Defending Freedom of Speech Thru Gag Orders or Belief Versus Knowledge

I am a fervent supporter of the separation of Church and State for several reasons.  Among other things, I believe that people should be able to hold any spiritual, religious, and crackpot notions in their head that they want.  Thus, if Tom Cruise wants to believe that the director of the galactic confederacy (a guy named Xenu) brought aliens to this planet, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them with H-Bombs 75 million years ago, causing their essences to pollute us ever since, then that’s fine.  If Christians want to believe that children are born inherently sinful, great, go for it.  If Buddhists want to believe that they will be reborn after they die, not necessarily as a human, but reborn nonetheless, fine.  None of them should be able to tell the others what to believe anymore than I should be able to tell them that when we Frisbeetarians die our souls go up on the roof and we can’t get them down.

That’s what faith is about.  A belief in something without evidence.  Yes, the Catholic church believes in miracles.  Documentation on the other hand, is iffy.  Never mind.  Let them believe.

Behavior on the other hand is a different thing.  If we are to agree on public policies that affect everyone, they really need to be based on things we can demonstrate to each other.

For instance, it is generally agreed that stepping off a cliff is a bad idea.  You can demonstrate this in many ways.  I prefer dropping a watermelon rather than an actual person, but we can clearly demonstrate, time and again, that whether the watermelon hits the ground or the ground hits the watermelon, it’s not going to end well for the watermelon.  This is called evidence.  Whether I’m an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Scientologist, we can agree, stepping off cliffs–generally bad.

Interestingly enough, it was probably only anecdotal, at first.  “I heard this guy, named Ugh went off the cliff after the mastodon and it was not pretty.” “Yeah?”  Then, through something we call inductive reasoning, we saw that every time someone went off the cliff (and lets not be petty, we’re talking cliff, not a slight drop–fifty feet minimum) there was clean-up involved.  (Unless you landed in a big pile of dung like what happened during the second defenestration of Prague.  And there was still clean-up involved.)

So, here’s where I get really incensed.  I believe that our public policies on health should be based on this evidence thing.  I don’t want people going, “Oh, my brother-in-law got aids and they threw him off a cliff.  It cured him completely.”  In particular, I am upset with the Anti-Vaccination movement, a “health” movement that is killing people daily. In the 1980’s there was doubt raised about the safety of vaccinations and ingredients used to preserve those vaccinations.  When concerns are raised, people conduct studies.  They investigate the concerns.

Consider Vioxx (rofecoxib).  On September 30, 2004, Merck voluntarily withdrew rofecoxib from the market because of concerns about increased risk of heart attack and stroke associated with long-term, high-dosage use.  Previous and subsequent studies demonstrated an 4-fold increase of heart attack and stroke.

In the late eighties, a concern was raised about vaccinations, the preservative thiomersal, and autism.  There was a concern so studies were done.  There was no correlation.  Tiomersal was removed from vaccines though in 1999 and in the interval since, there has been no drop in autism.  More detail here.

And still the anti-vaxxers claim it causes autism, though they’ve mostly shifted their attacks to the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.  Again, evidence is against them.  Unfortunately, their influence has increased the number of families who don’t vaccinate their children leading to increased outbreaks of these diseases, some leading to death or permanent disability.

Here’s a related insanity, aptly described by Rebecca Watson of Skepchik and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

Life, I tell you! Extraterrestrial…. liiiiiiife!


So, here is a quickie, to get warmed up and breathe a little life back into my own posting habits.

Science News reports that some very clever people have come up with a laser technique for detecting microbial activity. We can not only use it to, say, detect Martian life from orbit, but even use it to detect life on worlds orbiting other suns! Even better, it uses very inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment. Which means maybe even some enterprising amateurs could conceivably be the first people to discover extraterrestrial life.

How cool is that?

Dog Without End

My first dog was Fiorello LaGuardia Robins of blessed memory.  My father had a swell, deeply neurotic German Shorthaired Pointer named Nellie (as in “Wait Till The Sun Shines”).  We currently rejoice in the company of Emily the leaping hound.  I love, or have loved, all three.  But I wouldn’t want to clone them.

What I find fascinating is the human story (of course).  Lou Hawthorne, whose company cloned his mother’s dogs (after his stepfather invested heavily in the procedure) is awed by how similar MissyToo and Mira are to Missy, the dog from which they were cloned.  He owns Mira, about whom he waxes rhapsodic.  But Hawthorne’s mother, to whom he gave the other cloned dog, MissyToo, doesn’t like the new dog at all, and sent it off, like an unloved Victorian orphan, to live with “handlers.”  She had already adopted a puppy after Missy died, and says “I already have a dog — a real dog.”  Evidently she doesn’t understand the Velveteen Rabbit theory that one becomes real only by being loved into it.

Poor MissyToo.

Climate Change We Can Believe In

So far, so good: Obama and his team are making strong, prominent statements about climate change as an important national security concern. This is very, very good news. With most trends happening faster than the models predict, and Kyoto about to expire, there is little enough time to act before the window closes and catastrophic change becomes inevitable.

Thank goodness the grown-ups are in charge.

Do us proud, Obama&Co. There won’t be time for a do-over.

Here’s the relevant podcast from PRI.

Cool Links 1: Cassini Images of Enceladus

I have a couple of nifty items to share today. First, check out these NASA images of Saturn’s tiny inner moon, Enceladus.

Encelades and Saturn's Rings

Be sure to view all the images and read the captions — it’s the compilation of images that makes these Cassini images so striking. A couple of the close fly-bys show striking detail of the moon’s surface. (Via Patricia Rogers.)

Hubble Spots Anomaly; Borg Fu? Warp Drive? or a Big Ol’ Smudge?


Here is something fun. Sky and Telescope reports that the Hubble has spotted an unidentified object out in the far reaches of space.

What’s its distance? That would certainly be a first step to figuring it out, but only the broadest constraints can be put on its distance. Its lack of parallax motion means that it can’t be closer than about 130 light-years, and a lack of cosmic hydrogen absorption in its spectrum means that it can’t be farther than 11 billion light-years (when “distance” is defined by light travel time). That leaves a lot of leeway.

Wasn’t it our very own Sean who was speculating that all we need to do to attract the attention of the transdimensional gods is to muck around with, say, 5% of the known universe? Or was it Stuart? (I know, I know — that dot is a lot less than 5%. But it sure sounds interesting) (via Gizmodo)

Science Debate 2008

I found something nifty. A group of citizens concerned about the state of science and technology in the US kicked off an effort which is now co-sponsored by 38,000 scientists, engineers, and scientific/ engineering/ mathematics organizations, to quiz the presidential candidates on their knowledge of and positions regarding important scientific issues of the day.

Science Debate 2008 has posed a series of questions to each candidate on subjects ranging from climate change to energy to education to stem cell research and ocean health.

No response is up yet from McCain, but you can see Obama’s answers to the top 14 questions here. Here’s a taste of his position on one of my topics of concern, climate change:

Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A cap- and-trade program draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost- effective and flexible way. I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned.

I am impressed with his specificity, here. A reduction of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 is what climate scientists say is needed to forestall the worst effects of climate change. I’ve seen arguments made for and against cap-and-trade, versus a carbon tax. I’m no economist, but from what I have read from the experts, cap-and-trade should work, as long as it’s well thought out, and I would support this. (More on this if y’all are interested; just let me know.)

His answers to several of the other questions are equally thoughtful and have real specifics.  I’ll be interested to see McCain’s responses.

This is just a quick post — if I get time, I will delve into some of his answers and discuss his positions further, but my first impression is, damn — it sure will be nice if we can get a smart person back in the White House again. Digits overlapped…

And kudos to the people who thought this up — we need to be asking our leaders these kinds of questions.

The Oceans are dying. Just thought you ought to know.

People don’t like bad news. They get irritated with environmental scientists and advocates who hit them with warnings. “Alarmists!” is a favorite pejorative.

I don’t like upsetting my friends, either, so I have been cowardly, and stopped posting on the ongoing march of destruction of the planet’s species. But this table, posted at Deep-Sea News by science blogger Peter Etnoyer, was pulled from his colleague Jeremy B. C. Jackson’s recent publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The table really says it all, and people do need to know. Even if we don’t want to.

Kate Wilhelm has a short story called “The Chosen.” It depicts the forests of the future, which have fallen silent. And still we mine them. This table is a glimpse at the reality that story predicted.

We are devouring our world. We are devouring our children’s future. Just thought you should know.

Boba Fett’s Got Nothing on You, Glenn Martin

My goodness, but this is extremely cool. Given global warming and the price of fuel, it’s undeniably self-indulgent to the point of Gaia abuse to fantasize about owning my own jetpack. But I can’t help it; I’m a sucker for fly-tech.

Inventor Glenn Martin has created a real, honest-to-guru working prototype of a jetpack, which recently took its first voyage at a flying contraptions fair in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Click on the image to watch the video and read about it at the Chicago Tribune.

(That, btw, is his 16-year-old son Harrison piloting it, neatly settling the debate over whether or not having an inventor for a parent is Teh Coolest! Thing! Evar!)

Interesting Nice Friendly Jellybrain

I haven’t written here much for quite some time, and feel nauseous guilt about it. I’ve failed in my commitment to my fellow Brainiacs. (Not that they’ve done much better lately. Hah! ….Wait….That wasn’t nice…Or friendly….)

Not Actually Doing It behavior is a constant theme in my life. I often ponder and perfectionize, rather than acting. I go through periods where I just soak up info and rest and am practically inert socially. I’m frequently abstracted and divorced from daily reality. I don’t answer e-mail or return phone calls or seek out companionship. This can go on for months. I call this my Hermit Phase. Until a few weeks ago, I was convinced that this was a serious personality flaw on my part.

But now I know better. I’m not bad, I’m just INFJ. We do those things.

A significant part of the work I did with clients when I was a counselor involved normalizing their behavior. They’d come in feeling damaged and inadequate, blaming themselves and thinking that no one else was like them or had reacted like them to the trials and opportunities that life commonly hands out to us all.

So, you have trouble sustaining long-term intimate relationships? Other people do, too! You hate your job? Everybody hates their job! Methamphetamines? It’s a goddam epidemic!

Once you get past those feelings of having unique and insoluble problems or defects that no one else has experienced, you can start looking at ways other people like you have found to cope, overcome, change, mitigate, or even accept them.

But it’s really, really, really difficult to accept your quirks and perceived failings, after a lifetime of internalizing that there’s something inexplicably wrong with you.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is based on Jungian theory, and is extremely popular these days in corporate settings. The idea is to fit people and teams together to match their inner needs and compatibilities. Which, uh, is a bunch of bullshit, as far as I’m concerned.

People love the test and feel that it describes them well. It’s enticing that it’s a no-shame no-blame test. It just tells you in what ways you’re wonderful and that you’re okay. It’s great at helping you to accept yourself and not feel weird.

There are areas that you might want to examine, of course….

The MBTI is a for-cost test, but there are a lot of copycat versions floating around out there on the InterWebs for free. A popular one is at HumanMetrics and another is at Similar Minds.

I get almost identical results from both, and a few others out there. Sometimes I show as having a razor-thin INTJ classification, by about 1%, rather than INFJ. I’m sorta okay about that. INTJs are pretty cool, too, though not as cool as INFJs.

The MBTI correlates, some, with the Big Five test, which supposedly accurately addresses the best, most current psychological theories. But I don’t like the Big Five so much, because it says I’m neurotic. And that the MBTI is flawed. To Hell with them evil Big Five people.


Continue reading

Pessimism — Part Three

Here’s a great new video for all of us pessimists:



It’s the full stream of the History Channel’s recent ‘Life After People’ production. It explores what will happen to the planet after we all check out one shiny morning. It’s 88 minutes long, and I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m lovin’ it so far. Great eye candy of stuff falling apart. David Brin is an early speaker in it.

Here’s the official web site, with short clips about the different ways we’re gonna go extinct and other bonus sections and links.

Have fun!

Just remember that I and Rachael and Jesse will be surviving all of these unfortunate events while enjoying apocalyptic music like this at the rave with all the hot Icelandic babes.


EDIT: Wow. Looks like there’s some synchronicity happening. National Geographic broadcast a show with an identical premise just last month. Here’s the official web site for Aftermath: Population Zero. Again, it has some vids with cool eye candy of big structures falling over and such.

Pessimism — Part One

Instead of a music vid this week, I’d like to recommend to you this half-hour long presentation by a gentleman named Stephen Petranek. It’s called ‘Ten Ways the World Could End’:



It’s from the TED Conference in 2002. This is the secret meeting that the Really Smart Cool People have every year. Up until recently, the proceedings weren’t available to folks who aren’t completely cool and smart. However, last year they started putting stuff on-line. I’m not sure why. Maybe they wanted everybody to know how cool and smart they are.

Massive props to The Dude for turning us on to TED months ago, in an email that that he sent to the secret Brainiac listserv that we maintain, where he told us all about it so we could become cooler and smarter. As if that were possible.

There are over 200 videos up on the TED site, and every one that I’ve viewed so far has been absolutely fascinating.

They’re not all as long as tonight’s featured flick, but you could waste at least a couple of days watching these things and probably enjoy them all. Except it wouldn’t be a waste, as you would become progressively cooler and smarter with each one.

More later tonight, on my personal plans regarding that whole End of the World thing.