Saturday, June 07, 2014

Our Podcast

Rhubarb and Sam LogoIt's been a good long while since I had a podcast. I think I was one of the first back in 2004 and I kept it up for awhile but soon dropped the ball. This time around, I have a partner. We'll keep them relatively light (usually) and fun, probably a bit absurd. Not saying we won't occasionally delve into something serious or deep but, for the most part, that is not the intent. You can subscribe to Rhubarb and Sam via rss or via iTunes.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Growing into skepticism

As children we are in a constant state of exploration. We turn over rocks, look under cushions all the while asking the adults around us “why”? We humans are born with a natural curiosity about our surroundings. At an early age we begin learning by listening, looking, touching, smelling and tasting. Sometimes the experience is pleasant and other times painful. Interestingly, this process of growth happens alongside of our very active imaginations. Our ability to fantasize, to create stories is practically a super power but consider too our ability and desire to discover the truth around us. What a fascinating process is this process we call “growing-up”. But we're not just on our own in this exploration. We share our world with other children and with adults which are a part of the mix and influential.

Let's pause for a moment to consider the role of adults in the socialization of children. From infancy we are fully dependent on adults, usually our parents - they meet our every need. From bathing to feeding to everything in between. They warn us about dangers such as hot stoves and tend to our burns when we ignore such warnings. Our parents (and close extended family) are key in our early intellectual development. From learning colors to shapes, numbers to the alphabet, they are our teachers. But they do something else: they introduce us to myth as truth. From Santa Clause to Jesus, from ghosts to tooth fairies, it is from our parents that we are started down the path of irrational belief in the supernatural. It is a strange contradiction and just a part of the larger process of cultural transmission.

Just a couple years ago my father's mother died. I was able to visit her in her final days an saw her just moments after death. There were no children present to see the distress of my father, aunt and my mother. But days later, at the funeral home, there were children around to see her laid out in a casket, her shrunken 93 year old body which was no longer their great grandmother, but a sort of shell that only slightly resembled her. What might they think? The adults in the room made it clear that Rose had gone to heaven to be with grandpa. The children saw their elders cry steadily at the loss of her. As for myself, I don't mourn much at the loss of my elders. She was 93 and lived a good long life. She was ready so she stopped eating and drinking. Then she died and was no more. Simple. With the cessation of brain activity and other bodily processes the entity we knew no longer existed here or anywhere else. But most of the other adults in my life preferred to tell themselves (and those around them) that she lived in heaven now. A fantasy of course and just another example of how we are taught delusion by our elders.

There's much about our Universe that we do not understand and human tendency is to fill in the gaps of knowledge with comforting stories. Whether the mystery is the nature of stars in the sky, our origins in the cosmos, or what happens to us at death, plenty of mysteries exist have been “explained” by such things as religion. The alternative, also a part of our culture, is the rejection of myths and the acceptance (if only temporary) of gaps of knowledge with the understanding that in time and with scientific pursuit, those gaps will be reduced. But this alternative, this rejection of comforting myths means confronting our mortality which is, for many, a difficult thing. It's bad enough when our elders die in older age, but what about the difficulty of our children dying? Such loss is certainly not easy and the idea of heaven is, no doubt, a great comfort at such times. Everlasting life for or dead loved ones, young or old, might be what we want, it might comfort us, but there is no evidence that life after death exists.

Which brings me to an important question for any aspiring skeptic: can a skeptic hold onto a belief in a “higher power” or deity? Ultimately I think not. At its very core skepticism is about critical thinking and the examination of arguments for logical validity as well as the quality of evidence presented. Skepticism, as a component of modern science, is a method which leads to reliable conclusions but is not itself a conclusion or knowledge. This is not to say that those who believe in a deity cannot be skeptical in many other areas just that such a belief is not evidence based and ultimately not something that holds up to skepticism. The same might be said of any other supernatural or paranormal belief.

For much of my adult life much of my thinking lacked the level of skepticism I aspire to today. For a variety of reasons, starting at the age of 19, I did begin a process of critically examining many of my previous assumptions. I'd never accepted Christianity but I had not rejected the notion of a deity so spent many years exploring the world's religions. But, as I recall the process, it was more like window shopping or watching a movie. I wasn't being critical so much as looking around for something that seemed to fit. I never settled on anything. At some point it came to feel as though I was shopping for something I didn't really need but rather thought I should have because others did.

I also began examining the political, cultural and economic systems of the United States and ultimately rejected what I had previously accepted as “right” or “correct”. I concluded that much of what I was taught by my parents and by the public school system was far too biased. This process was a bit more meaningful than my search for a spirituality or religion in that I had actual facts to consider. The world had been presented to me one way and I found that the presentation was not truthful. Even this though was tricky. Sociology, history, economics, and agriculture are all human created systems of knowledge which attempt to understand human cultures and practices and as such are open to bias in both data collection and interpretation.

Regardless of the context, I was not yet operating with full awareness of what it meant to be a skeptic. Much of my belief system during my 20s and 30s was based on what felt good, seemed environmentally sustainable or socially just. In some cases I'd done my homework on particular issues and had come to solid conclusions based on the evidence I'd examined. But my standards and my effort fluctuated and I had the bad (and lazy) habit of accepting as true propositions on which I had not done the due diligence. More often than not my position was, at least in part, a reaction to the status quo more than a fully developed understanding.

One interesting aspect of how skepticism is practiced and developed is the connection it has to our worldview. I suppose that in practice skepticism should be a process which stands apart of our worldview but it can be difficult to separate out. Let me share an example. As an anarchist generally opposed to global capitalism I continue to struggle with issues such as GMOs. I generally trust the process of science based on peer reviewed journals but I also understand that science is a tool which can be used for a variety of purposes. I do not, however, trust multinational corporations which have a long and demonstrated history of putting profits before science and before the public good, can I trust Monsanto and other multinationals involved in bio-technology? Can I trust what they say about the safety of their technology? If I cannot trust them who do I trust? How do I reconcile this apparent conflict of interest? My current answer as that some questions will remain open for me as I attempt to understand the science and the surrounding issues.

In the age of social media, most notably Facebook, the need for critical thinking and skepticism has never been greater. As of May 2013 Facebook reported 1.11 billion people using the site each month. Anyone that has used the site knows that it is commonly used to share articles. Whether the topic is GMOs, vaccinations, climate change or any number of other issues, it is certain that much of what is shared is not fully understood by those sharing. On the issue of health, medicine and “alternative” medicine I regularly see articles posted from sites that are, almost exclusively, bunk. I've gotten in the habit, when I have time, of debunking them and will continue to do so. Not that I expect to make much of a difference in the vast flow of misinformation but because it is good practice to do so. Even more, I greatly enjoy practicing skepticism. I'd like to be a part, even a small part, of helping create a culture of skepticism because a skeptical, scientifically literate society is one which is likely to be more rational.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Skeptic Toolkit - Peer Reviewed Science

Before we begin, you have to ask yourself: Do you want to believe or do you want to investigate?

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to do about the tools and practice of being skeptical. This first time around I intend to highlight one of the most important tools in the toolkit: Science. More specifically, peer reviewed science which is not to be confused with the mainstream reporting of science which often focuses on the sensationalistic headline at the cost of explaining the actual findings. More on that in a bit.

Let's begin by defining skepticsm. According to Wikipedia :

Skepticism is “generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.”

Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence. Classical philosophical skepticism derives from the ‘Skeptikoi', a school who “asserted nothing”. Adherents of Pyrrhonism, for instance, suspend judgment in investigations. Skeptics may even doubt the reliability of their own senses. Religious skepticism, on the other hand, is “doubt concerning basic religious principles (such as immortality, providence, and revelation)”).

I think I'd emphasize the skepticism of opinions and beliefs stated as facts as well as the importance of evidence in evaluating information in a general sort of way. Of course evaluating information requires a certain toolset, a framework for evaluation. With ever increasing internet access has come access to a vast ocean of “information”, much of it nothing more than mis-information, rumor and opinion. Unfortunately it would seem that many people are not equipped with the tools which are not only helpful but necessary in evaluating information. Add to this the relatively recent development of easy to use social media such as Facebook and the spread of misinformation happens even faster and to greater effect. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that such misinformation is only to be found on the internet or social media, just that it seems to spread quickly through such media. It can easily be found in our face-to-face relationships often in areas we might not expect.

Let's start with a recent conversation I had with a family member about health issues and she brought up that her family's pediatrician had recommended that she give her kids honey. Why I asked? She responded that it was really good, really healthy according to the doctor. But I wanted to hear more specifically about the benefits so I asked again looking for something specific. She couldn't recall that he offered any specifics but said that he recommended 1–2 tablespoons a day. I've read and heard many things said in favor of honey as something good to take for a variety of issues - so many things in fact that it could be called a “cure all” given all the supposed uses. It's an old standby used by “holistic” practitioners.

Let me say again that this is her family pediatrician encouraging her. Now, generally speaking, I like the idea of being able to trust the opinion of a medical professional. They have far more training than I. That said, I'd like to see some solid, scientific proof behind the claims so I did a bit of digging. I started with this article at the Mayo Clinic and another article at WebMD. My intent with these two sources was to look at an overview of the peer reviewed scientific research on honey and what I found is that there is little to no evidence supporting the notion that honey is beneficial for anything other than a cough suppressant. Use it to sweeten coffee but don't expect anything more from it, and, most important, don't give it to infants younger than one year of age though. According to the WebMD article (among other sources) “It's been shown very clearly that honey can give infants botulism,” a paralytic disorder in which the infant must be given anti-toxins and often be placed on a respirator.

I wonder how many people that sing the praises of honey on Facebook know that it should not be given to infants less than 12 months of age? When they are advocating the use of honey for this or that scenario are they also offering the appropriate caution? But this is just one example. There is a bountiful supply of such “information” to be found and it is often presented as fact.

Let's talk for a moment about the importance of peer reviewed scientific research when discussing medical issues or any other issues which fall within the sphere of science. To put it simply because it really is very simple, if the topic at hand is something which is being investigated by a field of science then that is where we turn for answers. What is “peer reviewed science”?

Northern Arizona University:

“For college-level research, you might be asked to cite only scholarly or peer-reviewed articles for your research projects. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they amount to much the same thing. A scholarly journal is a journal that contains articles authored by experts. Articles that report on new research findings are peer-reviewed to ensure the quality and accuracy of those findings. This means that before an article gets published, it is sent out to other researchers with relevant expertise, and these researchers evaluate the merits of the article. The article will be published only if it passes this peer review process. The ”peers“ who evaluate articles before they are published are called referees; sometimes you will hear the phrase refereed journal rather than peer-reviewed journal – don't worry, they mean the same thing.”

What is a peer reviewed journal? Again, from Northern Arizona University:

“In a peer-reviewed journal, article manuscripts submitted to the journal are critically reviewed by other scholars (peers). The reviewers might reject the manuscript outright, or require that the author make corrections or alterations before the manuscript is accepted for publication. This process helps ensure that only high-quality, accurate articles get published. The ”peers“ who evaluate articles are called referees; sometimes you will hear the phrase refereed journal rather than peer-reviewed journal – but they mean the same thing.”

Another great example of misinformation which can be countered by peer reviewed science is climate change. The most accurate knowledge will not to be found on political blogs or popular media publications nor should you turn to think-tanks of any variety. The answers are to be found by those publishing the latest in climate science research. It is important to know the difference between who is publishing the actual science (peer reviewed journals) as opposed to those reporting on the science. If we are not ourselves scientists it can be daunting and sometimes nearly impossible to find and read the actual journal articles which often require journal subscriptions. So we often rely on others to report the science but who can be trusted to accurately report the actual peer reviewed research in its proper context?

Want to practice? I hopped over to Natural News, a site notorious for posting health-related misinformation advocating alternative medicine, and picked an article from the front page with the headline “Active Release Technique' provides safe, effective healing for common injuries”. There are other such articles to choose from every single day. The site seems to be based on misinformation. Here's the introductory paragraph:

Active Release Technique, also known as ART, provides an effective alternative treatment for soft tissue and nerve damage injuries. Commonly treated injuries include plantar fasciitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. These injuries are often treated by conventional medicine with steroid injections and surgeries, with long recovery times. The use of the targeted massage treatment known as ART can significantly shorten healing time for these injuries.

Note the assertion that ART provides an effective alternative treatment in the first sentence and the last sentence: “The use of the targeted massage treatment known as ART can significantly shorten healing time for these injuries.” Hmm. Let me put my skeptic hat on. Thus far, we have nothing but an assertion, no actual evidence. We dive deeper and find this:

Dr. Michael Leahy, DC discovered this successful technique approximately 25 years ago through observation and use with patients. He was able to obtain a 90 percent success rate in his patients with various ailments and later trained others in his technique. There are now hundreds of trained practitioners worldwide.

Still, no actual peer reviewed science but now we have a “doctor” who lends the appearance of authority though there are many that would not consider a Doctor of Chiropractic a legitimate medical doctor. No mention in the article of anything he might have published just that he obtained a 90% success rate. Reading through the rest of the article there is zero reference to any kind of actual peer reviewed science carried out by Leahy or anyone else. The qualifications of the author? She “is a mental health therapist who incorporates holistic approaches into her counseling practice. She became passionate about holistic health, healing and politics, after immersing herself into the world of alternative medicine looking for answers to a family member's health crisis.”

The article provides no references to any kind of scientific evidence to back up the claims made for the technique. None. And yet, on the surface, without skepticism, some would likely be inclined to come to a conclusion that this treatment is safe and helpful.

Here's another, the Seven health benefits of ginseng which starts with this very excited paragraph:

It's simply amazing how natural herbs and foods can have multiple, wonderful health benefits! Take for instance ginseng (usually Korean/Asian Red Ginseng, Panax ginseng), it lives up to its cure-all description (Panax means “all-curing/healing” in Greek)! Add another health benefit to the list! Recently published research in Nutrients has demonstrated that ginseng can help treat and prevent influenza!

The article goes on to make a variety of fantastic claims most of which have little science associated with them. Some of the points which do have a connection to actual science are taken out of context. Like honey, ginseng is being treated as a kind of cure all. Let's focus on the study referenced under a large heading towards the top of the article.

Research found that using red ginseng daily over the long term can prevent the effects of influenza A. Influenza is a deadly respiratory illness that affects millions each year with new strains having the capability of spreading rapidly worldwide! Over the long term, daily oral administration of red ginseng improved the survival of lung epithelial cells infected with influenza and also reduced associated inflammation! The researchers hypothesized that this could be due to the immune-modifying effects of red ginseng that prevented or reduced the symptoms of the flu!

This leads the reader to the conclusion that they can take red ginseng to prevent the effects of influenza A. True? Let's look a bit further. I took a look at the primary source and as it turns out, it was a press release from the University of Georgia: Ginseng Can Treat And Prevent Influenza And Respiratory Virus, Researcher Finds . That's a bold claim. I googled that headline and found that, as usual with such sensational proclamations, it was picked up and republished all over the place. No actual reporting, just a repeat of the press release. There is an assumption made by those republishing the release that what it contains is true.The research comes out of the University of Georgia's Institute for Biomedical Sciences and seems legitimate. Let's dig a bit. According to the release his research was done in "cooperation with a university and research institutes in South Korea that wanted international collaborative projects to study if ginseng can be used to improve health and protect against disease because of the potential benefit in fighting these viruses." There's no mention of who the research institutes are but reading between the lines I ask, is this actual science or is it more of the same pseudo science that often surrounds such natural remedies? From the press release:

Ginseng can help treat and prevent influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages, according to research findings by a scientist in Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences.

Again, the average reader might take this to mean that they can purchase ginseng and use it as a treatment. So, this research consisted of human trials and was peer reviewed? No. Not at all. The research is preliminary and was, as is often the case, conducted on mice. I'll grant at this point that they may be headed in a direction that could prove useful but as of this study? No, not yet. Something else to consider: what journal was it published in? Is it a reputable journal that publishes peer reviewed science? Hmmm. It was published in an "open access" journal, Nutrients. This isn't necessarily a problem but open access journals are a new development and do not operate in the established tradition of science publishing. The problem is that unlike traditional journals which are supported by subscriptions, open access journals are supported by fees paid by those submitting articles. In other words, they have to pay to be published. From the front page of the Nutrients site:

Rapid publication: manuscripts are peer-reviewed and published within 58 days (average Jan-Jun 2013), accepted papers are immediately published online.

The point of peer review is to ensure quality research. When I read the above I see an emphasis not on quality but on speedy publishing. In recent years there have been real problems with the quality of science being published in open access journals so I consider this a red flag. Of open access journals, Steven Novella writes:

Open access journals frequently make their money by charging a publication fee of the author. This creates an incentive to publish a lot of papers of any quality. In fact, if you could create a shell of a journal, with little staff, and publish many papers online with little cost, that could generate a nice revenue stream. Why not create hundreds of such journals, covering every niche scientific and academic area?

This, of course, is what has happened. We are still in the middle of the explosion of open access journals. At their worst they have been dubbed “predatory” journals for charging hidden fees, exploiting naive academics, and essentially being scams.

John Bohannon decided to run a sting operation to test the peer-review quality of open access journals. I encourage you to read his entire report, but here’s the summary.

He identified 304 open access journals that publish in English. He created a fake scientific paper with blatant fatal flaws that rendered the research uninterpretable and the paper unpublishable. He actually created 304 versions of this paper by simply inserting different variables into the same text, but keeping the science and the data the same. He then submitted a version of the paper to all 304 journals under different fake names from different fake universities (using African names to make it seem plausible that they were obscure).

The result? – over half of the papers were accepted for publication. I think it’s fair to say that any journal that accepted such a paper for publication is fatally flawed and should be considered a bogus journal.

This, of course, is a huge problem. Such journals allow for the flooding of the peer-reviewed literature with poor quality papers that should never be published. This is happening at a time when academia itself is being infiltrated with “alternative” proponents and post-modernist concepts that are anathema to objective standards.

Combine this with the erosion of quality control in science journalism, also thanks to the internet. Much of what passes as science reporting is simply cutting and pasting press releases from journals, including poor-quality open access journals hoping for a little free advertising.

I'm not suggesting that this is the case with this particular journal article or even that the journal Nutrients is of poor quality, I'm just pointing out different variables which should be considered in evaluating the quality of information. In looking for information about the journal I did discover that the publisher, MDPI, is on a list of suspected predatory journals.

The unfounded conclusion of the article?

Ginseng truly is an amazing plant and lives up to its name as a cure-all! Although it has been used medicinally for at least 5,000 years, we are still discovering its uses! Next time you are experiencing anything from fatigue to hair loss, take a look at this natural cure-all!

The article has been shared on Facebook 2,171 times as of this writing.

Here's another one of my favorites from the same site: High-dose vitamin C injections shown to annihilate cancer.This one has 48,000+ shares on Facebook since being published on February 19, 2014.

Groundbreaking new research on the cancer-fighting potential of vitamin C has made the pages of the peer-reviewed journal Science Translational Medicine. A team of researchers from the University of Kansas reportedly tested the effects of vitamin C given in high doses intravenously on a group of human subjects and found that it effectively eradicates cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact.

Oh, but wait, this article claims to be based on peer-reviewed science. Maybe it's legit?

“Patients are looking for safe and low-cost choices in their management of cancer,” stated Dr. Jeanne Drisko, a co-author of the study, to BBC News concerning the findings. “Intravenous vitamin C has that potential based on our basic science research and early clinical data.”

Wow. You mean we might be able to treat cancer with intravenous vitamin C? Then in bold, across the page:

Researchers admit more human trials on intravenous vitamin C unlikely because drug companies cannot patent vitamins

Oh, I see, this is one of those big conspiracies the site is fond of promoting. Due to the drug companies we will never know. The claim here as that medical research can only happen if it is funded by large drug companies and that obviously there would be no interest in in this because there would be no profit. Or, it may just be that there are other problems with this proposed treatment? David Gorski over at Science Based Medicine has written about the science of using vitamin C many times over the years.

As it turns out, a good bit of peer reviewed work has been done and the conclusion is that there is not currently evidence that vitamin C is effective. In his most recent article that deals specifically with intravenous vitamin C delivered in high doses he writes:

A good drug for cancer is, at the very minimum, active at low or reasonable concentrations against the cancer cells being targeted, and vitamin C fails miserably on that count. Worse, there are at least indications that in some cases vitamin C might interfere with chemotherapy.

He goes on to offer a detailed critique of the study, the kind one might expect from an actual expert in the field:

So what we have here is a small clinical trial with a 19% dropout rate that wasn’t even blinded. It reported zero difference in overall survival (both were, as one would expect for ovarian cancer at this stage, abysmal), and zero statistically significant difference in time to relapse/progression. In all fairness, there would have had to have been an enormous effect to produce a statistically significant effect on survival or progression in such a small study, but these are the two “hard” endpoints that would be least affected by the lack of blinding, although one notes that time to progression could be affected by lack of blinding when the definition depends on interpreting scans.

The entire article is an excellent read which provides many of the details that might be fleshed out by a skeptical reading of such studies.

What we have here is a great example in the differences in quality of information. The first is a website that often sources from mainstream media, in this case the BBC, and often just copy/pastes text from releases. The writers don't understand the science and purposely (I suppose it could be accidental in some cases but I am inclined to think it intentional given the frequency) take it out of context to support conspiracy theories and agendas. The second is an expert in the field that actually digs into the study (as well as the long history of related studies on the subject) and offers a scientifically relevant critique of the work. It is an excellent example of the contrasting quality of information.

Unfortunately, it is the conspiracy-minded tripe that is shared on Facebook tens of thousands of times. Why? My hunch is that it is an easy, entertaining read. But it's not just that. Some people enjoy a good (or evil) conspiracy and they want to believe (to quote Fox Moulder) that there are easy cures to what might one day cause their death. Wishful thinking is convenient and comforting. Why do the difficult work of researching sources, why take the time to tediously read through longer, more difficult articles that fail to provide clear cut answers that reassure us and calm our fear? Because the truth is better than the delusion even if it is not comforting. Ultimately, real knowledge and understanding are more valuable to our survival as individuals as well as a species. Understanding ourselves and our Universe not only allows us to make better decisions but also provides us with a greater appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us.

My intent is to provide a series of posts, “The Skeptic Toolkit” which will explore a variety of resources and techniques freely available to anyone interested in learning to be a better skeptic. Stay tuned.

 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

YouTube Channel

I set up a YouTube channel a few years ago but never made it a point to post much. A couple months back it was pointed out to me that one of my YouTube videos had gotten quite a few views, 29,000+, and that perhaps I should invest more time in developing my channel. so, this is me putting in some time creating more video updates.

The funny thing is that I actually enjoy putting them together, its just something I need to work into my routine. I'm hoping to assemble 2 - 3 each month. Here are the first two, both are gardening updates. We've been busy with baby goats, spring gardening as well as putting up a raspberry trellis and a small duck pond.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Atheist Morality

It’s a fairly common opinion in the U.S., which is predominately Christian, that religion or a belief in a god is a requirement of morality. A recent Pew poll continues to support this notion.

Of course this is not the case. No, not even close. But it is what believers tend to believe and it IS an interesting question: where do we get our morality? For the religious, it comes from a holy book such as the Bible and is often presented along with a threat of hell for the sinner or a promise of eternal life for the repentant. Of course it gets a bit confusing as most Christians also believe in the forgiveness of sins in the act of accepting Jesus - so go ahead and behave badly, just accept Jesus before you die and you’re good to go. Makes for some pretty loose morality I’d say. Now, I’m just speaking here of Christians. Other faiths do not necessarily provide such an easy ticket into whatever version of an afterlife they are promoting.

Before we go any further let’s have a look at the definition of how morality is defined:
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:
morality |məˈralətē, mô-| - noun (pl. moralities) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. 
• a particular system of values and principles of conduct, esp. one held by a specified person or society: a bourgeois morality. 
• the extent to which an action is right or wrong: behind all the arguments lies the issue of the morality of the possession of nuclear weapons.
I see no mention here of religion as a requirement for morality. From Wikipedia:
Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong). The philosophy of morality is ethics. A moral code is a system of morality (according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with “goodness” or “rightness.” Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles. An example of a moral code is the Golden Rule which states that, “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
I think it is fairly obvious that morality is relative depending on different sources as well as interpretations. But we’re not just talking about the source or framework of morality are we? We are also talking about actual human behavior and the notion that only those that believe in a higher power can or will behave in a moral way. One aspect of this seems to be that the threat of eternal damnation should serve as a deterant even as the promise of an eternal heaven serves as an enticement. Of course, for many Christians, actual conduct is irrelevant as long as one accepts Jesus before dying. As an atheist I’d suggest that human morality, both the structure of recommended behavior as well as the actual behavior, is far too important to leave to religion. I would suggest that our morality requires a level of rational thought and understanding of evolving complex systems and that to rely on outdated and unproven religious beliefs rooted in confused texts and superstition is nothing short of folly.

Let me put it another way. Any morality rooted in contradictory and confused texts written by men worshiping an unproven supernatural power should not be the basis for a modern morality that guides human behavior in era of science and rationality. Such texts are, simply, not up to the task. What is needed today (and what has been needed for a very long time) is a living morality that is being actively questioned and fine tuned by the humans of today. In this regard I would suggest that it is to atheists that we might look for a new, updated morality that is based on an understanding of reality as informed by the best minds of our times. This is not to say that such a morality is to be the sole province of atheists but that it is past the time that we stop pretending that superstitious belief systems can be the primary foundation for what is considered good human behavior. In fact, the longer we cater to such belief systems the more likely we are to cause irreparable damage to our planet. Let’s explore some examples.

A common emphasis of faith-based belief systems is the idea of eternal life after death. Depending on which interpretation of the New Testament you might prefer, such eternal life takes place in heaven or on a new earth. Regardless of that, in such a worldview long-term life on Earth becomes far less important.   Our dealings with our environment, with the ecological systems of our planet, are one area of morality that might be considered not only important but critical to our survival. What kind of morality do we get from religions that not only emphasize an unproven afterlife but which explicitly state that that life is more important than the current one? What kind of relationship can we expect with our planet’s life support systems when the guiding morality explicitly states that a new Earth will be provided?

The problem of faith-based belief systems is the resistance they provide against critical, rational thought. In the U.S. there is a long standing conflict between many Christians and those that advocate science literacy. It manifests in a variety of ways, most notably in the “debate” over evolution and creationism. The “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the Universe is another. On the issue of human-caused climate change and what might need to be done to address the problem, we see a situation in which the public, lacking the scientific literacy needed to understand the available information, has demonstrated a very confused reaction. While this confusion is not the direct result of any specific religious influence, it might well be presented as an example of what happens when a superstitious population, lacking in basic scientifc literacy, is presented with a very serious and complex social-ecological problem that can only be understood in scientific terms. Without the skills and knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of information (and the sources) being presented on the internet and in the corporate media, public opinion has swayed back and forth year to year.

Ask a few adults you know about the cause of seasons on Earth and many will not know the correct answer. This is basic science knowledge and yet many do not understand. According to a recent National Science Foundation poll, 25% of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun but think the opposite is true. These are just the basics of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately we also see a general lack of understanding of the scientific method or of how science works on a larger scale via peer reviewed publishing. Unfortunately it’s not just average citizens that are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and process but also many elected representatives that make important decisions on funding and regulation. Currently less than 2% of U.S. Congressman have a background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Perhaps this helps to explain why so little has been done to solve problems such as climate change?

A society which has the capability of sending spacecraft to the edges of its solar system is one which is obviously capable of leaving behind superstition and embracing complex, rational thought. A society which has remotely landed a variety of rovers on other planets is a society which is capable of developing advanced technology and has, at the very least, some portion of the population which is dedicated to scientific endeavors. Of course it is also true that science is the tool that is often used for ethically questionable ends. Asking how we might develop this or that technology is not enough. We should also be asking why we should be developing such technologies. Bioengeneering is one area of scientific development which has met with a great deal of resistance across the planet. Whether the issue is the genetic engineering of the food supply or some other application of the technology, the ethics are not yet settled. Who do we turn to when we are uncertain of the ethics of certain technological development or the ethics of the goals of some areas of scientific pursuit? Is there a difference between science that is conducted by a corporation such as Monsanto and that conducted by a publicly funded university? Science is a tool and can be used in many ways. Are we to turn to the religious texts of history to guide us in such discussion and decision making?

I propose that there really is no need for debate on this topic. Human society has outgrown moral frameworks based on unproven historical texts that are little more than superstition. Such frameworks are not just a hinderance to our understanding of the Universe around us but also an obstacle to our ability to adjust to new social ecological problems. What is needed today is a living, rational morality which is informed by reasoned discussion and debate guided by the most current information provided by peer reviewed science.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmic Dance

A few weeks back I wrote about viewing the supernova in M82. It was first observed around the same time that an article was circulating about the continuing and drastic decline of Monarch butterfly populations. I had both the supernova and the threat to the Monarch on my mind when I sat down to write about my observation of M82 but I couldn't quite make the connection I wanted to make. A few days ago the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, in describing the earlier generations of star birth and death, comes close to articulating what it was I was pondering:

This happened in the Milky Way billions of years ago, and those elements from some long-dead star made their way into you. Your bones, your teeth, your blood, your very DNA have elements in them forged in the heart of a mighty star that violently tore itself to bits so that eventually you may live. It is a transformation on a literally cosmic scale.

I should hope the metaphorical metamorphosis is obvious enough. The only constant in the Universe is change, and much of it is a cycle. Birth, life, death, restructuring, and rebirth. That is also the theme of much of human art, from paintings and movies to myths and great novels.

Some say science is cold, dealing unemotionally with hard data. But that’s far from the reality. Humanity and life are reflected in the stars, and the Universe itself is poetry.

The thoughts I'd had were specific to the harsh reality of extinction on Earth. The Monarch is not there yet but it's numbers have declined drastically. Other species are also in decline and extinctions happen every day. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity we are now experiencing the 6th mass exctinction event of the planet, loosing dozens of species a day:

It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century .

Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species’ extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel.

For most of my adult life I've gone through a cycle of depression connected to or caused by my awareness of what we are doing to the planet and our fellow species. I will never accept what our species has done, is doing, to our planet but I have found a certain peace in the understanding that the Universe will go on regardless. Our fragile planet and the life on it has an end date. In 600 million years our sun will have have increased in luminosity significantly and the carbon cycle plants depend on will shift causing mass die-off of plant life and animal life. By the time the sun transitions from a main sequence star (4.5 bililon years from now) life on the planet will have long since disappeared. Such is the case for all life supporting planetary systems in the Universe. All stars have a limited lifespan.

The Monarchs will end. Humanity will end. Our planet, our solar system and our Sun will all have an end. So it goes. The cosmic dance will continue... for awhile anyway. What can we do but live our lives in the best possible way? I for one will try to live with a respect for the fragility of life on this Pale Blue Dot and with an understanding that the star stuff that makes up my body and this planet will one day be pushed forth into the Cosmos.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Supernova!

Animation showing SN 2014J

Around January 19th a new supernova was detected in the night sky. Dubbed SN 2014J, the supernova is visible from the northern hemisphere in M82, a galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major. Consider, M82 is 12 million light years away so this explosion actually happened 12 million years ago but it has taken the light that long to travel the distance between our galaxies. 12 million years ago our Earth was in what is now called the Serravallian stage of the Miocene geological epoch. While humans did not yet exist at the time of the explosion the Earth was populated by a diversity of life including apes which were widespread.

I set out to observe the new-to-us supernova the first clear night after it's announcement. I've looked at M82, also called Bode's Nebulae or the Cigar Galaxy, many times. It's one of my favorites and I am familiar with it. It is an elongated galaxy with more visual definition than most galaxies. In dark skies with a telescope of 8" or greater it is possible to see the mottling of dust and gas. I saw the supernova immediately as it appeared to be a tiny star in the lower part of the galaxy. To a casual observer it would not appear to be much other than a small and faint star not unlike many of the smaller and fainter stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. But this is not a star in our galaxy.

Let me offer some perspective. Our Milky Way is an estimated 100,000 light years in diameter. Most of the stars we see with the unaided eye are 10,000 light years or less in distance. The most distant we can see unaided is about 15,000 light years away. Most of what we see is a good deal closer than that. Now, to reiterate, this supernova is 12 MILLION light years away and yet we can see it as a distinct point of light. That must have been one magnificent event and when it happend humans did not yet exist on Earth. But our curious species does exist today and we have been around long enough that we have telescopes to observe as well as the science needed to understand it. When the light from this event reached us we were ready for it.

Astronomers classify this kind of supernova as a type Ia. Essentially, when stars the size of our sun have exhausted their hydrogen and helium fuel (after 10 billion years or so) they collapse in on themselves to something much smaller and more dense. We call this kind of collapsed star a white dwarf and they have a mass comparable to that of the Sun, but a volume comparable to that of the Earth. At this point the star is no longer undergoing the nuclear fusion of gas but is just radiating lots of heat into space and will do so for trillions of years. However, if the white dwarf had a companion star it might, thanks to gravitation, begin pulling off gas from that star. If this goes on long enough the white dwarf will form an accretion disk of gas around itself and as the gas accumulates it builds in pressure and density due to the increasing weight which raises the temperature of the core. When the star nears a size of about 1.44 solar masses a period of convection begins and then ignition. Because white dwarfs do not regulate the fusion process as normal stars do, ignition results in runaway fusion reaction. Much more detail about the process is available via this page at Wikipedia.

 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Something Decidedly Different

It is December 25. Christmas. I sit here this morning enjoying my coffee and the sounds of children happily playing with toys in the other room. Mostly giggling and excited play talk though there is the occasional shriek or tense raised voice. Mostly though, all is well. What’s different about these kids and their toys is that they did not open them up this morning and these are not new toys. These are the same toys they’ve been playing with for years. There is no tree in the house with presents underneath. We do have lights strung up for decoration though they remain up all year long as they provide a soft, cozy and yet festive atmosphere. We enjoy them, why take them down?

These are children who have never believed in Santa nor have they ever celebrated Christmas. Their mother, now an atheist was, for 14 years, a Bible believer that actually read the Bible and came to the conclusion that the Christmas holiday was nothing more than a creation by Constantine to emulate a pagan holiday for the purpose of conversion. In any case, last year, as she says, she studied her way right out of the Bible to deism which then, after a few more months of consideration, was replaced with atheism.

And so, here we are, a happy and content family enjoying a beautiful winter day. Sure, we have some homemade cookies but those are made all year long not just around the holidays and we enjoy some of the holiday music as well. We’ll enjoy this day as any other with three healthy meals, chopping wood, playing blocks, doing a bit of homeschool, maybe some crafts later.

Do our kids lack? Do they feel they are missing out because they’re not getting a roomful of new toys? No, I don’t think so and I’ll illustrate with a little story which is fairly typical. Recently we had a couple birthdays and the girls were asked for a list of things they wanted. The list? Empty. When pushed to come up with a list one shrugged and suggested a coloring book. When pushed further they agreed that they could use some fabric, paint and a few other art supplies. This is the rule, not the exception around here. In general these are kids that are very happy that seem to be living very full lives. For the most part the kids here spend their freetime reading, playing, crafting or watching a couple movies on weekends. In general, they’re not staring at screens, not texting and not partaking of the mainstream culture.

I’d guess that were I to take at a look at the wish-lists of random children living in the U.S., be they birthday or Christmas, the lists would, in general be quite long. I’d also guess that the kids with fairly long lists would already possess a great abundance of fairly new toys and gadgets. This isn’t about proclaiming some sort of right or wrong way to live or raise kids. Not about a right or wrong way of spending December 25 or any other day of the year. Rather, it is suggestion that it is entirely possible to live a life which does not revolve around the hyper-consumption that seems to have become the norm in today’s America. It is also to ask questions: Are we and our children happier as a result of this greatly increased consumption? Are we even aware that this seems to have become the new norm? What is the relationship of our identity and sense of happiness to our consumption of material goods? Have we come to believe that such consumption, as a distraction, can serve as a solution to our problems?

Really, the questions around consumption and hyper-consumption are not new. There are many more questions that could be asked regarding the effects of a way of life based on hyper-consumption on our personal and cultural health. There’s nothing fresh here and many others have been asking the questions for a long time. Nevertheless we seem stuck in this cultural and behavioral rut and I don’t see it as something that is making us happy or as something which can be sustained on a planet which has reached its limit.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Carl's Birthday

Dr Carl Sagan


Yesterday was Carl Sagan’s birthday. I really should have celebrated with a night of star gazing but I was exhausted from a full day and a full week so I stayed inside. It seems fitting though that sometime around 3 am I awoke with thoughts of Carl, the Universe and my place in it. As my mind often does at those early hours (If I’ve been asleep in bed but stir from slumber) I began mulling over a variety of thoughts. Perhaps that’s why long nights at the telescope with views of distant galaxies or Milky Way globular clusters and nebulae are often such an interesting exercise in quiet contemplation. In any case, I was awake and pondering some time outside under the stars. Laying next to Kaleesha I caressed her neck, her back and her hips enjoying the warm coziness of the moment and her sweet sighs as she stirred to my touch. After a little while I decided I would get an early start to the day with a view of the stars, planets and the sunrise.

I layered up with clothes and ventured outside with my iPad and quietly walked up the hill with Murphy at my side. There’s something entirely comfortable about walking up a woodland trail with the stars peeping through the breaks in the trees above and a big dog like Murphy keeping you company. The stars this morning were not a disappointment. They never are. The sky could not have been clearer and in this part of Missouri they are very dark. Orion took my breath away as it hovered in the southern sky. It is in moments such as this that I am overcome with a blissful mix of emotions and thoughts, feeling a joy of being connected to the Earth as I look up with an understanding that I am from the stars. That we, that all of this, is of a Universe which is bound together even as it is expanding further apart.

One of my thoughts this morning, in bed and now carried with me as I walked up the hill pertained to how it is that so much of our lives, in the America of 2013, are spent in pursuit of the next big thing and in particular, then next big shiny thing. Shiny things. It seems we modern humans, at least those of us who live in the “wealthy” nations, have become obsessed with trivial entertainments. From the Super Bowl to sitcoms to eating out to shopping, all the while dutifilly posting Facebook “Status” updates, we keep ourselves busy with our various forms of consumption and our “sharing” of it. How much of our mental and emotional energy is bound up in the aquisition of wealth and material objects. Bigger homes with nicer furnishings, name brand clothes covering overly cleaned and perfumed people driving new cars to jobs which may or may not be satisfying but which are required to maintain the lifestyle and the seeking of status that often comes with it. iPhones and iPads, texting while driving to the next afterschool sporting event, in the presence of others but rarely actually communicating with them.

This morning I think of Carl and his efforts to push humanity forward in its exploration of the Universe and it’s understanding of that Universe. I think of his warnings about our behaviour towards one another and towards the planet we share with not just other humans but with a great multitude of other species. I’ve spent most of my adult life concerned about problems such as climate change and have made a fairly consistent effort to communicate those concerns with others. I’ve made many of my life decisions based upon my understanding (limited though it is) of humanity’s effects on our planet and so this morning as I looked at our Milky Way neighbors I could not help but ponder Carl and what he sought to communicate.

If we humans are ever able to leave our planet for the purposes of living elsewhere it is a long way off. For the forseable future the Earth is our home and we are not doing a very good job of taking care of it. In this past year of looking up at the night sky I have, more than any other time of my life, come to appreciate the beatuy of the Universe. I have also developed a new-to-me understanding or perspective of our home planet in the context of the Universe. With each day the evidence grows that there are likely billions of planets in just our own Milky Way galaxy that might support life, planets that inhabit the “goldilocks” zone around their respective stars. There are billions of galaxies and, in light of these numbers, my doubt about life elsewhere in the Universe continues to shrink. And though we know that life on Earth has an expiration date based upon the life cycle of our sun I can’t help but wish that we humans might make the effort to live as though what we do matters. Perhaps our existence is meaningful because of this known expiration not in spite of it. Our species’ existence is likely to be ephemeral in the grand scheme of things but is that any reason to live without care?

Before the sun began to lighten the sky I pointed the telescope to the north, to Ursa Major and there I found the two galaxies, M81 and M82, collectively known as Bode’s Nebulae. The photons from these distant galaxies traveled for more than 12 million years before finding their way to my eyes. I spent a good long while looking at these two as they are fairly close and offer more detail than more distant galaxies. What life might exist there on the billions of planets that likely orbit billions of stars? Next I looked at Jupiter and then Mars, just a stone throw away by comparison. The sunlight reflected from these two planets traveled to us in just minutes. Current missions to Mars are looking for evidence of past life there. Jupiter’s moon Europa has an atmosphere which consists primarily of oxygen and a smooth icey surface which may well have liquid oceans beneath. Oceans that may support life. As the sun began to brighten the sky I aimed the telescope at the Orion Nebula for one last look.

After putting the scope away I stood for a few minutes on the soft layer of cedar mulch that covers the boulders that overlook the shut-ins of Tucker Creek. I spent a few minutes observing the rushing water and rich textures of the landscape. The trees of this south-facing hill are now nearly shed of all their leaves but are covered in thick layers of lichen. The rocks too are covered in patches of lichen and moss. Even in the chill of a fall morning life is abundant.

As I walked down the path, Murphy again at my side, I could not help but overflow with joy at the crunching of leaves underfoot and the gold light of our sun filtering through the mostly bare branches. There is something very enjoyable about acknowledging and being mindful of the sun not just as the sun but as OUR STAR. At the bottom of the hill our little homestead was stiring with the morning. Chickens, ducks and a goose were all awake and begining their business as were the goats. Soon I would sit in the warmth of the house and write at the kitchen table to the sounds of children pitterpattering above.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tucker Creek Observatory

I've been here at Make-It-Do Farm for almost four months and I'm happy to say that we now have a fantastic observatory site. It took a bit of work but we got started a couple weeks ago cutting down a few trees. Most of them were cedars and not the healthiest trees so I don't feel too terrible for cutting them down. We've got a couple more on the north side to take down. As of now the view from the northwest all the way around to the northeast is pretty fantastic. We've got a great view of the southern horizon which allows for easy viewing of Sagitarius in the summer. When we're finished I expect that our view of the skies will be as clear as those I had at the lake but even better as the skies are even darker here! The observation deck is nearly finished and then I'll build the telescope shed.

In the few nights I had up on the hill before the moon and cloudy weather returned I had some fantastic views of the Ring Nebula, Andromeda, Perseus Double Cluster, Messier 2, Eagle Nebula and Lagoon Nebula. Quite a few others too but those are the highlights. Not only is the hill a great viewing site but it sits within just a hundred feet of the shut-ins of Tucker Creek. Just as the lake offered an amazing night-time symphony of geese and other life, so too does this site offer the sounds of frogs, insects and running water. The skyline is framed in trees and the rock bluffs all around are barely visible in the pale starlight. Beautiful. I didn't think I could have a better site than the lake but I think this is it.

 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Accepting Complexity

A few days ago we had a visit from the Johavah’s Witnesses. We glanced out the window and didn’t recognize the van. When I saw them get out I guessed pretty quickly who they were and excitedly put on my shoes. By the time I got out to the car they were already in conversation with Kaleesha. She didn’t see me approach from behind. She was being very polite, letting them talk for quite an extended period. I wasn’t sure if she was going to quietly listen and let them leave or confront them. I piped up from behind when they produced an article titled “Should you trust religion?”

“Oh, no, we’re atheists.” I wasn’t interested in anything but being blunt and to the point. I’m happy to engage with them but it will be on my terms if they’ve come to my house. So, I happily let that cat out of the bag. I won’t really bother recounting the conversation as they didn’t have much to offer. My basic suggestion was that we relied on and believed in science and that the Universe was plenty amazing without an imaginary god. But they did leave a few things and agreed to come back next week for more conversation.

So, what was it they left? Well, let me sum it up as useless. Not that I’d expect anything of use from them. One of the “publications” was about science: “The Origin of Life: Five Questions Worth Asking”. Essentially, it can easily be summed up as this: Life and the Universe are far too complex to be anything but the result of intelligent design. That’s it, just their assertion. We’re supposed to take their word. While they actually do a pretty commendable job of introducing some actual science, giving credit and acknowledgement (in a minimal way) to the progress made by various fields of science, they end each section with a sort of “God of the Gaps” argument. Essentially, they’ve taken some big steps backwards from progress made 60 years ago. At least according to this humble non-believer. During World War II German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
Charles Alfred Coulson, in his 1955 book Science and Christian Belief wrote:
“There is no ‘God of the gaps’ to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.”
The problem is that science continues the march onward, making fantastic progress across the many fields. From microbiology to astrophysics, the gaps in data, the gaps in knowledge, are being closed at an amazing rate. The writing on the wall. God is no longer needed and is being handed his hat. Thanks but no thanks, we can use the scientific method to explore and understand the Universe.

Some of them seem to think that the meager offerings of the Bible are sufficient but it is far from that. It is a religious document written over a thousand years ago that does not deal with a scientific exploration of the Universe. It explains nothing. Our visitors the other day seemed to think that they could point to a passage here and there to somehow prove the Bible’s accuracy. Nevermind the contradictions that exist, a passage here and there do little to explain the mysteries that the scientific method has been used with such efficacy to explain.
“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.” – Carl Sagan
Of course science is just a method, a tool used by humans to learn. But we recognize that mistakes can be made and the method is design to confront the mistakes. Nothing in science is sacred or above challenge. New data can confirm our understanding or might be used to challenge it. That is the beauty, resiliance and utility of science and what makes it such a valuable tool.

Addendum: As planned, we were revisited by the JW folks and had a nice conversation. I expect it was pointless but who can predict. To put it simply I shared with them everything I’ve written here. Whether they will consider my thoughts and criticisms or not I do not know.