America’s reality problem

December 19, 2019

Reality. We have to live in it. Humanity may one day escape the confines of Earth, but we cannot escape reality.

America was the one nation actually founded on the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment. Such rationality is grounded in reality. It’s also the substrate for reasoned discourse, another element of the Enlightenment. Reasoned discourse means opinions can differ; indeed, it is through such argument, as opposed to everyone thinking alike, that we work toward truth and wisdom. But argument must be rational — grounded, once more, in reality.

And America, we have a problem.

It’s not news that we’re polarized into two mutually antagonistic tribes, each inhabiting a very different reality. Political opinions can, again, differ, but each must be reality-based. The two contradictory realities can’t both be true.

Democrats (being human) certainly have their biases, blind spots, even irrationalities. But their big picture perception of today’s political reality is basically grounded in fact. While Republicans’ picture is a false one self-servingly painted by a monstrous liar, Trump. I say this as a Republican myself, for half a century, until I saw the party plunge down that rabbit hole.

The other night I attended a dinner, with a couple of Trumper friends (I do have some). They are not (otherwise) stupid or crazy; one has a Masters in History. One mentioned “Shifty Schiff” unmasked as a sex criminal. They avowed lack of surprise, wondering only how such a scumbag got away with it so long.

Amid all the despicable Trumpist smears against Schiff, I’d never heard this one. I held my tongue, but googling at home, immediately found (as expected) reports debunking this totally false garbage sloshing around the internet.

I did suggest my friends take care about their information sources; and was told I should stop listening to the fake news on lying mainstream media.

As talk inevitably turned to impeachment, trying to swat down, with facts, all the Trumpist spin, was a waste of breath. The History guy even insisted Trump couldn’t have been trying to smear an opponent because Biden wasn’t even a candidate at the time. (He was.)

To change the subject I mentioned thousands of children snatched from parents at the border — including toddlers, most of whom will be never be reunited — a Trump atrocity I thought no decent human being could defend. But I was told that every picture of children in cages was taken during the Obama administration. And that those adults were not their parents! DNA tests proved it.

DNA tests? They weren’t even properly recording children’s names. Good God.

After this alternate reality bath, at home on TV I then caught a clip of Trump reacting to the DOJ Inspector General’s report. Trumpists have long been salivating for this to prove the whole Russian meddling investigation was a “deep state” plot to take Trump down. Inspector General Horowitz found nothing of the kind (of course). While faulting the FBI for some irregularities and mistakes, he concluded that its investigating Trump’s campaign was wholly justified based on actual evidence, with no political bias.

The idea of the FBI nefariously plotting against Trump in 2016 is obviously absurd because they publicly revealed their investigating Hillary’s e-mails, and a reopened investigation right before the election, almost surely sinking her; but didn’t reveal investigating Trump’s campaign! If they were biased against anyone, it was Hillary.

That’s factual reality. But your reality may differ.

As does Trump’s. Concerning the Horowitz report, he said it’s “far worse than expected. This was an overthrow of the government . . . a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught, they got caught red-handed.” He called the FBI officers “scum.”

This was an overthrow of the government?!

Trump’s reality is just exactly what he wants it to be. Nothing he says need have any resemblance to actual reality. If this were not so cynically calculated, by a president, in anyone else it would be seen as severe mental illness. Yet his fans march in lockstep to his tune. This is destroying the basis for reasoned discourse upon which a democracy depends.

Factual reality: Trump tried to extort a bribe (smearing an opponent) from Ukraine’s president, in exchange for releasing congressionally-mandated aid. Compromising national security. The aid was only released because the scheme was blown by the whistleblower. Who got it totally right, as confirmed by mountains of hearing testimony. Trump doesn’t even deny what he did. The idea that he was concerned about “corruption” is ludicrous. He wasn’t even asking Ukraine to actually investigate — merely to announce an investigation, to besmirch Biden. And trying to pin 2016 election meddling on Ukraine, not Russia, makes a mockery of what America’s intelligence services determined, confirmed by tons of evidence in the Mueller probe. While Trump ordered the entire executive branch to defy lawful Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents.

These charges are extremely grave, and indisputable.

Republicans’ devotion to Trump has an intensity without parallel in U.S. history. It might be comprehensible if he were some paragon of virtue; a Nelson Mandela. Yet we’ve also never seen a political figure so obviously corrupt, selfish, lying, divisive, irresponsible, and immoral. A reality to which Republicans blind themselves.

Lincoln said this nation cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can it endure half in reality and half in a corrupted alternate reality.

Everybody’s Fool, and capital punishment

December 17, 2019

My humanist group had an outing to the wonderful Miss Lodema’s Tea Room, in Sharon Springs. I recognized it as “North Bath,” the (barely) fictionalized town in Richard Russo’s novel, Nobody’s Fool, which I’d just read. So then I read the sequel, Everybody’s Fool.

I previously reviewed Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere — a more accurate title would have been Momma’s Boy.

Nobody’s Fool was Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a decent everyman who does some foolish things. He reappears in the sequel, but the title character is Douglas Raymer, North Bath’s police chief. His wife died a year before, falling down stairs en route to leaving him for her lover. A “MacGuffin” in the book is a garage door opener Raymer finds, believing it will reveal that lover’s identity. (Some big spoilers ahead.)

This combines with an elaborate story about Raymer injuring his hand and obsessively scratching at the itchy wound — with the garage door opener becoming the perfect hand-scratcher. With a predictable denouement in someone’s garage. But by then, by process of elimination, the reader could already guess who that unmasked adulterer is.

All this may seem hokey. But this novel doesn’t aspire to be Crime and Punishment, it’s more like a comic book, and reasonably succeeds as such. Indeed, despite the obviously contrived action, it did succeed in engaging my emotions. I was even saying to myself, why is my heart pounding in response to this?

But speaking of crime and punishment, what I really want to discuss is the role in the book of the death penalty.

My wife and I watch some detective/crime shows. Now, the folks who write and produce them, and most novelists too, are presumably good intellectual liberals morally opposed to capital punishment. Yet normal humans are biologically programmed to crave justice and punishment for crimes. This plays out in their shows and books.

I’ve written about this before, in connection with a sci-fi novel: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/why-liberal-intellectuals-love-the-death-penalty/  Its author entered a comment saying he really does favors capital punishment!

While watching those mystery shows, my wife and I will debate whether capital punishment is coming: whether the murderer will be merely apprehended, or will die. The rule seems to be that run-of-the-mill baddies get caught while particularly heinous ones get killed.

Roy is a character in both Russo’s Fool novels, looming larger in the second. At first he seemed just a pathetic dumb loser. But gradually he’s revealed as a really nasty piece of work, a sociopath. And the reader’s thirst for punishment grows.

However, Roy hasn’t actually killed anyone. Yet. And capital punishment can be meted out only to killers. Then Roy spitefully almost kills his mother-in-law (a good person, who’d been much nicer to him than he deserved). She survives only because Sully shows up to whack Roy with a skillet. One aches for a second whack to finish the job, but Roy too survives and manages to slink away before the police arrive.

He’s been shacked up with an overweight sad sack, Cora, only because he’s got nothing else. She drives the getaway car. Roy treats her horribly and she takes it. You want him dead. But remember the rule: killers only.

Then he whacks Cora. Apparently only aiming to knock her out while he absconds with her car. But it seems Cora is dead. At least we’re not told otherwise in the remaining pages.

That sealed Roy’s fate, I felt sure. And my confidence was vindicated.

Meantime, though, Russo actually violates the rule of capital punishment for killers only. Well, technically. Another bad guy was in a hit-and-run, and tries to hide the body, but the victim actually recovers. There’s a long set-up to culminate in cosmic justice for this villain, by snakebite. Even though he didn’t totally kill anyone (that we know of); but I guess an author has the freedom to make any character die, if he wants.

America’s coming redemption — or its demise?

December 13, 2019

I never expected Communism’s collapse. Still less America’s — in terms of what it stood for.

I awakened in 1964. Living near the World’s Fair, one day at West Germany’s pavilion I saw a film about the Berlin Wall. I started to understand.

For the next quarter century the Cold War was a defining political reality. A dark one. Around the late ’70s, it seemed the world was going headlong in the wrong direction. I felt despair. But then things turned around. Like Hemingway’s line, gradually, then suddenly. And the Wall came down.

When 1989 closed, watching new year fireworks (with my new wife — another seeming miracle), I saluted it aloud as a blessed golden year. In 1993 I visited Russia — now a free country. Seemed a miracle. Walking up St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, the grim grey Soviet facades were interspersed with occasional flashes of color — new stores! I returned in 1995 and now the Nevsky was all color. I was elated at this total triumph of my deepest ideals.

It wasn’t “the end of history.” But it appeared humanity had turned a corner, into a new dawn, finally putting behind us so much that had hobbled and afflicted us.

The “Flynn Effect” is named for a researcher who revealed a perhaps surprising global trend: people getting smarter. IQs literally rising over a long time span. More education and more exposure to different kinds of people are partial explanations. And if we were putting a lot of bad stuff behind us, better thinking played a role.

But now we see bad thinking is more tenacious than we may have realized. Especially when, as always, some people can benefit from exploiting it.

Of course I’m talking about today’s America. In the great moral triumph that was the fall of Communism, America had a leading role. We won the Cold War not because we were more bad-ass than the Communists, but because we won the war of ideas. Because our kind of society, the values we reflected, were more attractive to human beings. As a deep student of history, I’d always loved my country as (for all its human imperfections) a uniquely good creation in humanity’s story. Those triumphant American values were key positive components of my own personal identity.

Now that’s been betrayed. How could America have gone so far off the rails? I could never before have imagined a regime here that so travesties everything the U.S. once stood for. With four in ten Americans idiotically cheering it on. Defying the Flynn effect. Seems you can fool enough of the people all the time.

Because I’m no cynic, an idealist really, the country’s disgrace, by a regime behaving so contemptibly, lacerates my soul. My shock and pain have continued to intensify, and will not abate until this evil is purged.

This has re-energized, in the past three years, my political engagement (mainly through blogging). People find meaning in life through concerns larger than themselves. Seeing my country’s fate at stake is certainly such a cause, and my advocacy has been a source of meaning in my life, a deep part of my very personhood.

I have no illusions about what Trump’s 2020 defeat would portend. I have seen too many hopeful developments in the world turn sour. Trump and his minions will not disappear,* their poison will long continue to infect American politics. Their reality denial extends to believing victory is certain; losing will unhinge them even more. I worry about his gun nuts. He’s already darkly tweeted about civil war. At a minimum, thirsting for revenge, Republicans will wage partisan war against a Democratic administration with an intensified deranged ferocity. Untethered from truth and reality, with morality askew, there are no limits.

Yet nevertheless, their 2020 defeat will, for me, feel like a great moral triumph, on a par with the fall of Communism.

Maybe it could even be a turning point for the whole world, bending back a trend of brainless voting for authoritarian populists. And even while the infection will persist here, demography would militate against its recrudescence. That whole nasty strain in American politics will inexorably die off along with the older religious white voters upon whom it depends.

But on the other hand — if they cannot be defeated in 2020 even with a candidate so blatantly vile as Trump, then what hope would there be for the American ideal? How much more will that monster, drunk with triumph and unconstrained by any further need for votes, crush that ideal? His second term would be the end of America.

That would crush me; it would be existentially demoralizing.

I’d have to figure out a different way of being in the world. Deploying the serenity prayer. Perhaps going into exile — if not literally to Canada, then mentally. Disengaging, tuning out — at my age leaving it for another generation to deal with. For them to re-achieve, finally, the human revolution that I’d once thought had been achieved.

* Or maybe, given his off-the-charts narcissistic personality disorder, unable to handle the humiliation of defeat, he’ll kill himself. It wouldn’t surprise me. How would his supporters react? Would it break the spell — or martyrize him?

How conservatives and liberals both miss the boat on poverty

December 3, 2019

Ask Americans about “poor people” and they’re generally sympathetic. About “people on welfare?” Not so much.

Those on the right tend to see social spending as basically taking from deserving people and giving to the less deserving. Who are thought mainly responsible for their poverty. It doesn’t help if they’re less white.

For the left “inequality” is a cri de couer. But while “poverty” used to be one too, that’s actually largely forgotten. They seem obsessed not about the poor but the rich, and how much they have (with big dollops of resentment and envy). That’s their inequality concern. And also their focus is less on the poor than the middle class. Where their own bread happens to be buttered; but it makes political sense too because that’s where the votes are. Poor people are smaller in numbers and they don’t vote much.

We could argue over how the middle class is actually doing. But, even with admitted challenges, they’re able to live a life that’s, well, middle class. Which in a rich 21st century country, historically speaking, is quite decent. It’s the poor — around 15% of the population, depending how you measure — anyway, those on the bottom — who are obviously in tougher shape. Tougher, indeed, than the corresponding population slice in other advanced countries. This is a special American problem. Concerning our fellow human beings.

“Inner city poverty” was long seen as a thing. But as a recent report in The Economist highlights, “outer-city poverty” has become a bigger thing. Poverty too has been moving to the suburbs. While a lot of the non-white poor do remain urban, the suburban poor includes more whites and Hispanics. And it’s harder to deal with, because while big cities can deploy resources, smaller non-urban jurisdictions tend to be cash-strapped and lacking the necessary public infrastructure.

Sneering at poor people as responsible for their plight is easy when you’ve been handed all the advantages. Mostly, people are poor because they’ve been dealt lousy cards. Poverty is heritable: growing up in a poor family, especially in a poor neighborhood, messes you up in a thousand ways that make it much much harder to achieve the American dream. One pilot study showed that just moving a family from a poor neighborhood into a more affluent one results in 31% higher income for their kids in adulthood.

So let’s focus on children. You cannot argue that children, at least, who are in poverty are somehow personally responsible for that. And even put altruism aside. The fact is that a person who grows up into lifelong poverty costs us all a huge amount — for all the welfare, social services, health services, and don’t forget the cost to society of the crime that goes with the territory. Compared against one who becomes a contributing member of the community, holding a job that grows societal wealth, and pays taxes.

So doesn’t it make sense to invest in kids, so they’ll grow into the latter, not the former? The payoffs would vastly exceed the costs. One California study calculated that the cost to end deep child poverty by simply handing out enough cash would be a quarter of what the state spends on prisons. Not doing this was deemed “insane” by the study’s author.

Education looms large here. America’s poverty scandal is mainly an education scandal. Rather than investing to lift children out of the poverty trap, we disinvest, actually giving poor children inferior education.

Liberals won’t face up to this. They assail charter schools for “draining” money from public schools, which they idealize — as though public schools were providing decent service to underprivileged kids. They are not. Many parents in poor neighborhoods see charter schools as their only hope of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline.

School segregation is a big factor. Poor minority children do poorly when ghettoed in their own schools; better when educated with middle-class kids, whose schools tend to be fine. It’s because those, their own schools, are fine that liberals battle for public schools and against charters. And while liberals notionally endorse integration, they seem oblivious to the reality that America’s schools in recent decades have grown ever more segregated.

That segregation is partly a consequence of high rents in better areas with better schools. “Affordable housing” is another liberal cry. Yet their prescription for it is snake oil: rent control. Sure, it’s tempting to regulate rents to prevent gouging by greedy landlords. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize rent control disincentivizes landlords from maintaining apartments and building new ones. This results in housing supply shortages which of course actually drive up rents. Keeping poor people poor — and out of decent schools.

Conservatives meanwhile say all this talk about education is futile because the real problem is families. A kid won’t do well in school if his family situation is dysfunctional. And conservatives blame parents for that, being again averse to helping people whose problems are perceived as their own fault. So for the kids: tough luck. While liberals, for their part, are unwilling to see anything to criticize concerning single motherhood.

So what’s the answer? We have to get past our ideologies and do what it takes to get kids born into poverty onto a better track. This does mean attention both to schools and to family. But that’s not some utopian fantasy. An excellent model for it is Harlem Children’s Zone, a private effort spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, which has produced great results.

America is a very rich country and can amply afford to do this. We really can’t afford not to; it would actually make us even richer, with every dollar spent coming back many times over. And anyhow, the cost would be far less than what we spend on welfare for the rich.

Probability, coincidence, and the origin of life

November 30, 2019

The philosopher Epicurus was shown a wall of pictures — told, reverently, they portrayed sailors who, in storms, prayed to the gods and were saved. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed and drowned?”

He was exposing the mistake of counting hits and ignoring misses. It’s common when evaluating seemingly paranormal, supernatural, or even miraculous occurrences. Like when some acquaintance appears in a dream and then you learn they’ve just died. Was your dream premonitory? But how often do you dream of people who don’t die? As with Epicurus, this frequently applies to religious “miracles” like answered prayers. We count the hits and ignore the many more unanswered prayers.

I usually work with the radio on. How often do you think I’ll write a word while hearing the same word from the radio? (Not common words, of course, like “like” or “of course.”) In fact it happens regularly, every few days. Spooky? Against astronomical odds? For a particular word, like “particular,” the odds would indeed be very small. But the open-ended case of any word matching is far less improbable. Recently it was “Equatorial Guinea!” Similarly, the odds of any two people’s birthdays matching are about one in 365. But how many must there be in a room before two birthdays likely match? Only 23! This surprises most folks — showing we have shaky intuitions regarding probability and coincidence. Most coincidences are not remarkable at all, but expectable, like my frequent radio matches.

So what does all this have to do with the origin of life? I recently began discussing Dawkins’s book, The Blind Watchmaker, and life’s having (almost certainly) begun with a fairly simple molecular structure, naturally occurring, with the characteristic of self-duplication. Dawkins addresses our intuition that that’s exceedingly improbable.

The essence of evolution by natural selection is, again, small incremental steps over eons of time, each making beneficiaries a bit likelier to survive and reproduce. The replicator molecule utilized by all life is DNA,* which maybe can’t be called “simple” — but Dawkins explains that DNA could itself have evolved in steps, from simpler precursors —non-living ones.

Indeed, non-living replication is familiar to us. That’s how crystals form. They grow by repeating a molecular structure over and over. (I’ve illustrated one we own — trillions of molecules creating a geometrical object with perfectly flat sides.) Dawkins writes of certain naturally occurring clays with similar properties, which could plausibly have been a platform for evolving the more elaborate self-replicators that became life.

Maybe this still seems far-fetched to you. But Dawkins elucidates another key insight relevant here.

Our brains evolved (obviously) to navigate the environment we lived in. Our abilities to conceptualize are tailored accordingly, and don’t extend further (which would have been a waste of biological resources). Thus, explains Dawkins, our intuitive grasp of time is grounded in the spectrum of intervals in our everyday experience — from perhaps a second or so at one end to a century or two at the other. But that’s only a tiny part of the full range, which goes from nanoseconds to billions of years. We didn’t need to grasp those. Likewise, our grasp of sizes runs from perhaps a grain of sand to a mountain. Again, a tiny part of the true spectrum, an atom being vastly smaller, the galaxy vastly larger. Those sizes we never needed to imagine — and so we really can’t.

This applies to all very large (or small) numbers. Our intuitions about probability are similarly circumscribed.

If you could hypothetically travel to early Earth, might you witness life beginning — as I’ve explained it? Of course not. Not in a lifetime. The probability seems so small it feels like zero. And accordingly some people just reject the idea.

Suppose it’s so improbable that it would only occur once in a billion years. But it did have a billion years to happen in! Wherein a one-in-a-billion-year event is hardly unlikely.

The odds against winning the lottery are also astronomical. Our human capacity to grasp such probabilities is, again, so limited that many people play the lottery with no clue about the true smallness of their chances. Yet people win the lottery. And I had my “Equatorial Guinea” coincidence.

And what’s the probability that life did not evolve naturally, along general lines I’ve suggested, but was instead somehow deliberately created by a super-intelligent being of unimaginable power — whose existence in the first place nobody can begin to account for?

Surely zero; a childishly absurd idea. As Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, howsoever improbable, must be the truth. But the Darwinian naturalistic theory of life is not at all improbable or implausible. There’s tons of evidence for it. And even if there weren’t, Dawkins observes, it would still be the only concept capable of explaining life. Not only is it true, it must be true.

* That all living things use the same DNA code makes it virtually certain that all had a common ancestor. Your forebears were not, actually, monkeys; but the ancestors of all humans, and of all monkeys, were fish.

“Treated very unfairly” — a Trump trope

November 26, 2019

“Treated very unfairly” is an incessant Trump trope. Like he’s a great stickler for fairness.

First it was National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, “treated very unfairly” Trump said — after he himself fired Flynn for lying. Flynn was later convicted.

Then he pardoned racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of defying a court order.

Then it was Paul Manafort — also fired by Trump, as campaign manager. Later convicted by a jury for illegally concealing his work for foreign dictators, and failing to report the income to the IRS. But somehow he was “treated very unfairly,” said Trump.

Others he’s said were “treated very unfairly” include right-wing propagandist Dinesh D’Souza, who he pardoned after pleading guilty for a campaign finance felony; Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson; National Intelligence Director nominee John Ratcliffe; Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, facing recall; and various others including, of course, Trump himself, unremittingly whining of “very unfair treatment” in innumerable instances. He said he’s changing his residence to Florida from New York because he was treated unfairly there. He’s even said the writers of the U.S. Constitution treated him very unfairly; even that Fox News has treated him very unfairly!

Of course he never says why, exactly, something was unfair. It never works that way with him. It’s enough to just say “unfair.” One of his many forms of lying.

Now it’s navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, court-martialed for war crimes in Iraq, convicted by a military jury, and demoted. Trump ordered Gallagher’s rank restored. He also pardoned two other soldiers punished for misconduct. “Treated very unfairly.”

War is hell, and bad stuff happens. But America has long insisted on the highest standards of conduct by our military. Trump’s actions shred that honorable tradition, sending totally the wrong message. That’s why they horrified our military; higher-ups said this would undermine maintaining good order and discipline, calling this a crisis in military governance.

They pushed back, scheduling a review board to consider Gallagher’s expulsion as a SEAL. Trump tweeted he wouldn’t permit that, and Gallagher is being allowed to retire as a SEAL with no demotion. But meantime, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who opposed Trump’s action but tried to work something out with the White House, has been fired. His resignation letter said he’d been given an order he could not in good conscience carry out.

“Treated very unfairly?” Gallagher, convicted of war crimes? Or Spencer, ousted for trying to uphold standards of honor?

And how about Trump himself, his endless business history of screwing people? All those left holding the bag in his bankruptcies? Victims of his “Trump University” fraud? All the contractors and workers he just stiffed? Were they not “treated very unfairly?”

And how about our former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch — our longest serving envoy with a sterling record of exemplary service — smeared by Trump as prelude to abruptly yanking her from her post. To serve his corrupt political scheme. And then, right amid Yovanovitch’s congressional testimony, Trump tweets idiotic juvenile insults. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” She was a junior foreign service officer there, as if that made her responsible for Somalia’s mess. She went into a very tough, dangerous situation, serving her country, and that’s the thanks she gets from the President of the United States.

“Treated very unfairly?”

Normal human beings have some basic sense of what fairness means. Trump does not, and uses the word with perverted cynicism. Those he calls “treated very unfairly” are typically scumbags, like Flynn, Arpaio, Manafort, D’Souza, actually getting what they deserve. While upstanding people like Spencer and Yovanovitch are in fact treated very unfairly, by Trump.

One more way in which Trump’s is a bizarro world, where black is white and white is black; wrong is right and right is wrong.

Evolution: The Blind Watchmaker and the bat

November 24, 2019

What is it Like to be a Bat? was a famous essay (I keep coming back to) by Philosopher Thomas Nagel. Its point being our difficulty in grasping — that is, constructing an intuitively coherent internal model of — the bat experience. Because it’s so alien to our own.

Biologist Richard Dawkins, though, actually tackles Nagel’s question in his book The Blind Watchmaker. The title refers to William Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology, once quite influential, arguing for what’s now called “intelligent design.” Paley said if you find a rock in the sand, its presence needs no explanation; but if you find a watch, that can only be explained by the existence of a watchmaker. And Paley likens the astonishing complexity of life forms to that watch.

I’ve addressed this before, writing about evolution. Paley’s mistake is that a watch is purpose-built, which is not true of anything in nature. Nature never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead, it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. What we have are the ones that just happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made by a watchmaker.

However, it’s not mere “random chance,” as some who resist Darwinism mistakenly suppose. The random chance concept would analogize nature to a child with a pile of lego blocks, tumbling them together every which way. No elegant creation could plausibly result. But evolution works differently, through serial replication.

It began with an agglomeration of molecules, a very simple naturally occurring structure, but having one crucial characteristic: a tendency to duplicate itself (using other molecules floating by). If such a thing arising seems improbable, realize it need only have occurred once. Because each duplicate would then be making more duplicates. Ad infinitum. And as they proliferate, slight variations accidentally creeping in (mutations) would make some better at staying in existence and replicating. That’s natural selection.

Dawkins discusses bats at length because the sophistication of their design (more properly, their adaptation) might seem great evidence for Paleyism.

Bats’ challenge is to function in the dark. Well, why didn’t they simply evolve for daytime? Because that territory was already well occupied, and there was a living to be made at night — for a creature able to cope with it.

Darkness meant usual vision systems wouldn’t work. Bats’ alternative is echolocation — sonar. They “see” by emitting sound pulses and using the echoes to build, in their brains, a model of their outside environment. Pulses are sent between ten and 200 times per second, each one updating the model. Bat brains have developed the software to perform this high speed data processing and modeling, on the fly.

Now get this. Their signals’ strength diminishes with the square of the distance, both going out and coming back. So the outgoing signals must be quite loud (fortunately beyond the range of human hearing) for the return echos to be detectable. But there’s a problem. To pick up the weak return echos, bat ears have to be extremely sensitive. But such sensitive ears would be wrecked by the loudness of the outgoing signals.

So what to do? Bats turn off their ears during each outgoing chirp, and turn them on again to catch each return echo. Ten to 200 times a second!

Another problem: Typically there’s a zillion bats around, all creating these echos simultaneously. How can they distinguish their own from all those others? Well, they can, because each has its own distinctive signal. Their brain software masters this too, sorting their own echos from all the background noise.

The foregoing might suggest, a la Nagel, that the bat experience is unfathomable. Our own vision seems a much simpler and better way of seeing the world. But not so fast. Dawkins explains that the two systems are really quite analogous. While bats use sound waves, we use light waves. However, it’s not as though we “see” the light directly. Both systems entail the brain doing a lot of processing and manipulation of incoming data to build a model of the outside environs. And the bat system does this about as well as ours.

Dawkins imagines an alien race of “blind” batlike creatures, flabbergasted to learn of a species called humans actually capable of utilizing inaudible (!) rays called “light” to “see.” He goes on to describe our very complex system for gathering light signals, and transmitting them into the brain, which then somehow uses them to construct a model of our surroundings which, somehow, we can interpret as a coherent picture. Updated every fraction of a second. (Their Nagel might write, “What is it like to be a human?”)*

A Paleyite would find it unimaginable that bat echolocation could have evolved without a designer. But what’s really hard for us to imagine is the immensity of time for a vast sequence of small changes accumulating to produce it.

Dogs evolved (with some human help) from wolves over just a few thousand years; indeed, with variations as different as Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards. And we’re scarcely capable of grasping the incommensurateness between those mere thousands of years and the many millions over which evolution operates.

Remember what natural selection entails. Small differences between two species-mates may be a matter of chance, but what happens next is not. A small difference can give one animal slightly better odds of reproducing. Repeat a thousand or a million times and those differences grow large; likewise a tiny reproductive advantage also compounds over time. It’s not a random process, but nor does it require an “intelligent designer.”

Dawkins gives another example. Imagine a mouse-sized animal, where females have a slight preference for larger males. Very very slight. Larger males thus have a very very slight probability of leaving more offspring. The creature’s increasing size would be imperceptible during a human lifetime. How long would it take to reach elephant size? The surprising answer: just 60,000 years! An eyeblink of geological time. This would be considered “sudden” by normal evolutionary standards.**

Returning to vision, a favorite argument of anti-evolutionists is that such a system’s “irreducible complexity” could never have evolved by small steps — because an incomplete eye would be useless. Dawkins eviscerates this foolish argument. Lots of people in fact have visual systems that are incomplete or defective in various ways, some with only 5% of normal vision. But for them, 5% is far better than zero!

The first simple living things were all blind. But “in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” Even just having some primitive light-sensitive cells would have conferred a survival and reproductive advantage, better enabling their possessors to find food and avoid becoming food. And such light detectors would have gradually improved, by many tiny steps, over eons; each making a creature more likely to reproduce.

Indeed, a vision system — any vision system at all — is so advantageous that virtually all animals evolved one, not copying each other, but along separate evolutionary paths, resulting in a wide array of varying solutions to the problem — including bat echolocation, utilizing principles so different from ours.

But none actually reflects optimized “intelligent” design. Not what a half decent engineer or craftsman would have come up with. Instead, the evolution by tiny steps means that at each stage nature was constrained to work with what was already there; thus really (in computer lingo) a long sequence of “kludges.” For example, no rational designer would have bunched our optic nerve fibers in the front of the eye, creating a blind spot.

You might, if you still cling to an imaginary “designer,” ask her about that. And while you’re at it, ask why no third eye in the back of our heads?

(To be continued)

* Some blind humans are actually learning to employ echolocation much like bats, using tongue clicks.

** This is not to say evolution entails slow steady change. Dawkins addresses the “controversy” between evolutionary “gradualists” and “punctuationists” who hypothesize change in bursts. Their differences are smaller than the words imply. Gradualists recognize rates of change vary (with periods of stasis); punctuationists recognize that evolutionary leaps don’t occur overnight. Both are firmly in the Darwinian camp.

Medicare for All: a critical look

November 21, 2019

Bill Hammond gave a talk on this to the Capital District Humanist Society. He’s the Empire Center’s Director of Health Policy, and is critical of the single payer concept. CDHS members being mostly well to the left, Hammond was received like a skunk at a picnic.

He started by quoting Bernie Sanders that “Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege.” Which Hammond said nobody really disputes; but Sanders and his fans equate it to a “single payer” system. (The “single payer” — seems they’re afraid to say this plainly — would be government, responsible for all health care.)

Hammond noted that a “right to health care” would have been unintelligible to our founders. Health care itself was not even a concept; he described how George Washington was really killed by the medical “care” he received. We’ve advanced a lot since. But meantime they saw “rights” as things the government should notget involved with, whereas for Sanders backers a right means an entitlement. And his “Medicare for All” plan goes even beyond a “universal access” model (e.g., schools, libraries, and indeed existing Medicare), with only government being allowed as a payer for health services.

Hammond also saw equality of access as a big part of it; the idea that people should get the same care regardless of income. This, he said, is a kind of extreme egalitarian moral reasoning we don’t apply in any other sphere (for example, food).

He presented some figures illuminating the status quo. Private insurance penetration is 67%, the bulk of that employment-based. Most of the rest is public coverage — Medicare and Medicaid. Medical costs are paid roughly half from private sources and 42% from taxes. Nine percent is self-pay and charity care.

Major flaws in the existing landscape include millions uninsured; out-of-pocket costs too high even with insurance; a fragmented, poorly integrated delivery system; and health care is 17% of our economy, an excessive burden far above other countries’, with no corresponding benefit in health outcomes. Hammond said “single payer” would not tackle the latter two problems.

He also cited some misconceptions. First, that our private insurance model is the cause of high costs, with too much profit. One audience member, a friend of mine, insisted no one should be allowed to profit providing something as vital as health care. I would turn it around: why should anyone be forced to provide her with any service (let alone one so vital) without compensation? People get paid for their work (she does). Those who expend effort to set up, invest in, and operate health care systems surely deserve compensation in the form of profits too.

But are they excessive? Hammond presented numbers showing that while compared to other countries, our health care overheads, including all administrative costs, arehigher, they’re only about 8% of total outlays, with the bulk of the cost difference being what we actually spend on care. And that’s not for more or better care but, rather, in the prices paid for care — mostly due to much higher salaries for medical professionals than in other advanced countries.

It’s also often asserted that all other advanced nations have single payer systems. Not so. Most actually have mixed systems (which ours is), but are more tightly regulated (hence their lower price levels). Obamacare was a step toward convergence with those other countries. But Hammond noted that even in Britain, which does basically have a single payer system, you’re still allowed to buy private insurance, which many Brits do. Sanders (and Warren) would disallow that.

Another notion is that their plan would merely be an expansion of the existing and successful Medicare system. Hammond pointed out that existing Medicare actually entails a lotof cost sharing; it’s far from free*, and there are out-of-pocket costs at point of service too.

He also discussed the proposed New York Health Act, seemingly on the verge of passage. In Hammond’s telling, this would be a “Medicare for All” plan on steroids; a “carte blanche” with the state simply paying allhealth related costs for all residents. He presented various studies attempting to estimate the costs. While there might be some cost savings, increased demand for health services would likely raise overall spending levels. Total taxation would have to double or triple. Hammond acknowledged that a majority of New Yorkers would probably come out ahead after higher taxes are set against lower health bills. But this would require richer people paying dramatically more. (A notion garnering vocal approval from attendees; but it was pointed out that rich people could simply leave the state.)

A comparable federal plan would, he said, entail similar ramifications. [Though presumably richer people would be less apt to leave the country than the state — FSR.] Hammond cited an Urban Institute estimate that over ten years, $34 trillion in higher federal taxes would be required, replacing $27 trillion in current outlays.

Questioners from the audience gave Hammond a rough time. My own question said I agreed with him about single-payer, but that we’re a rich country and can afford to somehow make sure every citizen gets a minimum level of basic care. (This elicited applause!) Hammond responded that actually this can be achieved with modest tweaks to our existing system. In particular, the Medicaid program already aims to do it for low income people; a problem is that many of those eligible simply don’t sign up for it. [Also, Medicaid requires money from states; red state Republican regimes hate it and try to limit it — FSR.]

Hammond concluded with a story about Fidelis Care, a New York health insurer run by the Catholic Church, which received a $3.75 billion buyout offer. Long story short, Gov. Cuomo figured out a way to get control of $2 billion of that, which he used as a kitty to hand out goodies to favored entities in the health care industry; in return for which he glommed unprecedently large political contributions.

Hammond said that single payer advocates seem to imagine that having the entire health care industry under government control would be a good thing. They idealize government. But the Fidelis story is a cautionary tale about how things really work; tending to be run for the benefit of insiders; and big players in this industry have tremendous clout to make it work for them.

After his talk, Hammond was taken outside, where he was tarred and feathered.

* My own monthly Medicare payments were high enough that I opted out.

Christian destruction of the classical world

November 19, 2019

Hans-Friedrich Mueller is Professor of Ancient and Modern Languages at Union College. I heard (twice!) a talk he gave, based on a book by Catherine Nixey titled The Darkening Age — the Christian Destruction of the Classical World.

Nixey was brought up in a religious environment, and got the traditional “sunday school” story of Christian monks preserving, through the Dark Ages, the writings of the ancient world. She was shocked to find out that in fact such preservation was almost accidental and was overwhelmed by a much bigger tale of destruction and suppression. Her aim in writing was to present this other “untold” side of the story.

The religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans was what we call “pagan,” with a pantheon of deities like Zeus and Athena (Jupiter and Minerva to the Romans). Actually the word “pagan” was a Christian coinage intended to be derogatory; it derived from “pagus,” meaning “countryside.” Hence a religion of country bumpkins.

The change came when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (ruled 307-337 AD) converted to Christianity, making it now the state religion. But Professor Mueller observed that it’s actually hard to convince people to change their religion. He pointed to conflict in his own family concerning his marriage, involving two kinds of Christianity; and of course between paganism and Christianity there is a far bigger gulf. The conversion was accordingly achieved by much violence and repression.

Indeed, Mueller started by reading from Nixey’s account of what happened at Palmyra, a Syrian city, in 385 AD. “The destroyers came from out of the desert,” it began. A large “swarm” of Christian men, targeting everything pagan in Palmyra. Described in detail was the dismemberment of the beautiful marble statue of Athena, likened to a rape. “The triumph of Christianity had begun.”

In an unmistakeable reprise of this past, Palmyra’s ancient monuments were again ravaged, in 2016, by ISIS, with a quite similar religious impetus.

Hypatia was not a marble statue, but an actual woman, a notable philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, in Alexandria, Egypt. In 415 AD, she was lynched by a Christian mob at the direction of their bishop. Professor Mueller gave a graphic description but I will spare my readers here the ghastly details.

Meantime, however, we’ve all been told how Christians themselves had suffered persecution in prior centuries. This is part of the mythology Nixie sought to debunk. While the Romans did require everyone to partake in some pagan rituals, and executed refusers, this wasn’t a big thing. Mueller quotes a letter from the Emperor Trajan (98-116 AD) to a Roman governor, embodying a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Roman state practiced a whole lot more religious tolerance before Constantine’s conversion than afterward, with persecution of pagans far more severe than what Christians had experienced. Indeed, Christians persecuted each other far more, over doctrinal disputes.

Nixey thinks not only that Christianity’s triumph by violence and oppression was a crime, but also that something valuable was lost. Pagan religious practice was a part of civic community life, and may have accorded more holistically with human nature. Professor Mueller noted in particular that ancient pagans had more open attitudes about sexuality, that were probably healthier, in comparison to Christianity’s frankly twisted up doctrines.

The ancients more generally took religion less seriously, tending to view their gods as being merely symbological or metaphors. Poseidon, for example, was the personification of the sea. But most intelligent people were not so silly as to imagine the gods were actual beings. Religion was for them a way to acknowledge our context within the natural world. It was not something central to their lives, as it is for high octane modern Christians or Muslims, for whom god does play a big role in the world and in their lives.

The degree of violence and social upheaval experienced in past civilizations, as depicted in Professor Mueller’s talk, was actually pretty typical throughout human history. Our own societal dispensation, with its separation of church and state, ethos of tolerance, and constraints upon violence and other forms of governmental power, is something not to be taken for granted. Yet there are fools today actually trying to tear this down.

Also there’s a notion that modern monotheism is a somehow more advanced religion than silly childish paganism with belief in many deities. A humanist might agree only insofar as belief in just one god approaches the correct number.

Foreign service heroes and patriots, telling the truth

November 13, 2019

Foreign service professionals normally toil for their country under the radar. Now some are at the center of a storm. Trump has tried to keep them silenced, to bar them from giving evidence to Congress. But their loyalty to the nation, and its rule of law, comes first.

Testimony from them — dedicated professionals like former Ambassadors William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, and Alexander Vindman, George Kent and others — has already been devastating. They’ve documented factually how Trump’s Zelensky phone call was just the tip of an iceberg of corruption: a lengthy scheme to force Ukraine’s government to give Trump political dirt (likely trumped up), in exchange for military aid. All the foreign policy professionals who became aware of this were horrified.

Let’s be clear. Of course aid to a country is often conditioned on its doing things consistent with U.S. policies. But serving a president’s private political interests is entirely different. In fact, literally a crime — it’s against the law for a foreign government to give anything of value to a U.S. political campaign. That’s what Trump sought from Ukraine. Not just a quid pro quo, but extortion. Soliciting a bribe.

Moreover, what he did actually undermined U.S. policies and security interests, by hampering Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression. Saying he was really concerned about corruption in Ukraine is a laughable lie.

The scheme was only stopped by the whistleblower’s blowing the whistle. Only then was the Ukraine aid finally released. It’s questionable whether Trump even had the authority to withhold it in the first place.

Not an impeachable offense, say Republicans? If this isn’t one, nothing ever could be. Manipulating $391 million in Congressionally-mandated foreign assistance, to get another country to smear a political opponent. A worse abuse of power is hardly conceivable.

And anyone inclined to give it a pass should consider the defendant’s record. This vileness is just the latest in a long sickening string of one vile thing after another.

Republicans who bray that this is a sham, a witch hunt, a hoax, disgrace themselves. By saying it, they’re the ones perpetrating a sham, a witch hunt, a hoax.

The whistleblower, and the foreign service officers who are testifying, telling the truth, in the teeth of presidential intimidation and threats, are courageous patriotic heroes. They show that the American ideals, which Trump so travesties, are not dead yet. Republicans who vilify them as shameful treasonous partisan hacks are themselves the shameful treasonous partisan hacks.