Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Exploration Day 2015

This is a verbatim reprint of the same entry I've used the past 2 year in a row, but it's still all relevant. I guess I'll add here that if you don't like the idea of Exploration Day or Bartolomé Day, you can always call today Indigenous People's Day. Just whatever you do, don't celebrate that horrible excuse for a human being, Christopher Columbus.

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but Columbus really was a horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just the myth about him proving the world was round, or lucking into finding a continent that nobody knew existed, but his horrible, horrible treatment of the natives and even the Spaniards in the first Spanish colony in the Americas.

The Oatmeal has a new webcomic explaining just how bad of a person Columbus was, in more detail than I've done and in a more entertaining way than I could do. I highly recommend going to read it:

The Oatmeal - Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) Modified Portion of The Oatmeal's Christopher Columbus Comic

While the Oatmeal proposes changing the holiday to Bartolome Day, I prefer a proposal I read before, changing it to Exploration Day. I could simply link to that old entry, but if you're here already reading this, I'll save you the click. Below is an excerpt of the main portion of that old entry, Happy Exploration Day:

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

I'll note that after I shared some of that information with my wife and daughter, we began using 'Christopher Columbus' as a profanity in place of a certain orifice that everybody has. e.g. Bill O'Reilly can be a bit of a Christopher Columbus when he starts yelling at his guests. I think that's the most appropriate way to remember his legacy.

Friday, October 9, 2015

If Humans Went Extinct, Would Something Like Us Evolve Again

Is the March of Progress InevitableI've seen the question that's the title of this entry many times, most recently on Quora (If all humans died, would we evolve again from apes? and in a comment thread to Aaron Weyenberg's answer to If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?. I wrote a response for Quora that I figured I'd adapt for the blog.

It's certainly possible that some lineage of modern ape or monkey could eventually evolve into something like humans (though definitely not exactly the same as us), or given an even longer time, some other lineage not particularly closely related to humans could as well, but it seems extremely unlikely.

The first issue with the question is an assumption I've pointed out before (such as in the entry, Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?). This assumption goes back to the Great Chain of Being, that there's a hierarchy of life, with humans at the pinnacle being the most perfectly evolved of all creatures. That's simply not the case. Evolution adapts organisms to their environments. The raw material for this is random mutations, with natural selection acting like a filter to ensure that only beneficial and neutral mutations persist (though that's not the only mechanism in evolution). There's no intention behind the mutations, guiding organisms towards some end goal. It simply adapts them to their current environments, with no foresight to some future species.

Moving on, there is a concept in biology known as convergent evolution. This refers to two separate lineages that didn't originally have the same features both evolving those features independently, 'converging' on the same solution. And it is true that convergent evolution happens quite a bit. Here are a few examples showing how different marsupial and placental mammals have independently evolved similar body types.

Placental Marsupial Convergent Evolution

But convergent evolution is almost always in cases of 'easy' solutions. Let's look at an example separate from those above or from humans - powered flight. Powered flight has only evolved three times in vertebrates (each time by a different path - pterosaurs, birds, and bats), because powered flight is a difficult to achieve strategy. It takes a very specific set of adaptations, and the likelihood of all of these adaptations occurring simultaneously in a single organism is rather small. If birds and bats were to suddenly go extinct, it might be quite some time before another lineage evolved to fill that flying vertebrate niche.

Just focusing on the intelligence aspect of humans, when you look around at other animals, the type of extreme intelligence seen in humans just isn't very common. On land, there are the other apes and elephants that are nearly as smart as us. In the water, some dolphins and whales also approach human intelligence. But none seem to be as smart as us, or at least not in a technologically inclined way.

There's a reason for that. Brains take a lot of energy. Even though your brain is only around 2% of your weight, somewhere around 20% of the calories you eat go to supporting your brain (one source: University World News: The brain - Our most energy-consuming organ). That's a lot of extra food you need to survive compared to a similarly sized animal with a smaller brain. And yes, being clever can help individuals exploit more resources than less intelligent animals, but just by looking at the distribution of intelligence of all the species out there, it doesn't seem like a strategy that natural selection often favors.

Even us humans, who are now so dominant on this planet, wouldn't have looked particularly noteworthy a few tens of thousands of years ago. Genetic studies show that the effective population got all the way down to around 10,000 - 30,000 individuals at some point in the past (more info: Why Evolution Is True: How big was the human population bottleneck? Another staple of theology refuted). That's not a very successful species. Our ancestors were on the brink of extinction, and barely managed to survive.

If some modern lineage of apes or monkeys went down the evolutionary path to extreme intelligence with the high energy requirements of large brains, they might not be lucky enough to survive a similar situation to what caused the bottleneck in our ancestors, and might end up going extinct before their culture advanced to the point where technology made them as successful as us.

Once you start considering the other specializations of humans (bipedalism, long distance running, object manipulation, etc.), the possibility of another lineage evolving into something closely resembling us seems even more unlikely.

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

Image Source 2: The Roaming Naturalist, who herself doesn't know where the original came from. Let me know if you recognize it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for September 2015

Top 10 ListNow that September's over, it's time to take a look at the logs to see what pages were most popular on this site over the past month.

Most of the pages had made the list before, even if it had been a little while since some of the pages had made it. There was one newcomer, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, where I was responding not so much to Sorbo himself, but some views he has that seem to be representative of too large a segment of the population.

Traffic was up in September - not the highest it's ever been, but close too it. And in fact, it was up in just about every metric AWStats reports. I know some of that is due to spammers, but I'm going to pretend/hope that it's mostly real live people reading my site.

I'll also apologize for writing so much about Ben Carson recently. I don't want this to become the anti-Ben Carson blog, but he's just been popping up all over the place recently, particularly now that polls are putting him in either first or second place for the Republican nomination. I also have a friend who's a Carson fan, so I hear quite a bit of support for Carson in my regular offline life, which possibly motivates me to vent a bit here on the site. I'll try to get back to writing about more varied topics, but I'm not going to promise that you've seen the last of my Ben Carson entries (BTW, I now have a Ben Carson Index with links to all of my entries about Ben Carson).

Anyway, here's the list.

Top 10 for September 2015

  1. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  2. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  3. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  4. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  5. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  6. Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo
  7. Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  8. Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  9. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  10. Book Review - Tribulation Force

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers

Ben CarsonI've been pointing out Ben Carson's anti-intellectual stances in regards to science for a while, now (you can see all my Carson entries here). But just recently, he seems to have caught the attention of many popular science writers. This seems to have a lot to do with a recent YouTube video, which I've embedded below. More specifically, it seems to have a lot to do wtih a Buzzfeed article commenting on the video, Ben Carson: Big Bang A Fairy Tale, Theory Of Evolution Encouraged By The Devil. The video is a speech Carson gave back in 2011, but which was just uploaded this year. It was posted by Adventist News Network, who pretty much agreed with everything Carson was saying. In other words - as bad as the video makes Carson look, they weren't intentionally trying to embarrass him.

I've seen a spate of articles and blog entries about Carson recently that seem to coincide with that Buzzfeed piece. The most prominent article was in The New Yorker, and was written by Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance. Being a physicist and cosmologist himself, Krauss commented mostly on Carson's mangling of the Big Bang theory and the history of the universe. Here's what Krauss had to say after quoting a particularly bad series of statements by Carson.

It is hard to find a single detailed claim in his diatribe that is physically sensible or that reflects accurate knowledge about science. His central claim--that the second law of thermodynamics rules out order forming in the universe after the Big Bang--is a frequent misstatement made by creationists who want to appear scientifically literate. In reality, it is completely false.

Krauss went on to address many of Carson's erroneous statements, giving real explanations for many of Carson's misunderstandings. Towards the end of the article, Krauss moved past simply correcting Carson, and presented some commentary that I agree with completely:

It is one thing to simply assert that you don't choose to believe the science, in spite of a mountain of data supporting it. It's another to mask your ignorance in such a disingenuous way, by using pseudo-scientific, emotion-laden arguments and trading on your professional credentials. Surely this quality, which reflects either self-delusion or, worse still, a willingness to intentionally deceive others, is of great concern when someone is vying for control of the nuclear red button.

On his website, Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne wrote his own entry on Carson, Ben Carson on evolution: an ignorant (or duplicitous) Presidential candidate. Coyne himself is a biologist, and so the bulk of his article was devoted to correcting Carson's untrue remarks on evolution. He did offer a bit of commentary, though such as his introductory paragraph.

I don't care how good a surgeon Ben Carson was (and he was reportedly a terrific one), he's still pig-ignorant when it comes to evolution, geology, and cosmology. And that ignorance--regardless of whether he doesn't know the facts, knows them but eludes them and is lying for Jesus, or truly believes that the facts support creation ex nihilo--makes him unqualified to be President. For the first possibility means he's uninformed (especially as a doctor); the second means he's dishonest; and the third means he's blinded to reality by his fundamentalist faith, Seventh Day Adventism.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy also got in on the act, writing Ben Carson: Evolution is Satanic and the Big Bang Is a Fairy Tale. Here was the introduction to his article.

At one point in time, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson may have been best known as an excellent, even groundbreaking, neurosurgeon. In recent years, though, he's done everything he can to throw that reputation away.

Plait had references to a lot of Carson's statements, not just the 2011 speech, as well as a lot of information refuting Carson's claims. Of course, being the Bad Astronomy website, Plait focused on the Big Bang, but he also spent a bit of time on evolution. After explaining how he tries to be polite when dealing with rank and file creationists, Plait went on to say this.

I take a different stance when it's a politician who espouses these views, especially when he's running for the highest office in America. If someone wants to run this country, then he better show that he has a solid grasp on reality. Dismissing and actively denigrating strongly understood science--whether it's astronomy, biology, or climatology--is at the very least cause to dump him.

Although he can be a bit brash for many readers, I'll also mention P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, who wrote You don't have to be smart to be an MD. He wasn't insulting medical doctors in general, but making the valid point that expertise in one field, even particularly noteworthy expertise like Carson's in pediatric neurosurgery, doesn't translate to expertise in other fields. Here were Myers' closing remarks.

Being a neurosurgeon doesn't preclude being knowledgeable, but clearly we have to overcome this bias of using an MD degree as a proxy for intelligence. / Fortunately, Ben Carson is working hard to demolish that preconception.

I know I've been writing quite a bit about Ben Carson recently. But now it seems that notable science writers are starting to pay more attention to him, as well. So, if you want to see what other people have to say about the man, as well as corrections to his mangling of science by people actually in the fields he's criticizing, go read those articles.


Added 2015-10-02: I finally took the time to watch that whole video embedded in this post, and not just rely on the excerpts that other people have provided. Wow. And I do mean wow. I'd read short interviews of Carson's beliefs on evolution, and some of the comments he's made, but they don't illustrate the depth of his ignorance and arrogance like this video. This was a 40 minute speech, a prepared speech that he had time to research, where he knew the topic ahead of time. This was not an off the cuff remark, or an answer to an interview question he wasn't expecting. This was a neurosurgeon, with the respect that goes along with that profession, giving a presentation to an entire crowd of people. And this speech is what he came up with.

His misunderstandings and ignorance of evolution are absolutely appalling, worse than I would expect from a high school biology student. So many of his misconceptions could have been cleared up just by reading a popular introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. If he was too cheap to buy a book, he could have gone to the Internet and sites like The TalkOrigins Archive. His misunderstandings of astronomy and cosmology were equally egregious, not to mention his mangling of a few other topics he brought up.

Now, this type of ignorance on its own is forgivable in most people (though I would expect a surgeon who had to study biology to be a bit more knowledgeable, and I'd certainly expect presidential candidates to have good enough educations to understand basic science). What makes it so bad in Carson's case is that despite his dreadful ignorance, he was still arrogant enough to give a 40 minute speech to an audience who trusted that he was knowledgeable on the topic. That attitude on Carson's part is the worst part of this. Most people are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues. And if we were invited to talk about something we didn't know about, we'd at least do some research on it. It just boggles the mind that Carson felt he was qualified to speak on a topic about which he is so obviously completely ignorant.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Ben Carson Index

Ben CarsonI've written quite a bit about Ben Carson on this site. It started off when he was much less well known, and was invited to be give the commencement speech at the local university, but with his rise in political popularity, it has expanded into two in-depth series and several more individual entries. So, to give one location with links to all of my Ben Carson entries, I've created this index. If I post more about him, I'll try to remember to add a link here.

Individual Entries

Here are individual entries, in chronological order.

First Series - A Critical Examination of Ben Carson

This was my first attempt at an in-depth investigation of Carson's political positions. I tried to be fair by looking at a 'snapshot' of the articles on his own homepage at the time, rather than focus on issues where I knew I disagreed with him. But, because he's written so many op-eds for the Washington Times, and this series only looked at a small part of the totality of his writing, it didn't necessarily address the most important issues, which is a big part of the reason for the second series below. Still, there are some pretty good entries in this series.

Second Series - Ben Carson on the Issues

This second series looked mostly at the issues on Carson's own campaign website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. However, there were two major issues that Carson failed to address on his website, which I thought were important enough to add to the series - Climate Change and Marriage Equality. Note that the first entry covers so many individual issues because they're each covered only briefly, while the rest of the series addresses the issues a little more fully.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part VI - Marriage Equality

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry, the last of the series, addresses Carson's stance on marriage equality. This wasn't covered on Carson's website, but I consider it a very important contemporary topic, so I figured it was worth discussing.

There's a group called the National Organization for Marriage. Much like other misleadingly named groups like the American Family Association, they're not really in support of marriage as a whole, but in only one narrowly defined definition, trying to restrict the rights of gay people from being able to marry. They have a marriage pledge that they've asked presidential candidates to sign, and Carson is one of the candidates who's signed it.

Here are the first and second positions from the pledge.

One, support a federal constitutional amendment that protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Two, oppose and work to overturn any Supreme Court decision that illegitimately finds a constitutional "right" to the redefinition of marriage. This includes nominating to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal bench judges who are committed to restraint and applying the original meaning of the Constitution, and appointing an attorney general similarly committed.

I wrote about marriage equality years ago when I was still a Christian, in Legality of Homosexual Marriage. I cringe now at some of the things I wrote, but even back then, I recognized that it was not the government's place to try to legislate morality, nor to impose sectarian religious definitions of marriage on the American people as a whole. I even specifically addressed the possibility of a Constitutional amendment, since then president Bush had recently raised the issue.

The amendments in the Bill of Rights were passed to protect people's personal freedoms. All of the subsequent amendments to the Constitution, except for one, have been passed to give additional rights and freedoms, or as changes to the structure of the government. The exception, the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, was repealed [13] years later by the 21st amendment because it didn't work. The Constitution should not be used to take away freedom, it should be used to guarantee rights. If a constitutional amendment is going to be passed regarding gay marriage, it should only be used to protect it, not to make it illegal.

Thankfully, per the recent Supreme Court decision, the Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment does guarantee that right to all people, heterosexual and homosexual alike, so an amendment guaranteeing people's freedom to marry is unnecessary. But people like Ben Carson and this National Organization for Marriage want to pass a new Constitutional amendment and fight against this recent ruling, all to deny a fundamental right to people. That's simply horrendous.

At a recent rally, Carson briefly discussed issues related to marriage equality. You can listen to these remarks yourself on MSNBC, Ben Carson speaks out on Kim Davis controversy, starting at about 42 seconds in, but I've done my best to transcribe his remarks below.

One of the things that came up this week of course, Miss Davis, down in Kentucky, who had to go to jail which was I think inappropriate. There were other things that could have been done. That was probably not the right one. Because the Supreme Court had not overstepped its boundaries and done what they did at the time that she took that job. So the circumstances changed. And all she was asking is that her name not be put on the documents. She was not trying to obstruct anybody from doing anything other than that.

I've already discussed Kim Davis in the appropriately titled entry, A Few Thoughts on Kim Davis. Davis was refusing to do her job as an elected official, plain and simple. Public officials don't get to choose to enforce only the laws that were in effect at the time they started working. Just imagine if police officers attempted similar justifications. If, after the Supreme Court decision, Davis felt that she could no longer perform her duties, then she should have resigned (had she been a normal employee and not elected, she could have simply been fired).

The federal judge in this case, David Bunning, gave Davis plenty of opportunity to comply with the ruling before jailing her. To quote a Washington Post article, Kim Davis is off to jail for refusing to do her job, he even offered her a last minute deal "to 'purge' her contempt of court by allowing her deputies to sign same-sex marriage licenses in her place." She refused the offer (at least before going to jail). It was her refusal to comply with court rulings, and the fact that she blocked any compromises that would have allowed others in the office to issue marriage licenses, that got her thrown in jail for contempt of court. And frankly, when a person tries to use their government position to impose their own personal religious convictions and oppress other citizens, I don't feel much sympathy for that person spending a few days in jail.

I also take issue with Carson's wording of the Supreme Court 'overstepping' its boundaries. This type of interpretation is exactly what the Supreme Court is supposed to do. Congress and Senate pass laws, but if those laws violate the Constitution, then it's up to the Supreme Court to strike those laws down. It doesn't even matter if the laws were passed by a public referendum and have majority public support - laws that violate the Constitution are still illegal. In this case, the Court found that these laws violated the 14th Amendment, and ruled accordingly. If Carson and his ilk don't like this ruling, they should be (and like I wrote above, they are) trying to pass a new Amendment to overturn the 14th and restrict people's rights. But when he talks about the Supreme court 'overstepping' its boundaries simply for doing its job, it doesn't leave me very impressed with his understanding of civics.


So, that wraps up this series. I've learned my lesson, though, and won't say this is the last time I'll discuss Carson. If he stays high in the polls, I'm sure I'll be motivated to write more about him. Someone with views and positions as bad as Carson's deserves to have those positions called out.

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for August 2015

Top 10 ListSeptember's more than two-thirds done with, and I just realized that I never did do my normal top 10 entry for August, so it's time to correct that.

All the pages that made the list had made it before, so no surprises there.

Traffic in August was still down a bit from the previous two months, but in line with most of the year. I'll add that my traffic for September to date already exceeds my total traffic for August with a week still left to go this month. I suspect it's partly because I've had a bit more free lunch breaks to work on the blog, but also partly due to an influx of spam (that I think I've mostly stopped for now).

Anyway, here's the list.

Top 10 for August 2015

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  4. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  5. Book Review - Tribulation Force
  6. 22 Responses to 22 Creationist Misconceptions
  7. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  8. The 2014 Texas Republican Platform
  9. Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  10. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy

Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part V - Taxes

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry addresses Carson's stance on taxes. Here are a couple excerpts from Carson's site. Basically, he wants "wholesale tax reform" to make the tax code simpler, and seems to want to do away with "the IRS as we know it".

It [the tax code] is too long, too complex, too burdensome, and too riddled with tax shelters and loopholes that benefit only a few at the direct expense of the many.
We need a fairer, simpler, and more equitable tax system. Our tax form should be able to be completed in less than 15 minutes. This will enable us to end the IRS as we know it.

Not too much to disagree with so far. The tax code is too long and complex and should be simplified. I'm not so sure the IRS can be done away with, but let's ignore that for now and just focus on taxes.

Although he doesn't offer much in the way of policy on his website, Carson has proposed a flat tax (based on Biblical tithing) in other venues. Here's an example going back to one of Carson's op-ed pieces from the Washington Times in 2013, CARSON: Proportional taxation works because it's fair to everyone. But first, even though it's out of order from the article, Carson offered some statements that seem to be behind his rationale for a flat tax.

We need to abandon the idea that some people are too needy and pitiful to be required to make contributions.
Furthermore, if everyone is included in the tax base, it forces the government to be more frugal with the taxpayers' money.

It seems as if Carson thinks that right now, a sizable enough proportion of the population to worry about doesn't contribute to the tax base. Why else would he talk about people not "required to make contributions" or make a statement like "if everyone is included in the tax base"? This is no more true than when Romney made a similar claim back in 2012. Although not everyone contributes to federal income taxes, there are many more taxes out there. The Center for Tax Justice has a page on Who Pays Taxes in America in 2014?. They combined all taxes people paid, not just federal income tax, and then plotted it by income. Here's how it comes out:

Share of Total Taxes Paid by Each Income Group, 2014, Source: Center for Tax Justice

Just to be clear, here are total effective tax rates broken down by income group:

Share of Total Taxes Paid by Each Income Group, 2014, Source: Center for Tax Justice

So, overall taxation in the U.S. is somewhat progressive, but not a huge amount. If you look at the breakdowns on that page, state and local taxes tend to be regressive, putting more burden on the lowest income groups. To compensate, federal income taxes are progressive, making the total tax burden more proportional, and slightly progressive. But the overall point is, most people in the U.S. do pay taxes roughly proportional to their income.

Anyway, on to his proposal:

Many alternative forms of taxation are used throughout the world, but the model that appeals most to me is based on biblical tithing. Under that system, everyone was required to pay one-tenth of their income to the designated authorities of the theocracy.

He did go on to say in that article that 10% was only an example, but in other venues (see Politico), he's said that he only thinks it need to be as high as 10-15%.

There are two things Carson could be talking about with this flat tax, neither of which is an appealing option. If he's talking only about federal income tax (or even all federal taxes), then the above discussion makes it clear that a flat tax would put much more burden on lower income groups because of the other taxes they already pay. If he's talking about replacing the entire taxation system in the U.S., from city to state to federal, then he's talking about a monumental undertaking that quite frankly is unrealistic. There would be one big pot of money that people paid taxes into, that would then be distributed out to all the various levels of government. Who would do the collecting, and who would do the deciding on how much each level of government received?

Further, the tax rate isn't even the complicated part of the tax code. As explained in an op-ed on the Houston Chronicle, Steffy: Why the flat tax is flat wrong:

"I don't think the nominal rates are what confuse people," said Andrew Gardener, a certified financial planner and president of Houston-based Tanglewood Legacy Advisors. "The part of the tax code that tells you what your rate is, is two sentences. That's fairly simple."

The complexity comes in defining income.

The article goes on to give a few examples of this difficulty in defining income, and even when income is taxable. These are the complications that have built up in the tax code that need to be revised, but a flat tax doesn't address that.

This is another of the examples where I agree with Carson (at least partly) in identifying an issue, but not in his proposed solution, which would only make things worse.

On to Part VI, Marriage Equality

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Updated 2015-09-24: Added graph of tax rates and a bit of extra wording to be more clear on the amount taxes are progressive.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part IV - Faith in Society

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry addresses Carson's stance on Faith in Society. I've covered this topic in more detail in several other blog entries, with one particularly relevant one being a Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone.

Here's how Carson started off this section on his website.

The United States of America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We can and should be proud of that fact. It served us well for almost 200 years.

The principles upon which the U.S. was founded were largely Enlightenment Ideals, not anything specifically Judeo-Christian. First, consider the founding document of our government, the U.S. Constitution. It has no religious references other than the convention of using 'Year of our Lord' for the date. Consider also a comparison of the First Amendment with the First Commandment. The Amendment is all about freedom to worship however you see fit. The Commandment is all about worshipping one god and one god only. Those are not the same values. (Other Commandments, like don't steal, or don't murder, are universal to nearly all societies, and not specific to Judaism or Christianity.) There are plenty of other examples in that blog entry linked to above.

One particularly interesting example that I've brought up before is the Treaty of Tripoli. It was signed in 1796, just 8 years after the Constitution was ratified, by Senators who could rightly be considered Founding Fathers. And even though it was only a treaty, the circumstances surrounding it illustrate the mindset of those early U.S. politicians. When it was presented to the Senate, it was read aloud in its entirety, so that all present knew the entire contents. It was then confirmed unanimously by all of the members present (23 out of 32). Not only that, but in a somewhat unusual practice, the vote was recorded. To clarify, it wasn't so unusual for a vote to be recorded (this was the 339th time), but it was very unusual for a vote to be recorded when the vote was unanimous - this was only the 3rd time. So what is it about the treaty that makes it so interesting in a discussion on religion? Article 11 (emphasis mine):

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

After the treaty was passed by the Senate, President John Adams issued a statement that he "accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof." Like I said, it was only a treaty, but the politicians of the time seemed to go out of their way to support it and make their support known. If these politicians had any objections to the statement that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion", they certainly didn't act on them.

Carson went on to write.

However, we need to reverse the recent trend of secular progressives using activist, federal judges to drive faith out of our society. Anyone who wishes to practice their faith, for example by praying privately, can and should be able to do so. Equally, the rights of someone to abstain from private prayer should also be jealously protected.

Other than the first sentence, this passage isn't too bad, but also not very provocative. How many places in the U.S. are people being stopped from praying privately? Nearly every example I can think of that the religious right gets upset about is where religious people can't force their prayers in government venues, such as city council meetings or classrooms (or the recent example of Kim Davis trying to abuse her government position and enforce her religious principles on the citizens of her county). There are only a very few isolated cases I've heard of where people really were being stopped from praying privately, and these were usually the results of people misunderstanding the law and have usually been resolved pretty quickly (examples: ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression).

The first sentence is where I disagree. First of all, 'activist' judges are not being used to drive faith out of society in general. Judges are properly interpreting the First Amendment, and using it to keep religion and government separate. The fact that Christianity has had special privilege for much of the history of this country due to the majority of citizens being Christian does not change the fact that many of these instances of special privilege were in violation of the Constitution. Now that Christianity is losing its grip on the country (between 2007 and 2014, Christians fell from 78.4% to 70.6% of the population - Pew), I expect these types of challenges will become more common. And like I said, these legal challenges are usually only where church and state are improperly entangled, not for people privately practicing religion.

Here's the last excerpt from Carson I'm going to discuss.

The First Amendment enshrines our freedom to practice whatever faith we choose from any government intrusion. Our Founding Fathers never meant for the First Amendment to be used to drive prayer out of the public square.

Here are two statements by a very prominent Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," as well as, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." There's also the very famous passage from his letter to the Danbury Baptists about "building a wall of separation between church and State." Granted, Jefferson was only one of the Founding Fathers, but he was certainly no fan of organized religion, and very clearly wanted religion kept separate from the public square. Consider also the discussion above about the country being founded on Enlightenment ideals, and it seems pretty clear that the founders did indeed intend for the government to be secular.

Outside the legal sphere, it's no secret I'm no fan of faith. I have an entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, listing examples of the harm caused by religion*. Now, I would never advocate for the government to try to suppress religion, since only totalitarian governments try to dictate beliefs, and regimes that have tried this in the past have in effect made the state a new religion. But I would like for society itself to change to the point where admitting belief in gods was no longer automatically seen as a virtue.

I've previously mentioned a study by Gregory S. Paul, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies. Here are two graphs from that study. (Click to embiggen. I modified this figure somewhat to combine these two graphs into one image, but didn't change anything about how the data was plotted.)

Graphs from Gregory S. Paul's Study

This shows a clear correlation between religion and societal dysfunction. Granted, correlation is not causation, so it's possible people turn to religion for comfort in dysfunctional societies, rather than religion causing dysfunctional societies, but it's certainly clear that less religious societies for the most part are better off than more religious ones.

A related previous entry of mine is A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle, looking at Carson's misinterpretation of the Establishment Clause, and a truly idiotic claim about religious neutrality promoting atheism.

On to Part V, Taxes

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

*To clarify, I don't think religion is universally harmful. There are many varieties of belief, even among 'one' religion like Christianity. On the balance, I think religion as currently practiced does more harm than good, but that's painting with a very broad brush, and could change in the future depending on how religion itself changes. As I wrote in another entry, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, "If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion."

To clarify further, I definitely don't think religious people are usually harmful. Most people are on the whole good, regardless of what religion they practice. Society wouldn't have survived if they weren't. But many otherwise good people do bad things because of religious influences, like continuing to fight against marriage equality, or murdering doctors who perform abortions. To quote Steven Weinberg, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Updated 2015-09-23: Added section & figures on correlation between religion & societal health. Added parenthetical note about many Commandments not being rules specific to Judaism or Christianity.

Updated 2015-09-24: Added footnote clarifying difference between religion and religious people.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Response to Mike Huckabee's Misrepresentations of Planned Parenthood

Mike HuckabeeI recently received an e-mail forward that was originally put out by Mike Huckabee's campaign. It appears to be the same article as is on his website, Defunding Planned Parenthood is not enough, and given that it came from Huckabee, I'm sure you can guess that it had some pretty scathing things to say about the organization. Now, I've never followed Huckabee particularly closely before. The issues I had heard him talk about were enough to let me know that I didn't agree with him on those issues (like his shameful behavior around the Kim Davis affair), so I didn't feel compelled to look into his stances further. But while I already knew I wouldn't agree with his political views, I wasn't expecting the level of dishonesty I found in this e-mail forward.

The article was one long screed against Planned Parenthood, calling out the organization for actually performing abortions, while at the same time presenting facts in a very misleading manner to misrepresent the organization and to make it seem as if tax money is funding abortions. Here are two examples, which I'll come back to:

Over the past decade, Washington politicians have pumped more than $4 billion into Planned Parenthood. It's abhorrent and insane that Washington forcibly confiscate money from our paychecks only to bankroll Planned Parenthood's repulsive, revolting butchers.

Congress neglects our veterans' hospitals, abandons our borders, and bankrupts our children, but somehow finds plenty of money for the abortion industry. Talk about priorities! How many harvested organs will it take before this madness ends? The facts are staggering.

Planned Parenthood performs 327,000 abortions per year, approximately one every 96 seconds. Government grants, funds, and reimbursements account for 41% of Planned Parenthood's income. In total, they earn $1.3 billion in annual revenue.

Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton call Planned Parenthood a "healthcare provider," but the facts tell an appallingly different story. They invest virtually nothing on adoption and pennies on prenatal care. In fact, of every dollar they spend on services for pregnant women, 94 cents go to abortion. It's clear that Planned Parenthood isn't a "healthcare provider" any more than a heroin dealer is a community pharmacist.

A quick reading of those passages and the rest of the e-mail certainly makes it seem like Planned Parenthood spends the bulk of their money on providing abortions, and that the federal government is providing much of this money through our tax dollars. But that's not the case at all.

Here's an article from the Washington Post, How Planned Parenthood actually uses its federal funding. By law since 1976, Planned Parenthood can't use any federal funding for abortion services. The money they get for that comes from private donors and organizations. Below is a graph from that article showing a breakdown of how Planned Parenthood spends their total budget from all revenue sources (closely matching a similar breakdown verified by in 2011). Note that only 3% of their funding goes to abortion services, while the rest goes to other forms of healthcare.

Planned Parenthood Spending

As far as the recent videos that have prompted much of this recent move to defund Planned Parenthood, here's an op-ed from the New York Times, The Campaign of Deception Against Planned Parenthood. The videos were heavily edited to make it look like Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for a profit, when they were in fact following the law that "facilities may be reimbursed for costs associated with fetal tissue donation, like transportation and storage."

On a related note, if you watched the debate on Wednesday night, you may have heard Carly Fiorina's claim about a graphic scene from those videos that supposedly took place within a Planned Parenthood clinic. This is also untrue. Even giving Fiorina the benefit of the doubt as to having seen such a scene, the most likely source is a separate documentary, where that footage wasn't shot in a Planned Parenthood clinic, and where the events weren't exactly as Fiorina remembered. Even if she wasn't intentionally lying, what she said still wasn't the truth. This is all detailed in a Vox article, Carly Fiorina is wrong about the Planned Parenthood tapes. I know because I watched them.

So, let's go back to those passages I quoted above. Let's take another look at that first one. Recalling the facts of Planned Parenthood's funding and budget that I explained above, pay close attention to Huckabee's wording.

Over the past decade, Washington politicians have pumped more than $4 billion into Planned Parenthood. It's abhorrent and insane that Washington forcibly confiscate money from our paychecks only to bankroll Planned Parenthood's repulsive, revolting butchers.

Congress neglects our veterans' hospitals, abandons our borders, and bankrupts our children, but somehow finds plenty of money for the abortion industry. Talk about priorities! How many harvested organs will it take before this madness ends? The facts are staggering.

Planned Parenthood performs 327,000 abortions per year, approximately one every 96 seconds. Government grants, funds, and reimbursements account for 41% of Planned Parenthood's income. In total, they earn $1.3 billion in annual revenue.

The way each of those paragraphs discusses federal funding in one breath and then abortion in the next certainly implies that much of that government funding is going to abortions, and I think Huckabee intentionally created that association in the reader's mind. But as I pointed out above, no federal funding goes to abortions. So, even though Huckabee may not have lied per se by explicitly stating that the government funds abortions, this method was still dishonest.

Now, let's take another look at the second excerpt.

Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton call Planned Parenthood a "healthcare provider," but the facts tell an appallingly different story. They invest virtually nothing on adoption and pennies on prenatal care. In fact, of every dollar they spend on services for pregnant women, 94 cents go to abortion. It's clear that Planned Parenthood isn't a "healthcare provider" any more than a heroin dealer is a community pharmacist.

Again, notice Huckabee's careful parsing of words. He didn't say that Planned Parenthood spends 94% of their total budget on abortion, but that's what a person might get from a quick reading of this paragraph. And he completely omitted how much of their budget goes to other healthcare services that aren't necessarily for "pregnant women".

So, going through sentence by sentence, you may not be able to find a 'lie' from Huckabee, but the overall impression the article gives is certainly different from reality, which is dishonest.

I guess part of what gets me about this is the right wing's constant mantra of 'morality' and 'family values'. Now, I knew that was all just a bunch of rhetoric to begin with, and I really strongly disagree with a lot of their supposed morality, anyway, but it really does highlight the bankruptcy of their position when they have to resort to this type of dishonesty to try to further their agenda.


I've written a few times about abortion already on this site. Not only do I disagree with Huckabee's dishonest methods, but I also think abortion can be justified and that it should remain legal and available, particularly in the first trimester, but also for legitimate reasons later in the pregnancy. If you to want read my views, they're available through the links below:

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


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