Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth of Sensationalism

I always think it is important to put things into proper perspective. In some cases this can be critical as without it serious mistakes can be made and an improper approach can be taken which will end up doing more harm than good. This may be the case with any so called Climate Change Policy. To prevent potential problems it is perhaps best to keep things in perspective.

A number of years ago, even before I was born, people were worrying about the impending ice age that would overrun humanity and force us to live in or on the edge of vast tundra fields. I even remember reading a book bout ice ages which was part of the Planet Earth series published by Time Life. A section of the book was dedicated to how we would handle living in a ice age, and they even had a picture of an experimental green house placed on the tundra to figure out how to grow crops in very cold climates. This was not the late 1800's or even the early 1900's, this was in the 1970's.

As our ability to observe, record and analyze data increased we started to see a certain trend in the average global temperatures. Up until the 1970's all the data seemed to point towards a cooling trend but with the perfection of many other methods and the proliferation of accurate historical data, the cooling trend started looking more like a warming trend. As good scientists those that studied these things started looking into what would happen if the average global temperature really did go up. As the temperatures continued to rise there was a sense of urgency especially after the publication of the now infamous hockey stick. There were problems and uncertainties with the hockey stick graph, as the authors of the paper thought they had clearly pointed out, but after the press got a hold of it all those uncertainties had disappeared. Thus started the great global warming debate. The scientific debate had been going on for years, but now the political debate started, and that is where people lost perspective.

In the political arena the global climate change debate reached a climax with the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It was this act that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is potentially this act that may doom the political movement of environmentalism. I will strongly point out that what I have just said is a very qualified statement (I used "potentially" and "may" for a reason). The reason for this is that in making the film, and writing the book, Al Gore committed a logical fallacy normally used by the detractors of global warming, that is confusing weather with climate.

So now to understand what I am talking about we again need to put things into perspective, weather is not climate. Climate is something that happens over a 20 year period at the least. Climate is more often something that happens over a 100 or 1000 (or even 10,000) year time span. Weather is something happens on a day to day, or month to month basis. Weather can even stretch over a period of a year, or even come in cycles of several years. For example El Niño is a weather phenomena that lasts several years (you might say that El Niño affects climate, and I will come to that, but first weather). The point is weather is short term and climate is long term. Now there is a connection between the two but this connection is a little hard to establish some times, and it is precisely this connection that causes so much misunderstanding.

To explain further, climate is the collection of all weather events averaged over a sufficiently long period of time to override temporary fluctuations. This is why the minimum time needed to determine what a climate is is 20 years. I stress the minimum for a reason. Usually it takes longer to establish what a climate is. The reason why I say it takes 20 years to establish a climate is because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses a 20 year average to compare current daily temperatures to "normal" daily temperatures. This gives sufficient time to smooth out abnormal weather events. So the 20 year mark may be arbitrary but there are sufficient and convenient reasons to use it as a standard to measure climate. What this means is that it takes at least 20 years to establish any change in a climate. The reason why I am stressing this point is because it is the source of the logical fallacy that besets not only the detractors of climate change but unfortunately also the proponents.

Up until the release of An Inconvenient Truth most of the fallacious arguments surrounding the climate change debate came from the detractors. There were some legitimate criticisms raised by the scientific community but most who disagreed with global warming did so with no scientific basis (I should point out that this does not mean that there is no scientific basis to disagreeing with climate change, it's just that most of those who opposed it did not use scientific arguments). The most frequent accusation against global warming comes in the form, "It's cold outside, therefore global warming is a hoax." With the advent of An Inconvenient Truth the main argument for global warming became, "It's warm outside, therefore there is global warming." The inherent logical fallacy in both arguments is a confusing of climate with weather.

Because of An Inconvenient Truth the debate became one centered around weather instead of climate. Remember climate is something that it takes at least 20 years to establish and at least that long to observe a change. While the current warming trend has been growing over the past 100 years, An Inconvenient Truth presented the argument that climate change would be something that would bring about immediate devastation, as in increased severe weather, increased flooding and drought and a complete disruption of all things. The point is that in their excessive zeal to promote the idea of climate change they fell into the trap that had been the almost exclusive purview of the detractors before and substituted weather for climate.

The assertion that global warming would have drastic changes surely caught people's attention. Unfortunately by misrepresenting weather phenomena for climate change the proponents of global warming opened themselves up to an attack that may very well come, and will doom their movement. All it takes is a particularly quiet spell from the sun, a slight decrease in the upward trend of global temperatures, or a stretch of a few years with below normal storm activity and people will stop believing all the sensationalist arguments surrounding global warming. The ultimate irony may be that in trying so hard to convince people of global warming that when the earth does something totally unexpected, as it always will, all the excessive hype surrounding global warming will have soured the political climate and induce a massive backlash against the movement. In the new soured political climate it will take at least another 20 years to convince people again of the reality of global climate change.

Now as a final word of wisdom to put things into perspective again. I find it odd that most of the "supporters" of governmental policy on climate change whose avowed purpose is to "help" people use as their main tool of motivation an excessive amount of fear. They are for ever talking about all the bad things that will come about because of climate change and they never stop to think that it just might be a good thing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

President Obama and Constitutional Law

Lately a lot of media focus has been on President Obama's policies. There is constant talk regarding the policies he endorses, or does not endorse and whether or not he will push his "agenda" through Congress effectively, as past presidents have done (or failed to do). In the past some presidents have presented whole pieces of legislation (pre-written) to Congress for their vote. But that does not seem to be the case with President Obama. As has been noted by both critics and supporters alike President Obama tends to talk about broad political issues but rarely about specifics.

This approach to presidential leadership has been noticed and has been alternately ridiculed by the opposing side and questioned by those of his own party. Some liberal commentators have wondered why the President does not take a more active role in writing legislation, and why he seems to leave it all up to Congress. Again, the President's opponents use this as a basis for political attacks claiming that President Obama simply left the stimulus package, the budget, cap and trade and now health reform up to Congress. This has certainly put Congress in the spotlight (or under the microscope as the case may be), but it has opened President Obama up to accusations of incompetence, inexperience and political weakness. Those that support him (as far as I can tell) offer no explanation but issue calls for more specific leadership from the White House.

In certain cases it goes beyond legislation and spills over into other political issues. Some issues on which President Obama is receiving criticism are areas where he made campaign promises and has not as yet acted on them. When he first became president he was widely applauded by liberals for issuing an executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, albeit some still criticised him for giving the military a whole year before it had to be closed. Some of his most ardent supporters were expecting him to issue sweeping change to the American system in a very short amount of time, whether through Congressional action or executive order it did not matter. Those same supporters who wanted him to close Guantanamo Bay probably fully expected him to continue issuing executive orders to repeal the Don't ask, Don't Tell policy for the military or to repeal the Defence of Marriage Act. When these executive orders did not materialize some of President Obama's liberal supporters began to cry foul and insist that he make good on his campaign promises.

For that group of supporters they felt betrayed and began to criticise President Obama for failing to listen to their demands. A few of the more prudent among them noted that he already has a lot to deal with and he didn't need another issue to try to push through which would cost him a lot more of his already precious political capitol. This pragmatic view seems to be the prevailing view among those that advocate for these issues. But just to test the waters, so to speak, they have already brought these issues (Don't ask, Don't tell, and DOMA) to court but were surprised when President Obama came out in defence of these issues. They were probably expecting him either remain neutral on the issues for the time being or to give some indication that he would push for their removal. But instead he (or his attorney generals) have defended them and President Obama insisted that if they are to be removed that it must be through an act of Congress.

This assertion came as some what of a surprise to many liberals, that the President of the United States would not change policy through executive order, nor would he give to Congress pre-written legislation to pass. Some might be asking, "What went wrong?"

Now I will enter the realm of speculation. This is the realm of trying to figure out the personal motivations behind the President's actions, which because I do not know him personally I can not give an accurate assessment of. But I can speculate and throw out some ideas that just might be right. As I have mentioned President Obama's critics (and some supporters) insist that he is doing this because of inexperience or out of political expediency, but I will present another option that may not be obvious, but may be correct. The reason why President Obama has taken this approach towards Congress and also in defending DOMA and the Don't ask, Don't tell policy, may be because he has actually read the Constitution. Novel idea.

You see there is are two minor details here that I want to point out. The first minor detail is that the Constitution clearly states that "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States" (Article I Section 1). By definition, legislative power is the power to make and enact laws, which in turn determine public policy. The second minor detail is that the job of the President is to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" (Article II Section 3). To put this in simple High School Government Class terms, Congress writes, votes on and passes the laws. The President makes sure the laws passed by Congress are kept. As many high school government teachers like to point out, the President does not have the power to write the laws. That power is explicitly reserved to the Legislative Branch. Also as the like to point out that Presidents get around this "minor issue" by giving someone in Congress their pre-written bill and then that Congressman presents it as his own, even if everyone "knows" that it was actually the President who wrote it (maybe not him literally, but you know what I mean). Again as high school government teachers are so fond of pointing out, this violates the spirit of the Constitution and the principle of separation of powers, but nobody really listens to high school teachers anyway.

Now it is well know that President Obama was a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago (senior lecturer, whatever), but the point is that he had plenty of opportunity to deal with constitutional issues. And somewhere in there he may have actually read the Constitution (Shocker! I know) and somewhere in there he may have realized that it is the duty of the Legislative Branch to write, pass and enact the laws, and not the duty of the Executive Branch. Which means that in his personal approach to being President he has decided to actually live up to both the letter and spirit of the Constitution (at least on this issue) and let the Legislative Branch do what it is supposed to do and let the Executive Branch do what it is supposed to do. This may come as a shock to politicians on both sides of the aisle, but based on what President Obama has done so far while in office this appears to be how he is approaching being president.

This may come as great disappointment to many radical liberals because up until now their main tactic for advancing their agenda has included a blatant disregard for Constitutional Law. They have insisted that courts (the Judicial Branch) enact laws (a Legislative power) from the bench (the seat of Judicial Power), or they have insisted that Congress pass laws without regard for the enumerated Legislative powers. And now that radical liberals have a dear friend in the White House they insist that he use (abuse) his office to enact legislation to their personal benefit. But much to their chagrin he may actually respect the Constitution and won't abuse his powers. I find it particularly revealing about radical liberals that when they are confronted by one of their own, and one who at least says he supports their causes, who stands by the Constitution, and the rule of law, they vilify him and criticize him for not fulfilling his promises to them, even if that means blatantly disregarding the Constitution.

Again I must state that this is all speculation because I do not know the President personally, but it does seem to fit the facts and reflect how the President appears to run his administration. What do you think?

Friday, August 7, 2009

We have been invaded by pod people

I had a Victor moment. For those of you who don't know what a Victor moment is (which is everyone, because I just made up the term) it has to do with a book called Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. The book is a delightful little story about a young boy named Victor who meets a man that hangs out with a very intelligent chicken and together they go on an adventure to find the source of mysterious TV broadcasts that are only on late at night which show music played by human sized lizards who like to dress up as chickens. Yes, the book is a little odd. Try reading it if you haven't and it will all make sense. But that is not why I mention the book, nor why I say I had a Victor moment.

There is a part of the book where Victor is staying up late at night watching TV waiting for the lizards to come on after all the regularly scheduled programming is finished (yes there was a time when TV stations did not broadcast 24 hrs/day). On one particular night Victor watches the late night movie which is a Sci-Fi thriller called The Invasion of the Pod People (a thinly veiled renaming of the classic Sci-Fi movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers). In the movie normal everyday people are replaced by mindless clones who take over their life, but have no self-will nor personality, nor (real) emotions. Later on in the book Victor is again watching TV and waiting for the lizards to come on, and while he is watching TV he notices something not quite right with the people on the show he is watching, but he just doesn't know what it is. He thinks that there is something about the people that is wrong but he just can't put his finger on it.

A few days later he is again watching TV and the same feeling comes over him. As he watches a particular talk show the people and their reactions seem fake and unreal and it is in that moment that he realizes that the people he is watching are pod people and the movie he had watched earlier was actually true and Earth really had been invaded by pod people. It is in this sense that I had a Victor moment. I don't mean that we have literally been invaded by pod people from outer space but sometime in the last few years our society and culture has been effectively taken over by "pod people".

My realization started last year when I was watching a movie trailer about a group of friends and acquaintances living in New York. The movie was apparently about how these people struggled to live and find friendship in our modern world while along the way they must fulfill their dreams and live their ambitions. From my description this movie would seem like a classic story of hope, friendship and good character that has been so pervasive in our history. But while I was watching the trailer there was something wrong that I just couldn't put my finger on. It was like watching a video where the sound was ever so slightly off that it is hard to notice but still there. At the time I could not think of what was wrong with the trailer that I was watching.

A few months later I was again watching a movie trailer (again about a group of friends living in New York, but different movie). While I was watching the trailer I kept thinking the same thing, "Something is wrong, but I just don't know what." And then it hit me, the whole culture, society and lifestyle portrayed by the film was not mine. That is, I did not identify with it in any way. It was not anything major such as how someone from the US might view the culture of North Korea, or even as different as say a French film might be, but it was more subtle and nuanced in the differences. It was like the brief awkwardness when you go to shake hands with some one and they extend the left hand, or someone tells a joke that isn't quite funny (or lame enough to be considered a bad joke). It was in that moment that I realized that I was watching the cultural equivalent of an invasion of pod people. It was my Victor moment.

At that moment I was like Plato walking out of The Cave and I started seeing things like never before. The more I watched movies and trailers the more I realized just how far the invasion had gone. Now that I look back in retrospect I could see this coming, but it has only been in the last 10 years that the invasion of the pod people has really taken root in some of the most visible portions of society. I started seeing pod people in movies, on TV and in just about every form of mass media. Not all people in Hollywood have been taken over by a pod but it seems like most have. I have not seen many movies (or heard of movies, since I have since stopped watching most new movies) that have not been overrun by pod people. Because of this I have since stopped watching new movies, or even have the desire to go see a new movie.

It is a little difficult to describe exactly what a pod person is like, though if you have ever really noticed one then you already know exactly what I am talking about, but for the rest of you who have not noticed so far I will give a brief description so you can be on the lookout. Pod people are characterized by shallowness of character, and especially a distinct lack of rational thought (I should point out that I do not mean "educated" rational thought, as one might find in a formal education, but a stronger more fundamental propensity to rational action, which does not always go with education). Pods also have a distinct self-interest, self-centeredness, self-appeasement, self-indulgence, self-importance, self-worship and in general an inflated sense of self. They are also quick to express anger and outrage (especially outrage) at the very notion that their self-importance (and influence) is not what they think of it and they especially see fault in every thing that is not themselves. Their actions are always motivated by self-interest and self-aggrandizement, even those actions which they call "charitable" and "in the interest of everyone". Their self-identity is inextricably bound up in the "me" generation, though it is not limited to one specific age group. The one consolation in all of this is that the pod people will not outlast themselves, as it is a distinctive trait of pods that they are inherently self-destructive.

At the time that I had my Victor moment I realized that I was watching people who did not have the same culture, values or outlook on life that I did, nor did they have anything like unto it. I realized that their extreme emphasis on self was so different from the way that I view the world that I could not honest call what they were doing my culture, or my society. I did not relate or identify with them in anyway, nor would they relate to me and my life and my self-identity. If it had been the case that I was watching a movie or film from a foreign country it would not have been so shocking, because I would have been prepared for the difference, but what I was watching was supposed to be my own society complete with familiar social standards and cues, but instead I was being presented with something that was not familiar to me, and that is why it was so shocking.

****As an after note, I mentioned a lot of "self-" things that are negative and detrimental to oneself, but do not misunderstand me, I do not advocate excessive self-deprecation as a remedy to selfishness, but rather self-worth instead of self-inflation.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

...Along with some other minor details...

The other day a blog post drew my attention to both a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a very brief "news story" put out by AP that appeared in the Deseret News. I put "news story" in quotes because the whole story is seven sentences long, whereas the report given by the Pew Forum is several pages long and is broken down into three parts, and then subdivided even more (the "survey" that the news blurb "cites" is actually a report prepared from a larger survey of which the full report is 143 pages long). I don't care how good AP thinks their data compression may be, it's not that good. Furthermore the tiny news blurb only mentions three things from the survey: 1. Mormons are more likely than any other group to think that their values are threatened by Hollywood. 2. Mormons make up 1.7% of the total population of the US, roughly the same number as Jews. 3. Nine out of ten Mormons are white, while only 71% of the US is white.

Of all the very interesting things that the news writer could have included in his seven sentences, he chose those. I wonder why those three points were chosen over all the other interesting data. Perhaps the news writer wanted to imply that: 1. Mormons are paranoid. 2. Mormons are a very small, but powerful minority. 3. Mormons are racist.

Perhaps we should actually look at the survey and consider some of the more interesting results that a major news service will never tell us about. Apart from the ones already covered here, here are some rather interesting results from the report and the broader survey:

1. 91% of Mormons believe the Bible is the word of God. This is interesting considering a frequent and insistent criticism of Mormons is that they do not believe in the Bible, or as I found on a few websites (no I will not provide links) after a brief Google search, "The problem with Mormonism is that it contradicts, modifies, and expands on the Bible." and, "From a non-Mormon Christian perspective, the qualifications mentioned in the Mormon position are precisely why the answer would be no, they do not believe the Bible." and, "The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, as well as the ongoing prophetic ministry of their leadership....absolutely contradict clear Biblical doctrine on many important points and so it in effect the Bible is not really authoritative for them as it stands." Just from these statements it would seem that Mormons have a problem with the Bible and do not really believe it, so why is it that when asked 91% say they believe the Bible. I think that this problem can be cleared up by the following graphic from the broader survey:
Sorry that might be a little small, but if you click on it you can see a larger version, or you can go find it here. So now my point. If so many Mormons say they believe the Bible then why are they so frequently accused of not believing it? The survey further breaks down the question of whether or not people believe the Bible/Koran/Torah/other into whether or not they hold to a literal, word-for-word interpretation of it. Herein lies the difference. As can be seen, 91% of Mormons believe the Bible, but only 35% believe it literally, word-for-word, while 57% believe in a non-literal interpretation. As can be seen this is very different (almost exactly reversed) from the beliefs of more "fundamental" Christians who also have a strong belief in the Bible as the word of God. This is also the conclusion noted by the Pew Forum report, and something missed by the news blurb. It is precisely this difference in how we view the Bible that creates the controversy over whether or not Mormons actually believe the Bible.

As a side note, the root of the controversy comes from the Eighth Article of Faith which states, "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly". As I noted it is not the first part that causes the controversy but rather the second part, "as it is translated correctly". Oddly enough this part that causes the controversy is in line with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which many Evangelicals use to define what they mean by the Bible being literally true word for word (i.e. inerrant). Further reading on this matter can be found in How Wide the Divide by Graig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, Chapter 1 on Scripture.

2. Mormon religious belief and practice is "exceptional".
3. The more formal education Mormons have the more devoted they are, or as it is put in the Pew Forum report, "Looking at religion's importance through the lens of education level, patterns among Mormons are the reverse of what is seen among the general population." Here is some of the data:
Granted the margin of error is not the best on these data but from the broader survey it seems to be something consistent and worthy of notice. This would mean that contrary to popular belief more education does not always correlate with deceased religious devotion. Also as someone who studies physics for a living I would have to say that the "controversy", "fight" or "debate" between science and religion is not as pronounced in the Church as it is from other Christian religions. There are a few members who question the efficacy of science, but by and large members of the Church are more open to science and learning than any other religion that I know of. Also as a side note, according to the survey Mormons tend to be more educated than the general population.

4. Now after what I mentioned in #3 we have this, "When asked about the theory of evolution, only 22% of Mormons say it is the best explanation for human life, with three-in-four (75%) disagreeing. Only among one other major religious tradition - Jehovah's Witnesses (90%) - does a higher proportion disagree that evolution is the best explanation for human life." This difference is striking. If Mormons are well educated and if they tend to be more devoted the more education they have, then why do they not believe in evolution. I have two answers for that: the theory of evolution has some serious scientific and rational issues (I should write a post about them some time, but I will not go into them here), and Mormons already have a religion and they don't want/can't have another religion.

5. Political party affiliation and Ideology, this graph speaks for itself:
The R^2 value may be large but there is a trend and Mormons are at the one extreme end of it. Or as the Pew report puts it, "This places Mormons to the right of all other major religious traditions on a continuum of ideology and partisanship". Also interesting in this is that members who are "less active" or "inactive" as we say in the Church tend to be more liberal, in favor of big government and pro-abortion. Again from the report,

"Political and social views are linked with church attendance among Mormons, as among the general population. Those who attend services at least once a week are more than 30 percentage points more likely than Mormons who attend less frequently to be Republican (73% vs. 39%) and oppose legal abortion (78% vs. 44%). In fact, among those who attend church less often, opinion leans in the opposite direction on these two items; pluralities of those who attend church less than once a week are Democrats (40%) and favor legal abortion (49%). The same is true with regard to opinion on the size of government; among weekly attenders, 61% support a smaller government while 31% prefer a larger government, and among less-frequent attenders, just 37% prefer a smaller government while 53% prefer a bigger government."

Thus according to this data there is an inverse correlation between church participation and liberal tendencies. This means that if you do a survey with a selective bias towards "active" church members (those that attend every week, say prayers and read the scriptures every day) then the church would be a lot less liberal and in the graph above the dot denoting Mormons would be even higher up in "conservative" territory. I find it interesting that on average we are more conservative than "Conservative Evangelical Christians".

I could mention a few more but this post is already long enough and if I have not already interested you already (or made you board enough) to go check out the actual report I would encourage you to do so. There are several more interesting points about foreign relations, and whether or not military force is appropriate, the demographics of new converts (yes a lot of members are white, but the number of converts who are minorities is more indicative of the general population. By noting that most members of the Church in the US are white is like looking at the descendants of a group of Northern European immigrants and saying, "My! But they are all white! They must be racist!") OK I better stop now, but seriously I would recommend actually looking at the report rather than reading any news story about it. It is quite good, and I would recommend looking at the full survey, you might learn a few things that you didn't know. I did.