They can hold a caucus and use those results, instead. The big difference, though, is that primaries are funded by the state (and my tax dollars), while caucuses are funded by the political parties' own funds.

So, I think open primaries are a reasonable compromise. It allows for an open democratic process to pick endorsements. And by leaving it an open primary, it allows independents, whose tax dollars are helping to support the primary election, to have a voice in this early stage of the process, rather than being completely at the whims of the major parties. And if the parties don't like the open primary system, they're free to fund their own caucuses to decide who they want to endorse.

More info: Washington Post - Everything you need to know about how the presidential primary works

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So, these planks are a mix of bad ideas, attempts to wreck the checks and balances of government, conspiracy driven worries, and flat out unconstitutional ideas. And like I wrote in the introduction to this series, these planks were all voted on individually and approved by the majority of the state delegates. I know most of us have become jaded to bad politics, but it really should be mind-boggling that the most powerful political party in the state of Texas could hold such bad positions.

Continue to Part 4, Patriotism / Holidays

 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Is Evolution Falsifiable?

Is the March of Progress InevitableI came across the following Quora question, Is the theory of evolution unfalsifiable?. Although I'm not sure the question was asked in good faith, it's still an interesting question to think about. Here was my response.

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All good science should in principle be falsifiable. The problem is that some fields become so well backed up by evidence, it's hard to conceive how they could be falsified short of ludicrous conspiracy theories or Matrix like scenarios.

For example, take the roughly spherical shape of the Earth. For all intents and purposes, this is a concept that has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. You can find multiple Quora threads dealing with flat earth 'theories', such as this one, Let's say I don't believe the world is round. How can one prove the world is round to me?, which lists some of this overwhelming evidence in support of the Earth's true shape. It's really hard to conceive how this concept could be falsified given all that we know. It would take a conspiracy on par with The Truman Show, where everyone we thought we knew was an actor, and we had been misled our entire lives, or an equally ludicrous scenario like the Matrix, where we were living in a simulated reality not at all like the reality outside the simulation. In short, falsifying the roughly spherical shape of the Earth would entail a shake up so huge that we couldn't trust anything we thought we knew about the world.

Evolution in broad stroke approaches that level of certainty. Between biochemistry, biogeography, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, molecular biology, paleontology, genetics, observed instances, and other lines of evidence, it's really hard to conceive of how the concept could be falsified.

One of the flip answers you'll often hear is rabbits in the Precambrian, supposedly a response from J.B.S. Haldane when asked what evidence he thought would falsify evolutionary theory. But to return temporarily to the flat Earth example, that's like saying that a photograph of a disc world from space would be evidence to falsify round world theory. But honestly, would the image below be enough to convince you that the world was flat? Or would you suspect Photoshop or some other type of hoax?

Flat Earth Illustration

So even if fossil rabbits were claimed to be found in Precambrian deposits, they would be investigated and considered very extensively before being taken as evidence overturning evolution. Could they be hoaxes? Some type of disturbance to the geological column in that locale? A section of Precambrian deposits that were temporarily exposed long enough for some poor ancient rabbit to die and become fossilized there? To be honest, given the vast other data in support of evolution, a single Precambrian fossil rabbit would probably be chalked up to an unexplainable anomaly.

But, supposing more out of place fossils were found than just a single anomaly, or you could find evidence of huge conspiracies among all the world's biologists past and present lying about the evidence for evolution, or you could find evidence for the Matrix and that the real world is far different from this simulation that we're living in, then you might have something in the way of falsifying evolution.

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More Info - I included a link to a Quora thread in the original answer, and I've written about the topic numerous times, myself. So, here are links to that Quora thread and a few of entries I've written.

Image Source 1: Wikipedia, with further editing by me.

Image Source 2: Pinterest - It's actually all over the place without attribution, so I doubt that I've actually found the original. If anyone knows the actual original source, please let me know.

Friday, September 16, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 2, Religion

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. Today's entry will focus on planks having to do with religion. Actually, because of how infused the entire platform is with religion, this entry will only focus on some of the planks having to do with religion. Others made more sense to discuss in other sections of this series.

The very first statement of this platform got off to a bad start right from the get go:

Affirming our belief in God...

Government and politics should have nothing to do with religion, other than affirming the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. Government is a secular institution, and there's no need at all to bring religion into it. In fact, when government represents a multicultural society with a mix of religious beliefs, it's positively better to leave religion out of politics. But here, in the very opening phrase, Texas Republicans are mixing religion and politics. In fact, just doing a quick word search, they mention 'God' 14 times, 'Judeo-Christian' 4 times, and 'Bible' twice. That's an awful lot of religious language for an institution that shouldn't be based on religion.


Judeo-Christian Nation- As America is a nation under God, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, we affirm the constitutional right of all individuals to worship as they choose.

America was NOT founded on Judeo-Christian principles, or at least nothing specifically Judeo-Christian that's unique from other cultures. If anything, the unique principles of the USA were Enlightenment values. You only need look as far as our nation's founding document, the Constitution, which makes no religious references, other than the convention of using 'Year of our Lord' for the date, and explicitly prohibiting religious tests for public office (plus the separation of church and state once you get to the amendments).

I know some people are fond of pointing to the Declaration of Independence (even though it's not the founding document of our nation) and the passage about men being "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", but are they really that ignorant of history? I mean, the Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson for crying out loud - the same man who made his own Bible by eliminating all the miracles of Jesus and other supernatural elements because he didn't believe them. He was a deist, not a Christian. And 'their Creator' is a typical deistic phrase, not a Christian one.

More generally, basic prohibitions against theft and murder and other types of crime are present in just about all societies. And codifying them into law goes back at least to the Code of Hammurabi (who wasn't Jewish, and certainly wasn't Christian given that he was alive roughly 1700 years BC). There's nothing in the Bible about structuring a government with bicameral legislatures. In fact, a democratic republic is more Greco-Roman in heritage. That First Amendment that we hold in such high regard (and rightly so) is actually counter to the First Commandment - we've actually guaranteed in the founding document of our nation that people can, in fact, have other gods before Yahweh.

And you don't just have to take my word for it. Go read the Treaty of Tripoli. This was a treaty written and ratified in 1796-1797, less than a decade after the founding of the USA (as determined by the ratification of the Constitution), under the presidency of John Adams. Everyone involved could rightly be called a member of the Founding Fathers. And the treaty was passed unanimously by the Senate. Not only that, they made it a point to take a roll to record the votes of everyone present. They wanted history to remember them approving this treaty. Article 11 states, and I'll emphasize it to make sure it doesn't get missed, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...". That's a pretty clear statement from the Founders themselves that the U.S. is not a Christian nation.

(I've covered this idea of America as a Christian nation several times before if you're interested in more detail. Probably the three most relevant previous entries are Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part IV - Faith in Society, and A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle.)

Safeguarding Religious Liberties- We affirm that the public acknowledgement of God is undeniable in our history and is vital to our freedom, prosperity, and strength. We pledge our influence toward a return to the original intent of the 1st Amendment and toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state. Tax deductions for charitable contributions are not government subsidies and give no authority for government oversight. Americans should be free to express their religious beliefs, including prayer in public places. We urge the legislature to increase the ability of faith based institutions and other organizations to assist the needy and to reduce regulation of such organizations. We also support vigorously protecting the rights of commercial establishments to refuse to provide any service or product that would infringe upon freedom of conscience of religious expression of the commercial establishments as stated in the 1st Amendment.

Just because the First Amendment doesn't literally contain the words 'separation of church and state' doesn't mean that the concept is a myth. I mean, just read the dang thing, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." So, government can neither support nor interfere with religion. That sounds an awful lot like separation to me. And it's not like the term, 'separation of church and state', is some revisionist invention of liberals. It was coined by Thomas Jefferson himself, back in 1802 in a letter to the Danbury Baptists. Here's the relevant portion of the letter.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. [emphasis mine]

Regarding the latter portions of the plank, I have to admit that I get tired of people trying to use religion as an excuse to break the law. Yes, you should have freedom to practice your religion how you see fit, unless doing so causes harm to other people. As an extreme example, you can't claim to belong to a religion that promotes theft, and that therefore you can't go to jail for stealing things. You still have to follow the law. Less extreme, you can't claim that insurance is 'gambling', so you're not going to provide it to your employees, or that taxes are immoral, so you're not going to pay them. Nor can you deny other obligations to employees or customers just because you personally don't like something about those obligations. If it's a law, you still have to follow it.


Protection for Religious Institutions- We believe religious institutions have the freedom to recognize and perform only those marriages that are consistent with their doctrine.

Okay.... And I believe I should have the freedom to recognize and say that the sky is blue. It seems odd to make a plank that's obvious to everybody and not an actual political issue.

Okay, maybe there is some concern that individuals will sue churches over this issue, but I haven't heard of any mainstream politicians pushing for legislation that would violate churches' First Amendment rights.

(more info - and I feel a little dirty just linking to them - Family Research Council - Can Pastors and Churches Be Forced to Perform Same-Sex Marriages?)


Family Values- We support the affirmation of traditional Judeo-Christian family values and oppose the continued assault on those values.

Most everybody supports 'family values', whether they're Christian or not. So if the Republicans are referring to an assault, I can only assume they mean against the more bigoted quarters of Christianity who oppose marriage equality and other gay rights, want to see women be second class citizens, want to take away women's right to bodily autonomy, and other similar positions. And if those are the 'Judeo-Christian' values they're referring to (which aren't shared by all religious people), then no, they don't deserve respect. Those values absolutely deserve to be assaulted by everyone with respect for their fellow human beings.


Empowering Local Entities Concerning Religious Meetings- We support the right of local entities to determine their own policies regarding religious clubs and meetings on all properties owned by the same, without interference.

If by 'local entities', they mean private companies or organizations, then sure, that's their right. I don't know of anyone, certainly not mainstream politicians, who would argue against that. But if they mean local governments, then no, local governments have to follow the First Amendment just like the federal government, and can't endorse particular religions (though they can allow religious uses of facilities as long as they open it up to all religions, and don't favor any particular religion).

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This whole issue of entangling politics with religion is one of the big problems with the current Republican party. Not only is it counter to the First Amendment, but it wouldn't be a good idea even if there was no First Amendment. Laws should have reasonable secular reasons, especially in a society where not everybody shares the same religious beliefs. And it's frustrating on top of that to see their mangling of history to try to support their views.

Continue to Part 3, Politics & Government

 

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 1, Introduction

Republican ElephantIt's election year, so the Texas Republicans have gotten together to make a new platform. I've commented on their past several platforms (2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014), so even though I'm a little late this year, I figured I'd keep the tradition going and comment on this one, as well. Besides, the election's coming up in a couple months, and even though Trump and Clinton are getting most of the headlines, state politics has a huge effect on our lives, as well, so it's important to understand where the parties stand, and especially just how bad the Republican party is in Texas.

If you want to read the entire platform for yourself, you can find it here:

Republican Party of Texas 2016 Platform

Previous platforms have had some really bizarre planks, but the previous platforms had been put together in committees and then voted on by the convention as a whole document. So, you could get some of those strange planks slipped in, because no one wanted to reject the entire platform for a few oddities. This year, however, every single plank was voted on by the delegates. There's no excuse to be made that an odd plank was snuck in. All of these planks were approved by the majority of the delegates representing the Texas Republican Party.

In years past, I've tried to limit my discussion mostly to just what was new that year. But because of the nature of how this platform was passed, knowing that each plank has majority support, I've decided to include more planks than normal. And because there are so many planks, I've decided to break this up into multiple entries. This particular post is basically just an introduction, and will also act as a table of contents. I've arleady gotten far enough to know how it's going to be organized, so the table of contents already contains the full list of entries. I'll make the links active as I post the entries.

  • Part 1 - Introduction (this page)
  • Part 2 - Religion
  • Part 3 - Politics & Government
  • Part 4 - Patriotism / Holidays
  • Part 5 - Environment / Climate Change (coming soon)
  • Part 6 - Civil Rights (coming soon)
  • Part 7 - Abortion / Planned Parenthood (coming soon)
  • Part 8 - Health Care (coming soon)
  • Part 9 - Education (coming soon)
  • Part 10 - Guns (coming soon)
  • Part 11 - Crime & Drugs (coming soon)
  • Part 12 - Crippling the Federal Government / Taxes (coming soon)
  • Part 13 - Misc / Weird (coming soon)
  • Part 14 - Xenophobia / Isolationism (coming soon)

Friday, September 9, 2016

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for August 2016

Top 10 ListNow that August is over, it's time to have a look at the server logs to see what pages on the site were most popular in August. And it's pretty much a list of the usual suspects. When peeking ahead to September, though, I did notice something interesting. Granted, we're less than a week into this month, so it's probably just a quirk that will be smoothed out once I get a bit more traffic, but as of today, my 10th most popular page for this month is Tank Game - QBasic Source Code, a program I wrote back in high school to try to come up with an 'action' game. Granted, it was a very simple program even back in the day, but not too bad for a self-taught high school kid (I eventually had a couple classes on programming and so picked up on better practices).

I'm not sure if it's just the normal variation, or if my efforts at the tail end of the month to get back into regular blogging made a difference, but overall traffic for August was up a bit from the previous months. Hopefully I do stick with writing like I had been and traffic will increase back to what it was before the summer. And I haven't forgotten about the Friday Bible Blogging, but it'll probably be a couple more weeks before I begin updating that series again.

I also spent some time doing housekeeping that I'd neglected for a while. Some time around a year or two ago, Amazon changed the way they do product linking. So, a lot of the links I'd created for books just quit working entirely, leaving blank white space. I've gone through all those entries and fixed the links, occasionally updating the edition I was linking to when appropriate. Have a look at my review of Why Evolution Is True to see what I'm talking about as far as the links (and click on the link and buy the book).

And as one last administrative note, there were some issues last week when the company that hosts this site did some updates that affected Movable Type. It screwed up commenting and a few other things. I got in touch with tech support and the issue is now resolved. I'm not sure exactly when it happened since I don't check this blog every day, but I'm pretty sure that the problems lasted less than a week.

Anyway, here're the lists for last month.

Top 10 for August 2016

  1. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  2. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  3. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  4. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  5. Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  6. Autogyro History & Theory
  7. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  8. Response to E-mail - 1400 years of In-breeding
  9. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  10. Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Putting the Bible and Other Ancient Books in Perspective

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsI came across a question on Quora this week, Why do atheists not believe a book that was written 2000 years ago but believe in what scientists say happened 2.5 million years ago?. Now, I think it's safe to say that the questioner had one particular book in mind, but I decided to interpret and answer the question in good faith.

I have two related entries that might be of interest, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge and Confidence in Historical Knowledge. As their titles suggest, they focus on where my confidence in science in particular comes from. But for this Quora answer, I focused on the reliability of ancient books and putting them into perspective. Below is my answer in full, slightly edited, with a few footnotes not included on Quora.

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I've read several books or excerpts of books that are on the order of hundreds to thousands of years old - the entire Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tao Te Ching, portions of the Popol Vuh, The Conquest of Gaul, The Travels of Marco Polo, and probably a few more I'm forgetting (I also just started on the Buddhavacana). They can be very interesting and offer fascinating links to the actual words and communications from ancient peoples*. But you have to take them for what they are. The standards of scholarship were different, more limited travel and communication made it harder to substantiate stories, and the aims of many of these books were different from the modern day goal (not always achieved) of an unbiased presentation of facts. Moreover, many of these books incorporate their culture's mythologies to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes mingling mythology with history with little distinction.

So, for example, when I read Marco Polo's Travels, I take it as a reasonably accurate description of what portions of Asia were like 700 years ago, but when he describes a bird "so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces", I think he's given in to exaggeration or believing travelers tales. Or when I read the Conquest of Gaul, I have to keep in mind that it wasn't an unbiased historian documenting the war, but a piece of propaganda written by Caesar himself to try to increase his popularity back in Rome. And when it comes to things like human origins, whether it's the Mayans writing that the gods tried making humans out of clay then wood before getting it right on the third try with corn, the Greeks writing that Prometheus and Athena teamed up to make man out of mud before Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, as a punishment for man, or the Hebrews writing about the first man being molded from clay in the Garden of Eden and a woman being made from his rib, I chalk them all up to those cultures' mythologies because they just didn't know any better**.

I like Jerry Coyne's definition of science broadly construed, "the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge." (source) It's not just running experiments in labs, but any field of inquiry where you use evidence and reason to try to figure out what's most likely to be true, including history. All lines of evidence are open to scientific inquiry, but those lines of evidence have to be weighed against other forms of evidence and evaluated as to how reliable they are. So, 2000 year old books do count as a form of evidence to be incorporated into scientific study. But, they have all those issues I identified above, meaning that they can't just be accepted unquestioningly as ultimate authorities. Each book or manuscript is one piece of evidence to be included among all the other ancient writings, archaeological digs, artifacts, and other forms of evidence about the past.

When it comes to understanding what was happening 2.5 million years ago, it's really not even a question of which is more reliable between ancient books and modern scientific knowledge, and it seems silly to even pose the question. All those thousands of year old books were written in a pre-scientific age when people just didn't have the same understanding as we do now. It's not that we're any smarter in the modern age. We've just built on the knowledge of all those generations before us, getting more and more knowledge and learning the best ways to do things. I mean, as a species, we had to start from scratch, not knowing anything about the geologically ancient history of the planet (or universe), and build to where we are now. We wouldn't have the knowledge or framework we do now if it wasn't for all those ancient philosophers laying the groundwork and building a philosophical tradition. And we certainly don't know everything now - future generations will build on our current knowledge (hopefully) for even greater insights in the future.

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*It's this connection to the past that's one of my main motivations for wanting to read ancient writings. I've been to ancient ruins in various locations - Chichén Itzá, Stonehenge, various castles, the Colosseum, and more. And while ruins like that are always fascinating, and sometimes even give me goosebumps, they're silent. The ancient people who lived there no longer have a voice... EXCEPT for the few writings from their eras that have survived to the present. So writings like the Bible, Book of the Dead, Tao Te Ching, Popol Vuh, and Buddhavacana may be biased or full of mythology, but they're direct connections to those ancient peoples. We can reach out across the millennia and still hear some of their words. (Not that it will stop me from snickering at the sillier portions of those books.)

**Granted, you could argue for a figurative or allegorical interpretation of these creation myths, and that's fine if that's what you want to do. Just don't pretend that they're literal accounts of the history of the planet, or that pre-scientific writing from hundreds or thousands of years ago can somehow overturn the vast mountains of evidence in support of things like the Big Bang or universal common descent.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Religious People Aren't Stupid, So Why Do They Believe?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI came across the following question on Quora, Is it bad to think people who believe in god are stupid?. I wrote what I thought was a good answer, though it hasn't gained as much traction as some of my other answers on the site. At any rate, below is my answer (slightly edited), which addresses not just why religious people have mistaken beliefs, but why all of us have mistaken beliefs.

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Yes. It is bad to think that people who believe in gods are stupid.

People have all kinds of beliefs that they accepted at some time in their lives on the basis of authority and haven't gone back to re-examine. If they're in a culture that reinforces those beliefs or holds them up as virtues, it may be even harder for the person to examine them critically. And while having these kinds of un-examined beliefs may be bad, we all do it to some extent, so there's no reason to single out one particular kind of belief as marking that person as stupid.

Let's take a non-controversial bit of knowledge. Atoms are composed of subatomic particles, such as protons, neutrons, and electrons, some which are composed of even smaller particles. Most educated people know that, but most educated people accept it on the authority of science without understanding the evidence for how we know that. Maybe you happen to like physics so you actually do know that one, but how many people actually know and understand the evidence for how we know the earth revolves around the Sun, or understanding the structure of the Milky Way, or how to do isochron dating to know the ages of geologic layers, or understand aerodynamics well enough to explain how insects fly, or the evidence for why we believe Hannibal was a real historic figure, or actually understand evolution and the mechanisms behind it? Sure, if you're so inclined, you can delve into any particular subject to examine the evidence and theories and truly understand it. But the fact of the matter is that the totality of human knowledge is way too vast for any single person to apply that type of effort to everything. So, we learn what sources we can more or less trust, and tend to accept what we learn from those sources. Hopefully, it's not completely unquestioning acceptance. But I know that when I read articles in Encyclopedias, the claims go into my 'probably true until demonstrated false' mental bin instead of my 'probably false until demonstrated true' or 'grain of salt' mental bins.

Most people who believe in gods were raised that way. Almost from the time they could talk, they've heard claims from people they trust about the nature of gods and their religion - parents, relatives, friends, peers, etc. If their parents are even moderately devout, they'll probably get this reinforced every week when they go to church and hear these claims over and over from trusted priests, see an entire community of like minded believers, and quite possibly go to Sunday school to get detailed lessons from teachers. This is similar to the way children learn most everything, from formal education, to rules for sports and games, to unspoken rules of society. Why would we expect them to differentiate when it comes to this one particular topic?

Hopefully as people mature, they do develop critical thinking skills, and do re-examine many of their beliefs. But even that is a learned skill, not just 'intelligence'. Just like you wouldn't call someone stupid who couldn't do an indefinite integral if they'd never had a chance to study calculus, you shouldn't call someone stupid who doesn't practice critical thinking and skepticism if they've never been taught to think that way, or taught about all the cognitive biases that can affect what we think we know.

Plus, even for people who do learn those skills, it's awfully optimistic to expect them to apply that type of critical examination to everything they've been taught, for the simple fact I mentioned above, that there's just too much to know and not enough time to study it all in detail. And if they're still immersed in a community where everyone around them just 'knows' certain beliefs, it's going to be that much harder for them to question those beliefs, whether it's gods, urban legends, or popular misconceptions (like the common misapplication of Bernoulli's principle to describe airplane wings).

So, I guess the short answer is that people who believe in gods may be mistaken, but that's just one thing they're mistaken about, and we're all mistaken about plenty of things. And the way most religious people came to be mistaken about gods is the same way most of us have come to be mistaken about those other things. So, unless everybody who has mistaken beliefs is stupid (which would be pretty much everybody), there's no reason to single out the mistaken belief about gods as marking a person as stupid.

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Note 1: Perhaps an easier way to answer this would have just been by example, as there are plenty of respected intelligent people who believe in gods - way too many to list. Since I personally have a keen amateur interest in evolutionary biology, I'll mention Ken Miller as an example of an intelligent evolutionary biologist who believes in a god. Note also (and perhaps obviously), that you can find plenty of respected intelligent people who don't believe in gods - also way too many to list. So, the examples show that intelligent people can have varying beliefs. I thought it would be more interesting to look at how people can come to have mistaken beliefs.

Note 2: Obviously from my answer, I'm an atheist and answering from the assumption that there are no gods. Of course, it's possible that's one of my mistaken beliefs about the world. But, given the number of mutually contradictory religions, the majority of people are necessarily wrong at least about the nature of gods. i.e. Even if the Hindus were right, it wouldn't be just us atheists who were wrong, but also the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and all the other non-Hindus.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Website Update - Top 10 Page Lists for May, June, and July 2016

Top 10 ListMy blog output has been waning a bit, lately, particularly this summer. Between family vacation, a business trip, and a few projects at work, I just haven't had time to write. Plus, I seem to have fallen out of the groove of it even when I do have time, spending more time during my lunch breaks reading other sites than writing my own content. And this lack of content has also been reflected in waning traffic to this site. So, now that summer's over, it's time to make a renewed committment to this blog and website, and see if I can get back into the groove of making at least one update per week (even if it means recycling some of the answers I've been writing for Quora). And I'm really going to try hard to resurrect my long dormant Friday Bible Blogging series.

It's been 3 months since I've done a top 10 list, so this entry will cover May, June, and July. Like normal, most of the entries have made the list before. However, there were a few newcomers. Probably the one I'm happiest to see becoming newly popular is Response to E-mail - 1400 years of In-breeding, explaining the fallacies in an e-mail forward I received claiming that "The massive inbreeding in Muslim culture may well have done virtually irreversible damage to the Muslim gene pool..." Of course, that claim isn't true, as I explain in the entry. Other newcomers to the list include Theistic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, 2012 Great American Beer Festival, and Gamera Human Powered Helicopter (which is a little surprising considering that another entry on the topic had made the list several times before, Gamera II Human Powered Helicopter Sets New Record). There was one entry this time that hadn't made the list in a few years, VW XL1 + E-mail Debunking - China's New "Little Car". I wonder if the e-mail that inspired it is making the rounds again.

Anyway, here're the lists for the past 3 months.

Top 10 for May 2016

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  3. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  4. Rick Santorum
  5. E-mail Forward - Obama's Reaction to Ft. Hood Shootings
  6. Autogyro History & Theory
  7. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  8. Gamera Human Powered Helicopter
  9. Arguing on a Website - Explaining Evolution
  10. 2012 Great American Beer Festival

Top 10 for June 2016

  1. VW XL1 + E-mail Debunking - China's New "Little Car"
  2. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  3. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  5. Response to E-mail - 1400 years of In-breeding
  6. Autogyro History & Theory
  7. Rick Santorum
  8. Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  9. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  10. Theistic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

Top 10 for July 2016

  1. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  2. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  3. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  4. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  5. Response to E-mail - 1400 years of In-breeding
  6. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  7. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  8. Rick Santorum
  9. Arguing on a Website - Explaining Evolution
  10. Autogyro History & Theory

Friday, August 5, 2016

Answering Quora - What is the weirdest thing in the bible?

I recently answered the following question on Quora, What is the weirdest thing in the bible?. And while my answer was cribbed from a previous post on this site, since I was pulling out that one story in particular, and changed the wording just a bit, I figured it was worth reposting that Quora answer here.

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Well, between a talking donkey, magic box, worldwide flood, animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, etc., there are lots of weird parts of the Bible. But I think my personal favorite is the quail episode from Numbers 11. The story takes place while the Hebrews are wandering the desert for 40 years after the Exodus, and are subsisting mostly on manna, an apparently nutritious but not particularly tasty gift from the Lord. So, the people got a little tired of eating manna day after day and began complaining, wanting some real meat.

The first minorly weird part of the story was Moses's part. He got so frustrated with the complaining that he asked God to either help him or put him to death so that he wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. God's response was to gather up the elders, and "take some of the spirit that is on you [Moses] and put it on them [the elders]", so that they could share his burden, as if Moses's spirit were some measurable quantity that could be divvied up. But the sharing only lasted a night, so it was a rather temporary respite for Moses.

But then, for the really weird part, it was time for God to deal with the complainers. And he did it in the most petty, vindictive, and violent way you can imagine. First, "a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day's journey on this side and a day's journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground" (keep in mind that two cubits is roughly three feet). So God's response was, 'you want meat, I'll give you meat'. But the people apparently decided to make the best of it, cooking up some of the quail to finally have some variety in their diet. Seeing that his punishment wasn't having quite the effect he'd hoped for (which is odd given his supposed omniscience and all), God became even angrier, "while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague." So when his over-reaction of dumping 3 feet of birds on his people didn't have the intended effect, God just went ahead and killed them anyway.

I know there are lots of bizarre stories in the Bible, but there's just something about that story in particular that I find amusing in a black humor sort of way (though it would be terrifying if true and the creator & ruler of the universe were that vindictive).

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