Saturday, April 22, 2017

Why I won't be marching in Columbia, SC today in Support of Science

When I first heard about "The March for Science" coming today in DC and cities around the world, including local marches and events,  I was very interested in participating.

It is clear that the most radical politicians among us and the Republican Party in general, do not support the sciences or somehow believe that "taxpayer support" for the sciences is not necessary.

In many cases those same people "believe" that science and the scientific method are not the foundation of human endeavors, but rather some form of grace from some god are to account for our creation and successes. 

Worst of all, these people try to thwart the science of vaccines, climate change and other species preserving concepts either for their personal short term financial gain (the educated wealthy who know that science is real, but are too greedy to do the right thing) or out of ignorance and/or a lack of a proper education - turning instead to simplistic arguments that often include a religious component.

According to the list of speakers at today's "March for Science" in Columbia there is An Opening Benediction, and two speakers who will discuss the role of "The Qur'an and Science" and "Science and Hinduism". 

While I feel that it is possible for a person of faith to BE a scientist or to adopt and use the scientific method, I find that these beliefs add yet another layer of bias to their work.  We all bring biases to our work and the benefit of having a scientific method, that includes peer reviews of new ideas and discoveries is to attempt to nullify those biases, but why bring more of them in the first place?

Einstein was quoted (accurately or not, I can't say) as to have said that he "didn't like Quantum Theory, because god doesn't play dice with the Universe".  This was a reference to his faith and the concept that much of the results of Quantum Theory involve probabilistic outcomes, not certainties.  The key point wasn't that he refuted or disavowed Quantum Theory on this basis, but rather that he admitted his own biases and preferences that he "didn't like" what the science was telling him.

This is and will continue to be a problem for the scientific community going forward, but let me suggest why I feel that religion has no place in science in a simple comparative list:

Religion:  Deals in absolute truths, written down from "revealed" thoughts or unknown sources.  Scrutiny is not prized and in many religions is grounds for death or the threat of eternal punishment.
Science:  Deals with theories that are often reworked and evolving over time as new knowledge or insights are gained and tested and retested and refined.  Scrutiny is prized and rewarded.

Religion:  Is based on personal feelings that only the individual can integrate into themselves.
Science:  Is based on objective realities that can be demonstrated and shared by all humanity.

Religion:  At best can offer comfort, hope and the illusion of purpose.
Science:  At best can offer solid explanations, cure diseases and solve social problems.

Religion:  Uses science and technology tools to spread its message, fight its wars and maintain its ability to propagate.  Very ironic, possibly hypocritical as well as clearly demonstrating the intrinsic value of science and technology to any enterprise.  Religion requires technology to thrive.
Science:  Doesn't need religion to thrive.

Now, I personally don't feel the need to believe in god, but I would be lying if I said that I have never felt a "spiritual experience" or "metaphysical event".  There may even be some higher power or extra-universal actor that somehow for some reason started our Universe and/or seeded life within it.  I don't have these answers, nor do I care, because such an entity would be beyond our comprehension specifically because it would be outside of our Universe. 

So, I suppose that you could believe in a god or gods and not be religious. 

Religion is a man-made enterprise, to this point there is much scientific proof.  There is no legitimate, documented and accepted proof of any intervention by a mystical power in our lives.  There are massive amounts of proof that the religious texts, stories and concepts are made up to control populations, are full of inconsistencies, contradictions and promote social/tribal based injustices.

There is no place for religion in our world, if we are to avoid war, hatred and an unnecessarily early extinction.

Spirituality is in our minds and there is a whole science of the mind and how and why this is.

God or gods would be something separate and unknowable.

Prayer or Defenses of Religious Sects at a March for Science Rally?  Thanks, but no thanks.

FORTUNATELY - looking over the lists of speakers at the DC and NYC rallies, it appears that religion is playing little or no role in those marches today !!!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Can "Civil Discourse" Save Us or Are Humans Hardwired for Extinction

I have read and heard some pundits and friends of social media friends, question why we can't have a civil discourse anymore, as if we ever really did and if that state of being would further the cause of America and the world at large.

Sure we can fantasize about a time when the appearance of civil discourse existed and while many such examples are in the history of human kind, I think that a further look into the matter may reveal that civil discourse or working across the aisle or "politics making strange bed fellows" usually derived out of necessity, rather than a natural desire to give ground.  It is a fact that during real war (not distant wars fought by less than 1% of the population), famine or plague, people often band together, but sometimes anarchy rules.  There seems to be a steady state where people choose up sides, then if things get a little rough, sometimes people can put their differences behind them for a while, but when things really go sour (think Dark Ages, Black Plague, Poison Lands) polarization can peak and peak way beyond anything we have seen in these last decades.

At any rate, it does "feel" as if we have been wandering down the road of polarization in America and around the globe for a few decades now.  It does "feel" to many that the strides that we have made in cleaning up our environment, becoming a more fair and just world and feeding and caring for the poor and sick have begun to come into question at best or turn backward at worst. Cooperation seems to be at premium and the they versus us mindset seems pervasive.

Just today, a close friend of mine Ret. Maj. Gen Laich (known as Dennis to me), commented that it seems we have gone from a place of "we don't agree" to "I am right and you are wrong" to finally "I am good and you are evil" in the space of a very few years.

I was talking to him about our shared experience of watching Meet the Press this Sunday and in particular the piece featuring DT's chief policy advisor Stephen Miller.  Playing devil's advocate (full disclosure, I did not vote for DT, nor do I respect him by any measure) I commented that the Sunday talk show format frustrates me (I still love you Chuck Todd) because they don't do a deep dive.  It seems that people of both "sides" of these recent arguments are given only 4 minutes to say what they want to say and are interrupted at least once by commercials.  I find it to be in no one's interest, other than that of the network ad sales staff, to follow this format.  Why can't we have a national dialogue about immigration reform or Palestine or gun laws or abortion or The Constitution?

Both sides are guilty.  The press is pressured into making money and feeding social media, while the administration is either crafty in their ability to distract us with meaningless, but provocative ti-bits or they are truly incompetent.

To be sure, a topic like immigration reform really takes hours to explore and probably at least 30 to 40 minutes to even summarize the current data, theories and cost/benefits of the most realistic options.  Going THERE would be doing everyone a great service.

However, the networks are afraid of revenue loss because their viewers are perceived to have the attention span of gnats.  The administration, the RNC nor the DNC have spent the time to truly think these issues through in order to present coherent ideas, plans and to discuss the pragmatic side of how are we going to do this, how much will it cost, what makes it "better" and what will we have to sacrifice in order to implement something new.  Just print more money and get re-elected.

Moreover, if they did manage to go into that much detail AND not lose their audience, the audience would be aghast that they couldn't have their cake and eat it too.  We have not educated our citizenry to appreciate that for every decision there are multiple types of costs.  Financial costs (sometimes offset by revenue enhancement, in the immigration case maybe more creativity and innovation), Social Costs (maybe more or less freedom of movement, privacy, delays at ports) and Ethical Costs (how we are trusted and perceived by not only our friends, but enemies around the globe).  What about the benefits?  How do you weigh those?  What about priorities?  We can not "do" everything, so if we invest time, energy and money in immigration reform, what gets slighted and by how much?  Are most people willing to work an additional year before retirement to fund this?  Are people willing to pay higher taxes?

I got away from my initial point a bit there - Sorry.

The main point is another peeve particularly the group of well meaning people (including a guy that I love to watch on TV, Stephen Colbert) whom ask a poignant question, "why can't we focus on what we agree on and set the controversial stuff to the side?"

To me, the putting the controversial stuff to the side IS one of our biggest problems as human beings.  In spite of all of our tribal behaviors and willingness to kill each other over books that were written thousands of years ago, in many face to face situations, people will strive for short term peace.  Sort of a "just get me out of here" strategy, that allows us to retreat to the privacy and security of our own tribe without pissing off the other person.  While this is a good strategy as a caveman or as a person with no leverage, the long term implications are disastrous.

The idea that "we all want to be safe from terror" as a point of agreement QUICKLY breaks down when we start discussing what each person means by "all", "safe" and "terror".  Does "all" mean all American citizens?  Naturalized or born here?  All races and religions?  Does "safe" mean that no one EVER dies from a terror attack or that more people die in ATV accidents than by terrorists?  Do "terrorists" include only Islamic Extremists or anyone acting against a group that they feel deserves punishment?  So, while we may say that "we can all agree" about certain things, I don't think that is in any way true.  Meanwhile, we are pretty good at pragmatically dealing with immediate threats as a group or team or country or nationality, so this is not where the resolution to our problems lie.  This stuff falls under the "more perfect union" section of our ideals.  We don't ever really get it perfect, but we improve on it and we get by.

The meat is the controversial stuff like, "is religion the root of all evil"?  Are there fundamental and inherited differences between races and nationalities?  Should there be borders?  Is healthcare a fundamental right?  Is abortion murder? Is capital punishment effective and/or moral?  Is the redistribution of income a deterrent to innovation and if so, how much is too much?  Should anyone starve in a world with plenty of food?  Should anyone be allowed to be a billionaire if anyone is homeless, poor or sick?

Now comes science and fact and knowledge.  There are three basic levels of ideas.

Things that are known to be true without any current evidence to the contrary.  They may in fact not be true, but no evidence exists to dethrone them in part or in whole at this moment, even after rigorous testing.

There are things that are likely to be true because there is overwhelming evidence to support their basic truth, but there are still some portions, insights or inferences drawn from these ideas that have not been adequately (usually because no method yet exists) tested to the fullest.

There there is belief, based on personal sensory or emotional insight, that can not be independently verified, proven or corroborated.  These ideas are either the result of false interpretations of sensory feedback, something manufactured in the mind with pure intentions or just utter bullshit.  There is usually no sure way of knowing.

So why does any of this long winded essay matter?

Try on this solution for a fit.  What if we dispensed with emotion when it came to making decisions that did not involve immediate life threatening situations?  Let's be honest.  Most of our lives are spent in non-life threatening time and space. Like 99.999% of the time.

Further, just to be sure, what if we employed AI or a series of algorithms to present arguments for policy, the consequences of that policy, the risk, costs and rewards/benefits of that policy by demographic group and used the power of the internet to engage 100% of the adult populace in acting on that policy.

Now, that algorithm would have to be scrutinized, sanitized and debated to make sure that it wasn't biased or at least as slightly biased as possible toward any one group or person.

In addition, all of the population would have to PARTICIPATE in not only testing the algorithm so that they "trusted it", but also they would have to participate in the act of selecting and prioritizing what set of outcomes was most desirable for themselves and the population as a whole and not only in the near term (cost/benefit), but in the long term (risk/reward).

This would also require a highly informed and highly educated populace with a ethical code (not necessarily a moral one) that put being informed and participating AHEAD of ALL other motivations and uses of their personal resources.

Here is the hook.  If even 1% of your being thinks or hopes that this solution "might work".... then I have sort of conned you.  WE could do this now.  We have the means, the knowledge the infrastructure.  The data that we currently and voluntarily provide to Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, the Government, doctors, lawyers, our friends, spouses, employers, gas stations, banks, kids is more than enough to expose our deepest secrets and most importantly allow for the data base to articulate the impact of any social change in policy in both the short and long term.

Given this vast amount of data and an algorithm of desired outcomes, prioritized by old fashioned democracy (think Athens, not DC) a series of policy suggestions could be given, with a comprehensive analysis of impact and margins of error and uncertainty (I mean, shit is still gonna happen) and we could run the country, if not the world as RATIONAL human beings.  There would be no they, there would only be us.

Borders - not necessary.
Religion - in tithing the data.
Freedom - won by giving, not hording. No one would judge what you do if everyone was 100% transparent.  Humans would be allowed to BE human, with our lusts and greed and self loathing and love and kindness and compassion.

The Devil's Advocate in Me:

It is also possible, that maybe we should lay down our hubris and our fascination with "how far we have come" due to the illusory and blinding attributes of our technology.  All technology has done is provided us with the idea that we are superior to all other creatures and that we can almost see all there is to see and even one day be immortal.  In the end, we are just really smart animals and all of our toys can't save us.  If anything, our lust for the material will doom our one and only planet.

Therefore, PLAN B might just be the way to go.  This plan is much less subtle than the hundreds of words above.  Maybe, we just accept the age long fact that as animals, might equals right.  As I see it there are three types of might.  The Brute, The Intellectual and The Lever.

The Brute:  This one is the oldest and most tried and true and like the others, still exists in full force today.  The most physically strong wins, owns and rules.

The Intellectual:  This is the "techie" the smart, the clever.  This is a way to use the creativity and innovation, often quickly and precisely to gain an advantage that your advisory can't see coming.  This tactic has been lauded and cursed and persecuted over the ages by The Brute and The Lever alike, often to their embarrassment.

The Lever:  More effective than the Intellectual and as equally pervasive as The Brute (in fact, often The Brute and The Lever form alliances, both thinking after the others are brought to submission, they can usurp).  The Lever is anyone or any group who holds the others by leverage.  Often fear is the trigger.  Wealth and/or Faith are the means.  The Levers go by names like Governments, Religions, Philosophies, Markets, Banks, Food Supplies, Armies .....  you know them well.

 Maybe we are therefore hardwired for our own extinction  .....  

The End.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

My First Letter to Our New President

Dear Mr. President;

Please note that I have also copied my Senators and Congressman from my home State and District as well Speaker Ryan and two Senators (Sanders and Warren) whom I believe to be champions of pragmatic progressive ideas in the legislature.

I have spent the last many months, urging my family and friends to take up the mantel of placing phone calls and sending letters to their representatives, urging them to preserve and improve what is right and good about America’s current domestic and international policies, while hopefully continuing to improve them as we move forward.

There are dozens of things about what you, your cabinet appointees and many of your Republican colleagues have been saying since the election which concern me.  As to not dilute my message, let me hone in on five items that I feel are KEY to your success, the ongoing success (and pardon me, but Greatness) of America and the welfare and safety of not only Americans, but the world at large.

(1)   The Wall:  We are a nation of immigrants.  Three of my four grandparents were immigrants and the fourth one was a first generation American.  My wife and three of my five children are immigrants. Our son served in the Marine Corps for six years and did two tours in Afghanistan and was highly decorated.  He continues his service to our country to this day as a North Carolina State Trooper.  My uncle, the son of my immigrant grandparents died of wounds received on D-day.  Under President Obama’s watch, our Southern border has never been better protected and deportations of criminal elements are the highest and most permanent ever.  Wasting the estimated $450-$500 billion (including maintenance) to build a wall that is NOT necessary is in no way the best decision for America.  These funds could be used elsewhere (see below).

(2)   Repeal and Replace:  The ACA is not perfect.  Not to throw barbs, but part of its imperfections are due to compromises that were made across the aisle during the time of its birth.  However, the ACA is a good start and it works.  You have openly promised “something better and cheaper”.  Okay, I am all in for that !  Let us be careful about how you and we define “better and cheaper”.  Better, would mean that both access and ease of service for both patients AND care providers is improved.  Standards of quality control (which are among the best in the world) would not be lowered for service providers or pharmaceutical companies.  Better would mean creating a task force, swallowing our pride and benchmarking the successes of countries like Sweden, Denmark, France and even Cuba then incorporating both their expertise and their mistakes into our LEARNING about how to make our healthcare system better.  You claim to be a business person and that bringing that to the oval office would be your strength.  Well, I am a business person too and I know that in business you must benchmark, brainstorm and be very deliberate prior to rolling out new products or services.  I simply ask the same regarding healthcare.  Cheaper – again, relying our your alleged business acumen, make sure that you define cheaper in both terms of the “real and total” cost to each and every American as a % of their earnings to include ALL parts of the bell curve, from the impoverished to the middle class to the super wealthy.  Also, be mindful of the % of our GDP apportioned to healthcare.  Studies show that a single payer system is the most cost effective (administratively if not over all) and should be strongly considered.  Lastly, don’t just repeal for the sake of politics or vitriol against the former administration.  Be a mature adult and make for a seamless transition into the “better and cheaper” plan.

(3)   Israel:  Don’t move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.  Our best hope of holding back (no one can ever eliminate radical Islam unless we eliminate dogma, illiteracy, poverty and war) radical Islam is by having a strong partnership with moderate, modern, middle class Arabs.  Provoking angst (anger) among the Palestinians is NOT the way to achieve this.  As has been said numerous times, Israel has a very tough choice ahead.  It can either be a Jewish State or a Democratic State, it can not be both.  I truly hope that the USA is on the right side of that outcome.  Support a Two State Solution.

(4)   The Economy:  The world in changing.  I have been working in manufacturing my entire career (since 1982) which started as an intern at a Steel Mill in Ohio while I was in school to become an Engineer.  I know first hand of the trials and tribulations of the Ohio Valley (was born in Wheeling, W.Va.) and the industrial sector (was raised in Canton, Oh.).  I now live in Darlington, SC in part because of the move of technology and industry away from high cost union centers toward more open, rural communities.  Unfortunately, I learned a stark lesson.  As the first college graduate in my family, I was both cheered on by my uncles and aunts and grandparents who were union members and even union organizers to “get out and do better, but remember your roots”.  I have seen first hand the greed of both the CEOs and the Union Bosses and the devastating impact on our local economies that this greed created.  However, the demise of the unions has stripped us of the apprenticeship programs and journeyman accreditations that were essential for us to prosper and be competitive.  Trade wars won’t solve this, only education can.  We need BOTH a strong Labor Secretary who will protect and preserve the rights of workers, earned by decades of blood and toil and an Education Secretary who realize that excellent PUBLICALLY funded and managed education and a safe, free, organized and focused labor force are the only means that we have of maintaining our strong economy.  Good workers are hard to find, not because Americans are lazy or stupid, but rather because American workers have been disenfranchised, under educated and ignored.  Don’t get cute with our economy.  Trust the fed.  Maintain STRICT controls on Wall Street and Corporations (trust but verify – re: Reagan, in a different context). We are creative, innovative and we don’t need lower taxes on profits or a path to steal from the middle class worker’s 401K or a loosening of environmental regulations to achieve ongoing economic greatness.  No amount of controls can quell the inventiveness of a properly educated and motivated American worker (often from immigrant parents or grand parents).  

(5)   NATO: While I absolutely agree that the NATO alliance sometimes operates on old principles that should be reviewed and I further agree that our military footprint in the world is too wide, too thin and totally unsustainable in the coming decades – we must not, can not, will not turn our backs on our European and West Asian friends.  Yes friends.  They are more like family than allies.  They are a key to our safety and security, our source of economic opportunity and as mentioned above a proving ground for healthcare and economic innovation.  Turkey is a tough nut to crack.  Influenced by Russia, infused by Islam, once one of our largest and most faithful democratic/secular allies.  We need to preserve and protect our relationship with them at almost any cost.  Read some world history about the “gateway to Asia” and ponder for a moment how important they are.  So, please consider responsibly pulling back resources where it makes sense (not in the Ukraine or Poland) and reduce our spending of treasure and lives on foreign soil, but do so systematically and involve both the diplomatic corps (life long professionals and experts) and the intelligence community (establishment) to guide you and your team in this endeavor.

In closing I wish to not just ask, but INSIST that you and my legislators read and re-read this letter then take appropriate and responsible action.  How dare I insist that you do so?  Well, you all work for me.  I am a loyal, involved, interested, voting and tax paying American who you serve and serve at MY behest (and the behest of all citizens) not the other way around.  That is how democracy works! 


George E Knapp – MBA, BS Met E.

Sen. Graham, Sen. Scott, Congressman Rice, Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren,
Spkr. Ryan