Thursday, November 19, 2015

What distinguishes us from terrorists?

Clearly, opening our nation up to resettlement of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) exposes us to the risk of allowing a few terrorists to infiltrate the US by masquerading as refugees.  And if one were to be a victim of an attack by one of those terrorists, I can only imagine the rage that someone might feel about the situation.  But let's just think a bit deeper about what's going on.  The refugees are fleeing the war and persecution by radical muslims - most of them have experienced directly the terror of living in fear of the radical theocrats.  They only seek to escape the horror of these brutal theocratic regimes in their own nations.

What actually would be accomplished by turning these refugees away?  Is it currently impossible for terrorists to gain entry into the US by any means other than hiding among refugees?  Will any effort to offer help to these needy people be outweighed by the possibility that some of them are actually terrorist infiltrators?  It seems obvious to me that turning our back on the refugees likely will cause some of the refugees to become supporters of the terrorists, if only as a means of self-defense.  Closing our borders will not prevent terrorists from gaining entry - some are already here and more will arrive even without this heartless rejection of people in desperate need.  It seems pretty evident to me that declining to accept refugees carries with the loss of any claim to being morally superior to terrorists (who also have utterly no concern for the suffering of the innocent).  We become no better than the terrorists by not caring about what agonies will be inflicted upon the innocent among the refugees.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that refusing the pleas of the refugees indicates an utter lack of empathy - the ability to put oneself in the situation of another person, and to understand thereby what they must be experiencing.  Empathy is the path to resolving differences and recognizing how you might feel in someone else's position.  If you feel religiously inclined, empathy and the compassion it creates is one of the messages in the new testament - the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind quickly.  We can be so consumed with tribalistic fear of people from other cultures that our xenophobia dominates our compassion, which is precisely the opposite of the message attributed to jesus christ.  That message is simply one of empathy and the recognition that we are all the same underneath all the tribalistic superficialities.

I have no wish to see more terrorists enter the US.  I would not want to see more Americans become terrorist victims.  I can understand the concerns, but what I'm trying to suggest is that turning our backs on people seeking our assistance is not the way to address the threat of terrorism.  In fact, it actually is a recruiting tool for islamic jihadists, who want to spread the notion that the West is waging war, not on terror, but on islam.  It really isn't in our best interest to shut the door on the refugees.  Further, history tells us that many people coming to America from foreign soil become the most fervent of American patriots.  If we refuse aid to the refugees, or discriminate against them if they are allowed in, we're only giving aid and comfort to the terrorists.  Our own self-interest should be considered here, and a xenophobic reaction to the refugees is contrary to that self-interest.  Shutting them out will not solve the challenge of terrorists on American soil.

Some have said that compassion is a weakness that will be exploited by the jihadists, who will be laughing at our weakness even as they kill us.  But is this putative weakness not the same "weakness" of jesus himself, as claimed in the new testament?  Is this "weakness" not one of our greatest strengths, as a nation?  What does the inscription on the Statue of Liberty say?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Surely these refugees are "tempest tost"!  Do we truly want to wash our hands of that message?  The message we should be sending is that secular America occupies the moral high ground, and is distinguishably the moral superior to the terrorists.  We should be putting our American (and christian) ideals into real-world practice, not honoring them with lip service even as we dishonor them with our lack of empathy for the suffering of others.  Ultimately, that's a better strategy for fighting terrorism than xenophobic tribalism and bombs.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Religion doesn't get a free pass here

With all the anger and sadness that's been generated by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, many seem to want to describe the terrorists as demonic, inhuman animals and downplay any role that religion might play in islamic terror.  We always de-humanize our "enemies" to justify inflicting violence on them.  Well, religion doesn't get a free pass, here.  The Koran is full of calls for murder to be visited upon unbelievers (including, by the way, muslims guilty of "apostasy").  Islam is pretty far from a religion of peace if you simply read the primary source of their religious dogma.  The jihadists are giving their koran a fundamentalist reading, and accept the koran's words literally, rather than cherry-picking only the parts that seem peaceful and loving.

ISIS is openly seeking to return to a 7th-century version of islam, with its harsh shariah laws and aggressive conquering of territory in order to impose islam on everyone in full force.  They seek to hasten the islamic apocalypse, not unlike their christian counterparts. [They're quite willing to use modern weapons and the Internet to further their goals, however, in a classic case of fundamentalist hypocrisy.]  These people are not simply lunatics or wild demons - they're intelligent people who have adopted a particularly virulent perspective on islam and believe in it with what is clearly religious fervor.  That doesn't make them lunatics or demons - only people guided by a misguided flavor of their religious faith.  That version isn't shared by most muslims around the world.

They're too weak to impose their will in "set piece" military actions and are too small a minority to impose their will politically, but rather use the classic tactics of the weak:   guerrilla warfare and terrorism.  They seek to enlist more muslims to their cause by inducing the non-muslim world to wage war on islam, thereby recruiting new followers from among muslims angered by collateral damage from the absurd, unwinnable "war on terror".  The fear and anger they create by their terrorism is working.  The "solution" many in the West favor is that of military action, rather than seeking some other way to solve the problem of terrorism.  It should be evident that violence in return for violence is almost never a real solution to the problem (despite the prevalence of vengeance as an excuse for violence in so many movies), but we return to it again and again because vengeance is easily justified, despite the historical evidence that violence only creates more violence in return.  An eye for an eye leaves both sides blind.

I'm not saying we should simply surrender to violent attack.  We can and should defend ourselves, and we should seek out and bring justice to those who commit terrorist acts.  But as I've mentioned in the past, we should not limit our our responses only to military ones.  We must address the causes of terrorism, and one of the causes is religious fundamentalist extremism.  Religion cannot be divorced from many extremists acts (bombing abortion clinics, for instance).

Very few christians today would be willing to enlist in or otherwise provide support for a crusade against muslims - historically, of course, the Crusades were precisely a war by christians on muslims to "rescue" the Middle Eastern "holy land" from the "barbaric" muslims.  To the best of my knowledge, muslims have not forgotten about the Crusades, and it's understandable if they see the Western war on terror in different terms than we do.  The fact is that christians and muslims not only share the same deity (under a different name) but both consider the biblical Jesus to be an important part of their faith.  Further, beyond their religious dogma, the fundamentalist, extreme believers in both christianity and islam are really brothers under the skin.  For the most part, christians today dismiss those willing to commit violence in the name of jesus and christian dogma as "not true christians" or simply "nut cases".  Most modern christians want to wash the christian faith clean of any violence (despite its prominence in the bible - as well as the koran), and don't want to accept any responsibility for violence done in the name of christianity.  I see both religions, christianity and islam, as cut from the same cloth.  Most modern muslims also repudiate the violence and hate contained in the koran, not unlike the majority of modern christians who repudiate all the ugliness contained in the bible.  It's within those groups of folks that we might be able to find a solution to terrorism done in the name of religion.

Many of those same christians, however, of late are seeing islam as being responsible for the terrorism its extremists inflict on the world (which, by the way, also is being visited on other muslims as well as christians).  This is spawning the very hatred of muslims that the terrorists want to create by their deeds.  I've said many times, we're losing the war on terror, because (among other things) we've allowed ourselves to get worked up into favoring solutions of violent vengeance rather than a rational consideration of the causes of terrorism and what we ought to do to try to find real solutions rather than inflicting hate and vengeance on all muslims.  I'm not saying it's going to be easy.  I'm fresh out of magic bullets and I'm definitely not in favor of singing kumbaya around the campfire with terrorists.  We have to work out a non-violent solution between moderate muslims and the moderates in the non-muslim world.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Debates on the definition of an atheist

Today I saw a post about a Pew survey of atheists that said "Although the literal definition of 'atheist' is 'a person who believes that God does not exist' ... 8% of those who call themselves atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit." There are issues with this!  Many atheists will dispute that definition, saying that an atheist is a person who does not believe a god-deity exists.  Superficially similar, these are quite different definitions.  The key notion is that belief means an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.  Belief in a deity, therefore, implies a state of mind with 100% confidence in the existence of that deity.  Similarly, if atheists believed with 100% confidence that God does not exist, then their belief would be the mirror image of a believer's faith in God.  Atheism could be seen as just another sort of religion, then.

What's wrong with belief, in either case, is that there's no absolute proof of the Abrahamic God's existence - or non-existence.  If such proof existed, there'd be no need to discuss this topic at all.  Everyone would already know for certain that God's existence or non-existence was an obvious fact.  If someone believes either claim with unshakable confidence, they must do so in the face of inadequate evidence to support absolute confidence in their claim - either belief would, therefore, be an act of "faith" where by faith I mean "belief in the absence of evidence".  Belief of either sort is, therefore, not rational.  

On the other hand, if your definition of an atheist means someone who does not believe in a deity (the Abrahamic God, Odin, Amun, or whatever), then it would be an outright contradiction in terms to have 8% of atheists say they believe in God or a universal spirit (whatever that might mean).  If someone claims to be an atheist and then turns around and says they're a theist clearly doesn't understand the definition of an atheist.  The funny thing about people who call themselves atheists is that we wind up disagreeing with each other a lot!  A continuing point of disagreement among atheists is the definition of atheist, as evidenced by the Pew survey result and the comments it has engendered among atheists.  Evidently, 8% of people claiming to be atheists don't understand the term! 

Many people who actually don't believe in a deity don't want to accept the atheist label, for reasons of their own, so they choose not to call themselves atheists.  Agnostic seems to some to be a less negative label than atheist.  An agnostic is someone who claims not to know for sure, but at the same time typically does not believe in God.  Agnosticism is a claim about a lack of knowledge, not a claim about belief.  A few atheists are absolutely certain there's no deity, a faith I don't share with them.  They would be "gnostic" atheists, and there are large numbers of comparable "gnostics" among theists.  I consider myself an "agnostic" atheist, as do most of the atheists I know.

It's quite possible to claim not to be affiliated with any organized religion and still be a theist (or deist, if you prefer).  [This was the case for several of the framers of the US Constitution, most of whom favored a "wall of separation" between church and state, to prevent the tyranny of one religion over all others.]  There are some who regularly attend organized religious services but in their own minds actually do not believe in a deity - closet atheists, if you will.  The issue of whether or not you participate in organized religion isn't relevant to this discussion, but not having a religious affiliation is in no way equivalent to atheism.

Most of the atheists I know prefer the definition I mentioned above - atheism is the negation of belief, not a belief.  There are many analogies:  baldness is not a hair color, off is not a television channel, not collecting stamps is not a hobby.  These analogies are intended to illustrate the simple point that unbelief simply is not a belief.  Unbelief leaves open the logical possibility that at some point in the future, absolute proof of a deity's existence could be found.  As things stand now, any logical discussion of God's existence (or non-existence) is limited to the degree of confidence (i.e., excluding absolute certainty) one might have in concluding that God exists (or does not), based on whatever "evidence" we can muster.  Absolute positions are irrational in such a situation, because that degree of confidence just can't be justified.

It's common in science that two scientists can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions.  Both may have what they consider to be good reasons for their opinions, but unless the data are unambiguous and of an extremely compelling nature, they may continue to disagree.  Science, contrary to a common misconception, doesn't deal in truth.  Absolute truth doesn't exist in science (although it does in mathematics).  All scientific ideas are subject to question and revision, typically when new evidence comes to light.  Scientists never claim to know all the answers, in part because to know all the answers would be the end of science!  No one has to "believe" in science.  There are vast amounts of compelling evidence that science works in a practical, factual way that doesn't involve faith at all.  The thing about facts is that they're facts whether or not you believe in them.
I've described elsewhere the sort of evidence I'd find to be compelling regarding the question of God's existence.  In the absence of that sort of compelling evidence, the way the world works seems to me to be entirely consistent with what you would expect if there was no such deity.  The Abrahamic God is full of contradictions and is irrational, immoral, and even has human failings (e.g., jealousy!), despite the claims of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.  That deity makes no sense to me.
  I have an expanded version of my position regarding religion elsewhere, if you're interested.  Thus, it seems highly unlikely to me that the Abrahamic God exists, and the burden of proof lies with the theists, who are making the dubious positive claim that the Abrahamic God does exist.  I'm only making the statement that I'm not buying in to that claim.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Culture of Contempt

Some recent FaceBook postings brought up an old notion that's been something of a hot button issue for me.  In this case, it was a comment by an IT guy about how stupid the people were who s/he was supposed to be helping.  I understand perfectly how frustrating it might be to see computer-challenged people doing what are really dumb things - like not trying a reboot before calling for the IT folks, or forgetting to plug something in, or not backing up important files.  I can see that might motivate such disregard.  However, IT folks are a type of administrative support for the workers in the organization.  They don't actually do the productive work of their organization - their job is to help the productive people who do the actual work for which the organization exists in the first place.

Is there anyone who hasn't been frustrated with some snarky bureaucrat who rejects your applications because you're not filling out the paperwork correctly, or who stonewalls you in your efforts to do something because there's some sort of a rule against it?  What they do is give you all the reasons why you can't do something, rather than offering to work with you to find a way you can accomplish your intentions.  This shows an obvious contempt for the people who come to them for help.  From small businesses to giant corporations and massive government agencies, the presence of the bored, sarcastic, sneering admin type is a near universal.  Not everyone in such positions is that way, of course, but a widespread culture of contempt exists in the workplace (and elsewhere), at least in my experience, and I know many others have experienced it.

When I was in the Naval Reserve, my monthly drill weekend job was to work in the training office.  Our office existed to help all the sailors in the unit set up their training plans - mostly arranging for their annual (usually in the summer) period of "active duty for training" and obtaining the materials for the correspondence courses they needed for rank advancement.  I had no prior experience or training for this job (it was all OJT), so I found myself emulating the contempt for their customers of the other guys in the training office, rejecting their paperwork because they hadn't filled it out correctly and so on.  When our division officer (a very good officer and a friend) got wind of what we were doing, he called us all in and proceeded to read us the riot act about our attitudes.  I was filled with shame over what I'd been doing.  How many times had I been on the other side and encountered that contempt from some officious prick of a bureaucrat?  Needless to say, I (and the other guys in the training office) changed my ways and tried to be as helpful as possible.  The other sailors didn't know our job very well, of course, so it became our job to help them be successful in their goals, no matter how silly their efforts might seem to us.

One more anecdote in a related vein:  when I was a grad student, I wrote a computer program that, because I was such an incompetent coder, took about 12 hours to run on the machine we had at the time.  [Later, I was able to change the code to make it at least 10 times faster, but that's another story.]  The students who were the computer operators asked me to stand by while the job was running for a while in the evening, so if something happened early and the job crashed, I might be able to fix my mistakes and get the job done that night.  So I had a lot of time to sit and chat with the student operators.  One night they told me about one of the senior scientists in the lab was always unsatisfied with what the operators did, complaining to their supervisor about them all the time, often for things that weren't actually their fault.  So, naturally, the students found many creative ways to sabotage his jobs!  Tit for tat, baby!  Considering I could see for myself that the students were doing everything they could to make my project successful, I was horrified to hear about some self-centered scientist who treated them so badly.  I made it a point to mention how much I appreciated their efforts when I talked with their supervisor, in fact.  It makes no sense to create unnecessary trouble for people you depend on to get your projects done.  If for no other reason than self-interest (to say nothing about being a decent human being), you should always treat your "subordinates" with respect because your success depends on their help.  So the contempt culture can work both ways.

Very few of us work in a vacuum.  Virtually all of us depend on others to get our work done (right down to the maintenance staff), or we serve others who need our help.  There's no good reason to treat others with undeserved disrespect.  Every person in an organization has a job to do that is important to that organization.  Otherwise that job wouldn't exist.  Why treat co-workers with routine contempt?  There's no valid reason to feel a sense of superiority associated with you and your work, as you look down at whatever anyone else does.  This sort of disregard for the work of others is unfortunately pretty widespread.  Personally, I find that if I treat everyone as an important part of the work we all are trying to do, it pays dividends for me in many ways.  Furthermore, it simply feels good and seems to be the right way to behave.  You only get respect if you give it!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Strange bedfellows? - Meteorology and Social Science

I recently gave a talk at the National Weather Association's Annual Meeting in OKC on the role for social science in the weather forecasting business.  This is something I've long been saying is needed, as a result of my long friendship with the late Al Moller.  It was Al who first made it clear to me that just putting out a good forecast is only the start of a chain of events that must take place if the forecast is to be of any value to the users.  By the way, I should give credit to the late Allan Murphy for his insight that the value of a forecast is never determined by the forecaster, but by the user of the forecast.

Anyway, I've presented this concept in several talks, usually with a tweak or two based on my most recent thoughts regarding the topic.  For a forecast to be effective, it must be:

1.  Honest
2.  Accurate
3.  Received
4.  Understood
5.  Believed
6.  Helpful in making a decision

Only the first two items are under the control of forecasters.  Once a forecaster transmits a forecast, the rest of the steps depend on others.  Forecasters are paid to forecast, not to do all these other things.  Meteorology is what they are educated and trained to do.  We shouldn't expect them to become social scientists, as well!  Moreover, most forecasters know little or nothing about how to go about helping the users make good decisions.  Note that most users have to account for many other factors that go into making a decision besides the weather, and most forecasters know little or nothing about those other factors most of the time.  Weather information is just a part of the decision-making process.  The thing is that progress in forecasting is written in to the system, so while this blog is mostly about social sciences, the meteorology will be forging ahead, without doubt.

The existing watch-warning system, which began to take form in the mid-1960s, has saved many lives.  It's not a "broken" system, despite the fact that it likely is far from perfect.  I think I can justifiably assert that no one actually knows just how effective it is, but there are obvious declines in fatality and injury rates that seem to justify the existing system.  If we intend to change it, let's follow the famous dictum (often erroneously attributed to the Hippocratic Oath): First, do no harm!  Don't make stupid bureaucratic decisions in haste, just for the sake of doing something, without first having a clear picture of the shortcomings of the existing system and having a proposed change that has been given something like peer review - some sort of vetting process that includes participation by both forecasters and users, who after all are the ones with the most at stake in any changes.

We meteorologists need help from social scientists: experts in communications, psychology, economics, etc., where we have no expertise.  We need participation from them so that any studies that review the current situation and any proposals for change will take human factors properly into account.  We need surveys of what the public knows and actually does under the current system, over a very broad spectrum of users, since "the public" is pretty far from a monolithic block.  Ideas for changes need to be given thorough testing to see if they actual improve upon the existing system by helping users make their own decisions.  We do not necessarily need to be telling users what to do!!  What we really need is to learn how to make our products more effective at helping users make good decisions with the information we can realistically provide for them (including uncertainty information!)

Although the movement to get social science into meteorology has been percolating for quite some time, and has become something of an "in" thing to advocate, what's been absent is much real collaboration between meteorologists and social scientists to produce actionable results.  We don't need more conferences, workshops, and other "feel good" exercises.  We need folks to roll up their sleeves and start getting some useful results to provide a scientific basis upon which to move forward.  No more kumbaya songs around the campfire, please.  Let's make something real and substantive, not just endless palaver.  When we make changes, they need to be tested to make sure they're doing what we wanted them to do.  The process should be one of never-ending evaluation and revision (see below).

If social science is to have a role in weather forecasting, and I think it should, then what might it look like?  Does it make sense to have a token social scientist in every forecast office?  I think that makes little sense.  What about a Social Science Center, comparable to the Storm Prediction Center?  I think the NWS will have heartburn in setting up something like this.  What do they know about the skills needed to make it be effective?  How would they know to pick the right people and what resources to provide for them?  I think the best path for integrating social science into weather forecasting is for the NWS to have a budget that includes the funding specifically designated to support ad hoc collaborative efforts with social scientists, who would stay with their own institutions but form working partnerships with meteorologists  to answer specific questions.  This gives the most flexibility and avoids the creation of isolated "lone wolves" or some bureaucratic agency that would be a stranger in the strange land of weather forecasting.

Further, the NWS needs to understand this effort is not some sort of one-time project.  It must be a continuous process, because the social, cultural, technological, and meteorological landscapes are constantly changing.  We shouldn't have to wait decades for it to become painfully clear the system needs to evolve in the face of change.  However, it will take some time to gather data about what works and what doesn't work with the current system, and even more time to develop and test proposed changes.  Finally, before implementing anything, there should be an extensive public education campaign to help users understand the forthcoming changes.  Let's not make the same mistake we made when probability of precipitation (PoP) was implemented in the mid-1960s.  We're still paying the price in credibility for that one!

If this is done right, it will be a boon to weather forecasting and our whole society will reap the benefits.  Please, let's not screw it up this time!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The recurrence interval - a PR disaster for meteorology

The terrible floods that occurred recently in South Carolina have triggered the usual brouhaha over the notion of the "recurrence interval", with the SC event having been said by some to be even more rare than a "1000-year" event.  The general public mostly takes this to mean at least 1000 years should pass between such events, so it seems weather disasters of this sort must be "freak" occurrences, demanding some sort of special explanation.  Unfortunately, a ready "explanation" for this event has been that it was caused by anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) global warming (AGW).  Even some people who should know better have jumped onto the AGW bandwagon with regard to this event.  I'll return to that shortly, but first I want to try to dispel some of the misunderstandings associated with recurrence intervals.

Atmospheric events are not "periodic" - that is, they don't occur at regular intervals in time.  If that were so, weather forecasting would be a heckuva lot easier and considerably more accurate.  Hence, the perception that a recurrence interval is based on some periodic atmospheric behavior is simply a misunderstanding of the term's meaning.  Forecasting is difficult, in part, precisely because weather is most definitely not periodic!

Recurrence intervals generally are calculated by fitting some sort of statistical distribution (e.g., a Poisson distribution) to the existing record of events.  It doesn't take much knowledge to realize that we don't have a record of heavy rainfall events longer than about 200 years (in the USA), so how can we come up with a meaningful definition of a "1000 year" event?  The answer is simple - we can't. To do so is an exercise in extrapolation, and extrapolation is well-known to be a risky thing to do.  If we had 10 000 years of data for every location in the USA, we might well be able to have a plausible definition for a 1000-year event at all those places, but such data simply don't exist.  What we can say, from our knowledge of the occurrences we have observed, is that the SC floods were an event that is outside of prior experience (in SC).  This doesn't mean it's a "freak event" for which some exotic explanation must be offered.  Curiously, given that weather events happen when the ingredients for such events are brought together, the chances for a similar event to occur soon after one event has already happened are relatively high.  If the weather brought those ingredients together on one day, there's an increased probability that it might happen again soon after.

For flash flooding, in particular, it's not at all uncommon for heavy rain to occur on two (or more) days in succession.  The first event saturates the soil, creating the hydrologic conditions that make it possible for a flash flood on the second day.  This has happened many times in the history of flash floods around the world.  It seems silly to refer to an event as a 100-year (or 1000-year) event when it happens on consecutive days!  It's quite acceptable to use recurrence interval terminology in the context of communication among scientists, because (hopefully) they understand what the term means.

Fortunately, the notion of recurrence intervals is almost never mentioned in the context of major tornado outbreaks or high-impact tropical cyclone landfalls.  Most people (at least in the USA) seem to understand that these are not "freak" events, but rather occur at irregular intervals when their ingredients come together.  They occur somewhere in the USA every few decades or so ... frequently enough that the public is reminded of the possibility that such things can happen.  Major rainfall events also occur at irregular intervals, and often enough that people should get the right message:  really big events can happen somewhere in any given year.  But for some reason I can't explain, the reference to recurrence intervals is common with respect to heavy rains, and so this issue comes up over and over again.  It's a public relations nightmare that we should stop inflicting on ourselves.  In scientific papers, discussion of recurrence intervals is more acceptable, but making public statements about them is just confusing and makes us look silly.

Finally ... was this event "caused" by AGW?  In a word ... NO!  The event happened because the ingredients for a flash flood-producing rainfall event were brought together.  Nothing particularly exotic was required and those ingredients were not, on their own, remarkable or unusual.  It's always rare for really heavy rainfalls to happen in any given location and this was an example of a somewhat atypical weather pattern in which the flash flood-producing rainfall ingredients to be brought together.  The threat of an additional event - landfall of Hurricane Joaquin - was never realized, fortunately.  Nevertheless, the numerical weather prediction models were quite accurate in anticipating the heavy rainfall event in SC days in advance; the forecasts for heavy rains were quite good, as a result. 

A somewhat more nuanced description of the role of AGW in this event is that AGW is thought by many climate scientists to make it likely that extreme flash flood events will become more frequent.  This event is consistent with that prediction but, on its own, doesn't provide "proof" that AGW was a contributing factor.  There are indeed scientific studies that suggest that heavy rainfall events are becoming more frequent.  Thus, it's appropriate to say that this SC flood case is one more piece of evidence to that effect.  But to say that this event was caused by AGW is simply not scientifically acceptable.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Abortion, murder, morality, and reality

I expect that this one will elicit strong reactions from certain circles, but here goes ...

Recent discourse on social media has brought to light what seems to be a telling argument against any abortion:  that it's a form of murder and, therefore, is considered both illegal and immoral.  I have no reason to dispute that abortion kills an unborn person.  I prefer not to go down the path of debating the details of when "life" begins or what differences exist between a fertilized egg and a person.  I'm happy to leave those arguments to others.

To me, the fact that abortion kills an unborn person is the critical issue, and most opponents of all abortion adhere to the notion that all life is sacred and we should never allow murder to be legal.  I'll get back to that shortly, but I want to consider just what it might mean to assume that all life is sacred.  For those of us that eat animal flesh, we kill animals (or, have them killed for us and prepared in neat packages at the grocery or served to us in restaurants) all the time in order to feed on their flesh.  That bothers some people so much that they become vegans, eating only non-animal foods.  But of course, that usually involves consumption of vegetables (and fruits, of course), typically "killing" the vegetation (or at least interrupting its growth) in the process.  There literally is no way to avoid ending life in order to survive.  In many cases, humans have interfered in the natural genetics of animals and plants to maximize our food production.  Many so-called "primitive" peoples went out of their way to "thank" the food from which they derived sustenance in order to survive, through rituals comparable to saying "grace" before a meal.  It's the way of nature that life feeds on life, killing the food in the process in order that we can steal its energy to keep us alive.  So just how sacred is all life to us?  Ever eaten lobster or shrimp or crayfish?  How do we eat them?  Often by plunging them alive into pots of boiling water!  Guess we don't consider their lives to be all that sacred!  Other examples abound, including such things as "trophy" hunting.  All life is, quite evidently, not all that "sacred" to us if "sacred" is taken to mean that we should never take that life to serve our own purposes.

Can we somehow survive by some means other than killing other life?  Unless we learn how to accomplish photosynthesis in our own bodies, this seems to be an unobtainable ideal.  At best, we can try to be grateful for the contribution to our lives by our food products and seek to minimize any suffering associated with their domestication and sacrifice of their lives.  That's another whole debate of its own and I'm not wanting to go there in this blog.  OK, so whatever idealism might be behind the notion that all life is sacred, we must nevertheless kill to survive and the lives we destroy to sustain ourselves are testimony to the fact that such idealism is hopelessly ... well, idealized, and impossible to achieve on a comprehensive basis.

So, if all life isn't sacred, is all human life sacred to us?  The fact of the matter is that if we examine our actual behavior and how we respond to our circumstances, all of us can find circumstances in which the taking of human life (murder) is considered acceptable.  For example, most of us feel that if someone threatens us with bodily harm, then it's morally defensible to respond to that threat by killing the threatening person.  Sometimes we refer to that as "self-defense" or sometimes as "justifiable homicide".  I'm pretty confident that by far the majority of the proponents of ending all legal abortions (which won't end illegal abortions, naturally) would accept that murder in self-defense (or in defense of others) is quite acceptable.  There might be some debate over what circumstances murder is justifiable, but it doesn't change the fact that murder is "legal" and morally acceptable to almost all human beings, under certain circumstances.

And of course, there's the vast apparatus we have developed to kill humans in large numbers - war.  Although there are "rules of war" that can be applied to define circumstances in which killing is not permissible in war, there's the usual debate over just what those circumstances might be.  Many people believe that murdering POWs or non-combatants is not acceptable - and yet it happens in all wars on all sides.  For war fatalities (that is, the person(s) killed in the process), there's no essential difference.  They were murdered, plain and simple.  Losing your husband (or father or son, or their female counterparts) to an enemy's bullet has exactly the same impact as if it were done by some deranged criminal on a murder spree.  So long as we fight wars for reasons (always of arguable merit), it's pretty obvious that this is yet another situation in which we don't let our notions of the sanctity of human life interfere with killing people "justifiably".

Another exception to the rule is when the death penalty is imposed for certain crimes.  Just what crimes deserve the death penalty is always at issue, naturally.  People vary considerably in their positions about the death penalty.  There's always a sort of inconsistency about the state killing people for killing other people and that bothers many opponents to the death penalty.  Some governments feel quite expansive about what constitutes a capital crime, a concept that hardly has remained constant over time.  Most of us no longer feel that a pickpocket deserves to die, for instance.  Being opposed to Communism or Islam might still get some people killed, however.  Not all countries or states have the death penalty, of course, but whether your government(s) allow it or not, many people (some of whom would be numbered among the extreme opponents of all abortion) would find it morally acceptable to murder a child molester (or a cop-killer or a serial murderer or a serial rapist or an abortion doctor), for example, even though the laws of the state have no legalized death penalty.

So, finally we arrive at the issue of abortion.  Are there no possible circumstances under which abortion might be acceptable?  Not according to some people, virtually all of whom do feel that murdering humans can in fact be quite justifiable - under certain circumstances.  Of all the arguments against abortion, I find the "slippery slope" argument among the weakest of them.  It seems to me that abortion should not be considered the primary means for birth control, but many (not all, of course) opponents of abortion on religious grounds also are opposed to birth control measures.  Nevertheless, if someone can find it possible to accept murder under certain circumstances, they shouldn't be uncomfortable with abortion under certain circumstances.  The only thing to debate is just exactly which circumstances justify abortion.  Virtually all the opponents of abortion under all circumstances on the "sanctity of human life" argument are being inconsistent and hypocritical.

OK - let the debate begin.