Saturday, November 9, 2013

Carl Sagan Day 2013: Making peace with uncertainty

Once again it is the day to remember and celebrate the life and vision of Carl Sagan. Along with Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry, Sagan was one whose works had a profound impact on my younger self and opened my eyes to what an immense, fascinating, and dangerous place this Universe is. There is not a day that goes by when I do not remind myself that we live under the most precarious of circumstances, and that the conditions which support our existence could change drastically with little notice. Neither of these realizations paralyzes me, though, mostly because there is little I can do to alter this situation and spending energy worrying about gamma ray bursts, potential asteroid strikes, or black holes is not terribly productive. What they do promote, however, is first a great sense of gratitude at the fact that I am here, living life, and still have the chance to make a difference for the better in the lives of the people and other creatures with whom I share this narrow strip of biosphere; and second a coming to terms with the undeniable fact of uncertainty.

We do not have all the data, we cannot predict the future, and those in limited areas where we do have some ability to make a relatively educated guess about how things really are, it is only because people like Carl Sagan spent their lives in long study, observation, experimentation, analysis, and synthesis. The scientific method in action often entails going down lots of blind alleys and dead-end streets, lots of painstaking trial and error, and lots of staring at your results until at last that flash of insight hits. It also means humbly accepting the possibility that you might be wrong. But the great thing about science is that of all human institutions it has by far the best track record of figuring out its mistakes, admitting them, and correcting them. Scientists are proven wrong on a pretty regular basis, but you know who proves them wrong? Other scientists! Not some guy typing in his basement at 2 AM. And just because one hypothesis doesn't pass muster it doesn't mean that any competing one is by default correct. Irish comedian Dara O'Briain summed it up best:  "Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you."

In his life and writings, Carl Sagan exemplified this openness to possibility and acceptance of uncertainty. He cultivated his sense of wonder but also applied the rigors of the scientific method to weed out the ideas that could not pass the evidence test. As the saying (often attributed to him, but likely coined long before) goes, he had an open mind, but not so open that his brains fell out. Like any person, he had his faults (some say he smoked too much weed, but I don't consider that a negative), but if you are looking for someone who actually lived to put up as a role model, you can't go wrong with Carl Sagan. Happy birthday, far traveler. You left us too soon, but your life and work continue to inspire and motivate those of us who appreciate science to stand up for it amid the cacophony of ignorance that dominates most of public discourse today.

From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return.

But of course it also helps to keep this in mind as well: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2690#comic      

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What a week, man.

So like most of the rest of the country, I followed the events that played out in Boston this week with great interest. I have both family and friends living in the city and its surroundings, none of whom were directly affected by Monday's tragedy, but were definitely inconvenienced by Friday's lockdown. While I am glad that both of the identified suspects are now accounted for, the hunt for the younger brother that consumed most of the daylight hours yesterday left a very bad taste in my mouth, particularly after I learned that the suspect would not be read his Miranda rights.

I have little sympathy for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who appears at this point to have been the willing accomplice to his older brother's plans for mass murder. He may not have been the primary instigator, but he went along with it and whatever a court of law finds him guilty of it will be well deserved. However, as the first "terrorist" attack on U.S. soil since 9/11/2001, this offers us the chance to do things correctly when it comes to the legal process and to show to the rest of the world that the blundering and overreach that followed in the wake of 9/11 will not be repeated. Unfortunately, the shutdown of a major American city to apprehend one suspect, and to then state the intention to not read that suspect (who last I heard is still in serious condition), who is a U.S. citizen, the rights he is entitled to as an accused person under the law if and when he recovers tell me that the police state is still alive and well in the supposed land of the free. I hope cooler heads prevail here, and that we eventually do stay true to our principals, but events thus far have not inspired much confidence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Camp Quest blows up the internet

So the internet (or at least my particular corner of it) has been blowing up since about this time yesterday about an incident involving Camp Quest Oklahoma and a Tulsa area restaurant that agreed to host a fundraiser for them, but then aborted it an hour into the event (it was supposed to go from 4-8 PM) when the owner claimed to have just found out that the camp served children primarily from non-religious families and that most of its volunteers identified as (gasp!) atheists. As many of you know, I have for many years volunteered on the board of Camp Quest of Minnesota as well as the national organization Camp Quest Inc., so this has really touched a nerve with me. To see a fellow camp franchise treated in such a poor fashion is incensing and serves as a reminder of exactly why I devote so much of my free time to the Camp Quest movement. I am not sure what was going through the restaurant owner's head when he decided to pull the plug on the event (and as always in a controversial situation like this there are conflicting reports of what exactly was said to the CQ OK organizers), but apparently he claims that he had no idea of what Camp Quest was really all about until he saw the flyers that patrons were bringing in to take part in the fundraiser. Flyers that he (or his staff) had approved weeks before the night of the event. And of course the owner has gone on the record saying that he was motivated to abort the fundraiser by his "Christian philosophy".

Appropriately this owner is now neck deep in a PR shitstorm of his own making because, as anyone who has been paying any attention at all to recent history knows, that is what now happens when you openly engage in anti-atheist discrimination. If he had called the CQ OK folks the day before the fundraiser, or even a couple of hours before it started to tell them he had issues with letting a bunch of paying customers who also happened to not believe in any god through his doors, that would have been defensible (but just barely). The true cravenness here is squashing the event after it had already begun, when some people had already come to the restaurant, had eaten and paid for their meals with the expectation that 10% would go to CQ OK, and had left; and people who had already invested time and energy to attend the fundraiser were arriving and had to be told it was not happening. Now I am not sure how good the food is at Oklahoma Joe's BBQ in Broken Arrow (note that there are other restaurants in other cities that have the same name, but are NOT affiliated with this one), but I imagine most of those planning to attend had scheduled their evening around the fundraiser and were at least expecting a decent meal as part of the bargain. So not only has this guy shortchanged needy kids (the money raised was to help fund scholarships for campers), but he has screwed up a bunch of people's dinner plans and proven himself to be a lousy businessman in the process. He deserves everything that is coming to him.

Finally, while it pains me that the CQ OK folks had to go through this, and I and other volunteers try our best to keep Camp Quest as a whole away from the front lines of the culture wars (camp is nothing if not a safe haven for kids from just this type of assholery, many of whom have to endure some version of it on a daily basis), there is at least the silver lining that because of the publicity this is generating, CQ OK is going to take in a massive amount of money (including a $5000 matching grant from the Stiefel Foundation) that will dwarf what the proceeds from the original fundraiser would have been had it not been marred by this act of idiocy.      

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Camp Quest on Geeks Without God!

So if any of you have read my contribution to the Atheist Voices of Minnesota anthology published earlier this year (makes a great holiday gift, by the way!) you know what a great influence volunteering for Camp Quest of Minnesota has had on my life. Recently I sat down with fellow contributor Tim Wick and his co-hosts at the Geeks Without God podcast to talk with them about camp and kick off their holiday fund drive. Listen to the episode (be advised, that while all the subject matter is clean, the hosts do use some colorful language) then help the crew meet their goal to raise $500 by the end of the year. This will be enough to provide one scholarship at current rates. You will also learn a few interesting things about me as I answer the hosts' standard Five Questions. Geeks Without God is also part of a new Twin Cities collective called Fearless Comedy Productions. They are having a launch party early next year, so you should go and "like" them on Facebook or something to keep up with all the latest happenings.

And seriously folks, go donate. You'll be glad you did. I know I was.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Great Space Gospel, A Meditation for Carl Sagan Day

As many of you know, especially if you were a reader around this time last year, today is the birthday of Carl Sagan, one of the most influential and well-known scientists of the 20th century. He would have been 78, but, as one more piece of evidence that we live in an undirected, uncaring Universe he succumbed to a rare blood disease in late 1996 at the relatively young age of 62. You can read last year's entry to learn more about the influence he had on me as a boy and teenager as I struggled to figure out the world. During the ages of about 10-16, I was engaged in a long process of questioning and research, and one of the results of this was a gradual letting go of the religious beliefs that my parents and others had tried to instill in me. It was also during this time, largely due to the influence of Sagan's writings as well as how he engaged with the world, that I adopted an outlook on the Universe that I have since come to call the Cosmic Perspective. Here, as a little refresher, are the six tenets:

1. The Universe is incomprehensibly huge.
2. Humanity occupies no privileged place within it.
3. Our existence is the result of a convergence between a number of random processes, one that may or may not have occurred elsewhere.*
4. The continuance of that existence is not guaranteed.
5. The development and settlement of outer space and other worlds is the best strategy for continued existence.
6. All else being equal, existence is preferable to non-existence.

*Of course one of the processes we owe our existence to is evolution, which contains the decidedly non-random feature of natural selection. But since natural selection only acts on what random mutation produces in the context of environmental variation, one cannot ascribe any purpose or goal to it, which to me preserves the random element.

All of these conclusions are pretty easy to arrive at after even the most rudimentary dabbling in astrophysics, biology, and geology; and once you finally grasp the reality that there is no supreme being holding the reins (or at least not any that is evident) any barriers to accepting and incorporating them into your worldview swiftly crumble. At least they did in my experience. But once you have fully integrated these conclusions, what comes next? Last year I expounded somewhat on each of the six tenets, and to me the answer to what one does with this information is that you become an advocate for bringing about the goal presented in #5. That, my friends, bring us to the Great Space Gospel.

Over the years since I began living openly as an atheist, many religious people have asked me how I have dealt with what they perceive to be this sort of existential dread they think should come with accepting the reality that there is no afterlife to look forward to and that death is the final end of your tenure as a sentient being. Sometimes they phrase it as "How can you still get up in the morning when you think that this (emphasis mine) is all there is?" Well, see #1. The brute fact expressed there is that, even when just talking about normal matter (which to the best of our knowledge only makes up about 5% of it), there is actually quite a lot of this. So much this that it is nigh impossible to really wrap our heads around it. Thus I find there is more than enough of this to satisfy even my own outsize curiosity about it. I also know that I am part of this, and even though my consciousness will be around for barely a blip in the life of the Universe, due to the conservation laws everything that has, is, and will be part of me will never be completely destroyed, which is an immortality of sorts. And if I happen to do something that gets remembered by consciousness that comes after me, then so much the better. It is true that the comings and goings of my daily life are completely confined to the relatively narrow sphere that is the surface of the Earth, but just knowing that there is so much more beyond and that there is the strong possibility that at some point humanity will step out into it fills me with a great deal of hope, even if I may never get the opportunity myself.

Against all of this, religion doesn't really stand a chance with me, because the people who ask me variations on that question always assume that I am operating under the same limited scope that they are, and which prompts them to ask it in the first place. Their perspectives are small, and therefore their gods are too. The vastness of the Universe was not revealed to us by any religion, and as such no religion that I know of has truly absorbed that reality and adjusted its teachings accordingly. Some people may talk about how big and unknowable their god is, but they betray their arrogance and selfishness when they talk about having a personal relationship with it. Sure, I love the Universe, and want to understand more about it, but I don't expect it to be my therapist.

One of my favorite quotes of Sagan's is "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." (The Demon Haunted World, pg. 12) To me this sums up why religion as it is now no longer appeals to me. Its petty concerns are as nothing when compared to the grandeur of the Universe, and they have to this point been only distractions from what needs to be humanity's overarching goal: getting off this damn planet. Now, I have nothing against Earth, and actually happen to like it quite a bit, but everything indicates that its days as a suitable environment for our species (and most of the other ones, frankly) are numbered. Even if we suddenly become the most responsible ecosystem managers tomorrow, gradually increasing Solar output will have Earth looking like Venus outside of a billion years or so, and that's if something else doesn't finish it off first. And when you realize that humanity as a species is a lot more fragile than the Earth as a whole, the need to spread ourselves around becomes even more urgent. Yet religion's priorities appear to be a) what's going on in your bedroom, b) headgear, and c) some stuff about maybe treating your neighbor like a human being, but only if they conform to arbitrary and often contradictory rules in some collection or other of ancient writings. None of these actually contribute to us leaving orbit, and in many instances religions hinder it, first by not recognizing the need exists, and second by actively working to inhibit the research and development necessary to accomplish the goal. And that is a shame, really, especially when you consider that if the evangelistic ones were really serious about it (evangelism, that is), they'd be the ones most chomping at the bit to leave, because who knows how many trillions or quadrillions of other intelligent beings are out there in need of salvation?

Religion may have the Gospels, but I have the Great Space Gospel, and it wins hands down in providing true hope and freedom for humanity, not to mention it being based on actual evidence. That is why I do not despair, that is why I get up in the morning (assuming a crying child doesn't do it first), and that is why I spread the word. Now I'm going to go stream me some Cosmos.

Peace.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Election post-mortem

I admit I am still basking in the glow of this Tuesday's election results. After several months of vitriol, hate-mongering, and a near constant stream of statements from Republican candidates that made me seriously question what century they were in, the American electorate for the most part rejected their desperate attempts to sow fear and division. And that makes me feel pretty darned good, especially with how things turned out in Minnesota. Continuing our tradition of having among the best voter turnout in the nation (something like 75%, meaning there is still plenty of room for improvement) we soundly rejected both the badly written Voter ID amendment and the spiteful Marriage Amendment, and threw out the Republican bums in the state House and Senate that wasted our time and money by putting them on the ballot in the first place.While true marriage equality will still require legislative action to change existing law, with the DFL controlling both chambers and the governor's office the hurdles to this are now much lower than they might otherwise have been. Indeed by putting the Marriage Amendment on the ballot the Republicans not only badly hobbled their own electoral chances, they may hasten the exact thing they were (in theory) trying to prevent. The irony is quite delicious. And while I am pretty sure Minnesota will not turn into a progressive paradise overnight, the next two years present a golden opportunity to put the state's fiscal policy back on sound footing and make badly overdue investments in infrastructure and education.

Nationally, there were also many great strides made. Obama will get the chance to fully implement many of the reforms he set in motion, as well as potentially pick a couple more Supreme Court justices. The GOP Rape Brigade was sent home with their tails between their legs in a trouncing that will hopefully make sure attacks on reproductive freedom are never again a winning proposition. The Senate will be getting a true financial cop on the beat in Elizabeth Warren, where she can use her bully pulpit to make Wall Street play by the rules and ensure that the fraudsters get iron handcuffs instead of golden parachutes. And while the House remains in GOP control, which given the advantages of incumbency and the relative safety of gerrymandered districts was not surprising, they now have fewer Senate allies and will face an emboldened president who knows he no longer has to take their shit.

Most important of all though, is that the writing is now clearly on the wall for the White, conservative, fundamentalist brand of politics that has dominated the Republican party for the past decade. Race-baiting, fact-denying, rights-restricting, and inequality-exacerbating are no longer going to win them statewide (except in the old Confederacy) or presidential races, so in order to remain relevant the GOP will need to, in classic Darwinian fashion, adapt or die out.

I have seen a fair number of election cycles, some of which have left me satisfied and others dejected, but this is the first time I am coming out of one with true elation. Politics, they say, is the art of the possible, but after Tuesday's results those possibilities have become much more hopeful, and make me proud to be both an American and a Minnesotan.   

Monday, October 29, 2012

Something for "small government" conservatives to ponder

So as Frankenstorm Sandy pounds the east coast I am once again facepalming as our nation continues to bury its head in the sand regarding climate change. Some people may explain this as a "freak occurence", but I've seen way too many freak occurences in the past decade to accept these things as just black swans. Pretty much every rigorous climate model predicts that the warming we are causing will lead to severer and more frequent storms, more instances of extreme weather (like this summer's drought, for instance), melting of sea ice and glaciers, and eventually large changes in ecosystems and species distribution. While the last of these items has not had enough time to get underway, everything else we are seeing today. Not 20 years from now. Not 10 years from now. Today. Storms like Sandy are no longer outliers from the general pattern, they are the new normal, and anyone who says different has a financial interest in making sure our practices do not change.

The one thing that continues to puzzle me, however, is the relative lack of silence from those who have a financial interest in actually addressing climate change, namely insurance companies. Their risk models are being thrown all out of whack, they are paying both a higher volume of claims and greater dollar amounts on them (or else paying more lawyers to fight them in court and underwriters to create ever more bare-bones policies), and while premiums are going up, especially in high risk areas, there is a practical ceiling to that beyond which people will be priced out of the market. Last I checked, the business model for most types of insurance was based on a large amount of people paying affordable premiums so that they could make the occasional claim when necessary, and that only a few people would be making claims at any one time. Charging higher premiums to compensate for increased chances of risk is a reasonable short-term decision, but taking in ever-higher premiums from ever-fewer customers, while at the same time reducing what sorts of events and damages those premiums cover is a death spiral for that model. This leaves ever-greater numbers of people who will either need to foot the bill themselves to rebuild their lives when disaster strikes (something few will be able to do), and eventually the government will need to step in to provide insurance (as it already does in the case of floods) and associated relief programs since the private market will no longer be able to. Will big insurance finally wake up and grow a spine to take on the fossil fuel industry? I hope so, since if not they will be shooting themselves in the foot.

In one sense I love the irony: people who believe the government should be smaller and vote for candidates who have similar goals, but who will because of that belief will not enact any meaningful checks on the forces that cause climate change, actually will end up causing government to be larger in order to deal with the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, as with pretty much every tenet of conservative ideology, it is the masses that get screwed.