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 debte 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.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

For the record: Understanding what probability forecasts mean

For reasons mostly related to the failure of the National Weather Service to develop a pre-release information campaign, the public has been puzzled by the meaning of probability forecasts ever since the Probability of Precipitation (PoP) was introduced in the mid-1960s.  That oversight can't be rectified easily but as we contemplate changing the content and wording of forecasts, that lesson looms large - or it should.  The concept of uncertainty is best expressed as probability, but other ways (such as odds) might be more intuitive for most of the public.

Expressing a rain forecast in terms of probability (e.g., a "40 percent chance of rain" - which is equivalent to a 60 percent chance of no rain) always refers to a specific space-time volume.  That is, the forecast is for a specific area during a particular time span.  It might be for a particular metropolitan area during the next 12 hours, for instance.  If you don't know the the forecast's space-time volume, you don't yet know enough to grasp the intended meaning.  (There's a 100 percent chance that it will rain somewhere on the Earth in the next 10 years!  There's a zero percent chance of rain within the next 5 seconds when the skies currently are a cloudless blue.)

Another factor to consider is the "lead time" of the forecast;  this is the time between when the forecast is issued and the beginning of the valid time for the forecast's space-time "window".  Today's forecast for today is much more likely to be accurate than today's forecast for tomorrow.  In general terms, the limit of predictability for weather forecasts is somewhere around 7-10 days, depending on the weather situation.  Some forecasts are more difficult (and, hence, more uncertain) than others.  At the predictability limit, the forecasts become so uncertain, they are no more accurate than forecasting the climatology - the average of all weather events for that date.  They are said to have zero "skill" (which is not the same as accuracy - skill is relative accuracy - compared to some simple forecast, such as persistence, climatology, or some objective forecasting system).

You also need to know what event to which the word "rain" applies.  In most cases, this means enough rain to be "measurable" (typically, 0.01 inches).  The event being forecast could be different from that, but most PoP forecasts are for measurable rain.  In any case, it's another essential piece of the puzzle.  The less frequent an event might be, the less confidence forecasters can have in predicting it.  The probability of measurable rain is considerably higher than that of a rain event producing 10 inches (roughly 254 millimeters) of rainfall.

So, armed with knowledge of the space-time volume for which the forecast is valid and the nature of the forecast event, the probability value is a quantitative expression of the confidence that such a rain event will occur somewhere, sometime within that space-time volume.  The level of certainty (or uncertainty) can be estimated objectively using any of a number of methods (spread of ensemble members, Model Output Statistics, etc.) or subjectively.  Subjective probability estimates can be calibrated with experience, such that all calibrated forecasters looking at the same data would arrive at similar probability estimates - subjective probabilities need not be understood as mere "guessing"!  Assuming they follow the laws of probability, subjective probability estimates are legitimate expressions of forecaster confidence.  Although some forecasters might be more confident in their abilities than others, if the forecasters are calibrated properly, they will mostly agree about their probability estimates.  Real forecasters can become reasonably well-calibrated in about a year, given proper feedback about their forecasting accuracy.

If the forecast is for a 40 percent probability (two chances out of five ... or four out of ten), then any one forecast can be neither wholly correct or wholly incorrect.  The only times when a probability forecast is either right or wrong is for forecasts of zero and 100 percent.  We measure how good the forecast is by its "reliability" - a perfectly reliable probability forecast of 40 percent means that on the average, it rains somewhere within the space-time value 40 percent of the time whenever that 40 percent probability forecast is issued.  When it rains, of course, we should expect higher probability values, and lower values when it doesn't rain.  Perfect forecasting would consist only of (a) 100 percent probabilities when it rains, and (b) zero percent probabilities when it doesn't rain, but that level of certainty is impossible (for many reasons, both theoretical and practical).  Thus, it rains one time out of ten when the probability forecast is for 10 percent (assuming reliable forecasting).  Rain on a 10 percent probability is not only not necessarily wrong;  it is just what we expect to happen (10 percent of the time!) when we make such a forecast.

Note that if the forecaster knows nothing (i.e., has no confidence), then the best forecast to make is for the climatological probability in that space-time volume.  This is usually a much lower value than 50 percent (a value that many people might incorrectly interpret as "pure guessing") - if the climatological value for the given space-time volume on that day of the year is 20 percent, that's the best possible "know nothing" forecast.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Economic systems and how they've changed us

Today, I just found out our dishwasher motor/pump (all one assembly that can't be repaired - only replaced) has failed.  Since the price to replace it is a significant fraction of the cost of a new dishwasher, we would probably be better off buying a whole new one.  A similar thing happened to our clothes washer a while back.  Manufacturers now sell insurance on appliances: they call it an "extended warranty" where we customers are betting they didn't sell us a piece of junk that will fail prematurely.  Their knowledge of their products' failure rates are built into the cost of the extended warranty, so they still make a profit on the average when their products (or services) fail. What's their incentive to make a quality product? Pride in their product? Hah!! It's all about the almighty profit motive.  The bottom line is more important than quality, nowadays.

Things didn't used to be that way.  Many manufacturers took some pride in the quality of their product (or service) and backed it up with support for the customer when problems arose.  Things weren't manufactured to stifle maintenance back then.  Rather, the products could be repaired for relatively low costs most of the time, until the product just plain wore out from long use.  The clothes washer we replaced recently was bought when we lived in Kansas City, underwent a few reasonably-priced repairs, and eventually gave up the ghost after 37 years of use!  Repair is becoming an obsolete concept. We buy some product, it craps out, we throw it away, and buy a new one. That's where corporate America has gone, and we're forced to ride along.  Similar issues arise for service businesses.  Who likes their choices in the Internet/phone/television provider business?  Most people I know hate their service providers but have no real choice because none of them produce quality service!

The way the big corporations can sell us affordable products is to design them to fail in such a way that we can't afford to fix them.  They've outsourced the actual manufacturing facilities in many cases, so they pay low wages to foreign workers who are so poor they have to accept low wages.  Even "Communist" China has followed this path, not permitting workers to form trade unions and keeping wages artificially low.  Workers have little incentive to do a good job, since they're often paid piece work wages, not by the hour.  The shoddy products are shipped to the US, the corporations push extended warrantees on the customers, who feel the need to be protected from catastrophic premature product failure.  It's become something of a scam.  And the river of money flows up the corporate ladders.

As "free market" capitalism developed, it became clear that an unbridled profit motive puts a lot of pressure on companies having pride in their products and concern for their employees.  Mega-corporations like Wal-Mart squeeze out the smaller businesses that try to make a decent product and stand behind it.  Once they've crushed the small fry, then they're free to plunder their customers, and they wrap themselves in the flag in the process.  Capitalism at work, right?  Ignore their takeover of government by buying off the politicians, convincing us that the way to paradise is through the "free market" even as the corporations tap the government teat for tax breaks and subsidies to pad their profits.  And they're huge, rich proponents of de-regulation.  Guess where that has lead us!  Remember that housing bubble that burst in 2007 and its subsequent fallout?  It was the removal of most restraints on the "too big to fail" lending institutions that created it.

Teddy Roosevelt took on the corporations in what was called "trust busting" that established some regulatory control over big corporate "trusts" (monopolies), which had grown fat and rapacious.  As it stands, we're in desperate need of some trust-busting in today's world.  The big companies have created a "plunder economy" whereby the public is robbed for the benefit of corporate management.  Not much trickles down to the workers in this kleptocracy, and virtually nothing for the customers.

Conservatives like to describe capitalism as a sacred part of the American way, a path that has inexorably leads to prosperity for all.  Properly regulated capitalism has in fact been successful in building a reasonably high standard of living - but the US is no longer at the pinnacle of living standards.  The profits we've created for the military-industrial complex through nearly constant warfare have left us bereft of surplus cash, even as corporate management salaries soar to incredible levels.  It's capitalism that has exploited the public, even as conservatives scare the public with the bogeyman of socialism.  Socialism has become a frightening word to many conservatives, laden with negative associations.  Anything that might cause the corporate profits to decline is buried in an avalanche of cries of "socialism" and "interference in the free marketplace".  This conveniently ignores that the marketplace is no longer "free" - but the big companies get most of the welfare, not the disadvantaged.

I'm no fan of unfettered socialism, either.  Socialism has inherent disadvantages that inevitably show up over the long haul.  The Chinese understood those disadvantages well enough to "relax" their form of socialism in a way that looks remarkably similar to the American kleptocracy.  The only entity that has the clout to rein in the greed of the corporations is the government.  Responsible regulation of any economic system can produce a workable environment for the majority of people - the only difference is that the regulations would need to be adjusted to fit the existing economic system.  Socialism requires different interference that capitalism. 

Several years ago, I read a great book called In Search of Excellence -its main thesis was that the most successful, long-lasting businesses were those that did two things:  (1) treated all their employees well and included them in the profit-sharing when the company made a profit, and (2) treated their customers well by making a quality product (or service) and dealing fairly with the customers when something went wrong.  This is very far from what I believe we're seeing in most big corporations today.  Evidently, excellence is no longer felt to be an important corporate benchmark.

I'm no economist, but down here at the customer level, it sure seems as if we're being victimized by an old enemy:  corporate greed at the expense of the public.  When corporate profit and huge management salaries are the primary goals of business management, then anything goes, it seems.  A plunder economy is not what made America great, but it can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.  The recent stock market crash could be a harbinger of worse to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

El Niño - "Godzilla" or just another actor?

It seems this year is another in a lengthening string of occasions when El Nino (more properly, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation that includes La Nina) becomes a big media story, anticipating how it will affect the weather during this coming winter.  The developing El Nino this year may be at record or near-record intensity, which could magnify its impacts on the weather, so even a respected oceanographer felt compelled to describe it with the adjective "Godzilla" during a media interview.  Of course, the media grabbed onto this label with its typical overblown enthusiasm.  Shades of "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm"!!

The "Godzilla El Nino" has become the focus for some controversy in the scientific community, however.  Many meteorologists dislike the use of such hyperbole, preferring that the public face of our science be more restrained, as scientists try to be when communicating with their colleagues.  Others feel that the use of such language helps get the message of science across to the lay public.  A well-written science story doesn't need bombastic language to get its message across - in fact, it can be argued that such excesses muddy the clarity of the message.

I've made no secret that I'm not among the supporters of wildly dramatic language.  First of all, an unintended consequence could be the creation of unnecessary fear in some folks regarding what could become an impending disaster.  Another unintended consequence is public pushback against the "hype" such terminology creates - some segments of the public are sick of all the "gloom and doom" the media convey about upcoming weather events.  There's no hard evidence that the use of such hyperbolic terminology does anything to attract more attention to the message that scientists are trying to convey, nor is there evidence to suggest that the purely factual information content of that scientific message is conveyed more effectively to the consumers as a result of the inflated descriptions.  If the claim is made that melodramatic terminology is actually an aid to effective communication, the burden of proof is on those who make such claims.  Let there be a carefully-done survey that demonstrates this is indeed the effect of sensational verbiage.  Absent that, count me among the skeptics!

Furthermore, and more importantly, it's pretty bad science to equate the strength of a given El Nino to specific weather events or seasonal weather trends at a specific location.  ENSO is just one among a host of global and regional climate "oscillations" that are all operating concurrently.  How this year's El Nino affects the global weather pattern is determined by the complex interaction among all the known oscillations that influence the weather pattern, to say nothing of factors affecting global weather about which we scientists know little or nothing. It's been shown, for instance, that snowfall in Washington DC can be at or near record levels during a strong El Nino, but can also be near zero during a strong El Nino.  By itself, El Nino is not a good predictor of local, seasonal weather patterns.  To create all this brouhaha about this year's El Nino is just bad meteorology and conveying a message that is not justified by the science. 

A more rational approach would be to indicate that an intense El Nino, which is what this year's event is likely to be, could create serious impacts, for which some segments of our society would need to prepare in advance.  It would be important to indicate that this is not a statement of absolute certainty, or even close to that level of confidence.  Rather, it suggests one potentially important development among many possibilities, but the likelihood is high enough that it deserves to be mentioned as a possibility - it is not a forecast for a "Godzilla" creating widespread havoc and destruction, but something that might require some advance planning for that possibility.  Do we really need to "hype" an event to get people to understand our message so that they take appropriate actions?  If so, then we can blame the media, but we also might have to share the responsibility for failing to state our message in clear and understandable terms.  The consumers of media (Aren't we all?) have been desensitized, perhaps, by all the sensationalism.  But that's another topic ...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A delayed tribute to Prof. Fred Sanders - friend and colleague

This tribute is not very timely.  Fred Sanders died on 06 October 2006.  This was a time before I was on Facebook and for some reason, I never wrote this.  I came to know Fred as an MIT meteorology professor, but meeting the man was even more impressive than his professional résumé would indicate.  Today, inexplicably, it seems I must pay my respects to this great man by means of this medium.  Anyone interested in the weather as a professional meteorologist should recognize their debt to Fred, who bequeathed us a huge legacy of his synoptic scale research and even more importantly, his students (most of whom have gone on to make their own important research contributions).  That he was a great meteorologist cannot be doubted.  But I want to share some anecdotes about Fred the man I knew as a friend.  You can read his MIT obituary here for some of the details of his professional accomplishments.

To the best of my recollection, my first meetings with Fred took place when I was working at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, MO (the home of what is now the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK).  This was my first post-doctoral job, and the prospect of a visit by the great Fred Sanders would set the office abuzz with excitement.  From the start, it was obvious Fred was not someone who would suffer BS readily or willingly, so I was very excited to get to know him.  I'd don't recall the circumstances now, but sometime after we first met, he accepted my invitation to have dinner with me and my family in our home.  He was a wonderful guest, who deliberately avoiding talking meteorology with me, but rather engaged Vickie (my wife) in extended conversations.  I can still see him in my mind's eye in the dining room of our KC home.

To my surprise, Fred declined an opportunity to work alongside the Severe Local Storms (SELS) unit forecasters during a forecast shift, producing his own, independent forecast to be subjected to verification the next day.  It seemed to me that this would have been a chance to gain insight into the SELS operation, but he chose not to.  I never understood his reasons for that decision.  It was the one time I felt he dropped the ball.  The only reason I relate that anecdote is because it helps to make Fred a human being, not just a 1-dimensional, mythical icon in our profession. 

Some years later, when I had moved to Boulder, CO to work with Bob Maddox at the Weather Research Program there, Fred visited us in our Longmont, CO home.  Vickie and I had become friends with a couple who had lived next door to me when I first moved there (before my family left Kansas City to join me).  They were wonderful people, and it turned out that the wife (Billie) showed up at our home after dinner while Fred was still there.  Fred readily incorporated her in our conversations, naturally.  Afterwards, I asked her if she had any clue as to how famous and honored a man Fred was, and she was amazed to find that out.  Fred had charmed her (as he often did with people) without ever mentioning anything that would give her even a hint of his fame.  He was not at all about self-promotion!

Some years later, after I had followed Bob Maddox to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, OK, my colleague Harold Brooks and I traveled to the Washington DC area to attend a conference.  Harold and I chose to take a break from the conference in order to visit the Civil War battlefield at Mannassas, VA (known in the Union as the first Battle of Bull Run).  When Fred heard us talking about it, he asked to go along, and we readily granted his request - we looked forward to spending that time with him.  At the gate, the Park Service ranger was collecting our entrance fee, when she looked in the back seat of our car and saw Fred, recognizing him as a Senior Citizen - entitled to free entrance.  She said, "If he, as a senior citizen, claims you as part of his family, you all can get in free."  Fred quickly said we were, indeed, family members, so we (temporarily) became eligible for free entrance.  [I'm pretty sure the ranger understood the reality of the situation.]  I still enjoy telling that story by starting off with the claim that many people don't know I'm part of Fred Sanders' family!

Besides my admiration for Fred as a meteorologist, I valued his friendship even more.  Time with him was always well-spent!  His passing was a great shock to me, as it was to our whole scientific community.  Despite the passage of time, I still miss him terribly.  Having co-authored a scientific paper with Fred is still something in which I take a great deal of personal satisfaction.

My belated condolences to his family, close friends, and those students he mentored.  Fred was a unique individual who understood the importance of a connection between research and operations as well as any of us, and better than most of us.  I shared an interest in that connection and Fred no doubt was pleased to find any allies in fostering that interaction between operational and research meteorologists. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

New Horizons - an End and a Beginning

The flyby of Pluto is now an accomplished fact.  It marks the end of a process of putting a real face on the planets of our solar system.  This process began in the first planetary expeditions back in the 1960s and has resulted in dazzling new images of what have historically been only lights in the sky.  Speculation has given way to observation.  And every new observation has led to dramatic new insights into the processes by which the solar system has developed.  Every planet in the solar system has revealed things no one expected.  How do you put a price on that new understanding?  Can this not be inspirational?  Does the technology of space exploration not represent the best of what we humans can do to gain new insights into our place in the universe?

It seems to me that the naysayers regarding space exploration have devalued the impact of inspiration on the human species.  We can be inspired by what amounts to mythology - the mythology of religion for instance - that often results in visiting violence upon other humans who happen to believe in different myths.  We can be inspired by the notion of our nation as an exceptional example of the freedom of the human spirit - and our preeminence on the world scene - resulting in a national arrogance that leads to violence against other nations.  But the inspiration that comes from exploration of the cosmos leads us to the realization of our insignificance on the scale of the universe.  Rather than arrogance, this is an inspiration that leads to humility in the face of the cosmic questions.  We see writ large in the universe that we humans are little more than dust motes in the vastness of the universe.

Is this a negative thing?  I think not.  It reminds us of our place as bit players in a cosmic stage but it also says man is not apart from the universe, but rather is a part of it.  Yes, our part is small and mostly insignificant.  But we are part of something enormous!  Personally, I don't find this to be belittling of our place in the universe.  In the cosmic picture, we are necessarily trivial and our fate is of no significance to the cosmos.  Nevertheless, we are here because of cosmic processes that foster life.  In a very real way, we have learned that we are children of the universe and its processes.  We are here because of cosmic processes - the universe come to life and contemplating itself by means of our consciousness.  It's likely that life exists on many planets throughout the universe and that life is also a part of the universe.  We may eventually learn of that life through the efforts of those inspired to support exploration of the universe.  It will be a great day in our history when we learn of life not of this Earth!

Is not the exploration of our universe among the most inspirational of our human efforts?  How can anyone believe that our human problems are a reason to not pursue this topic?  An inadequate grasp of our place in the universe would lead to trivialization of the wonders being revealed to us by virtue of the space explorers!  It's been my privilege to see the wonders of our solar system revealed by the efforts of those inspired to participate in this great adventure.  I'm happy to have lived during a time when these majestic images have made the solar system much, much more than mere points of light!  My thanks to all of those who have made this happen!

More on "extreme" storm chasing, part 2

Recent events reveal that a prediction I made long ago apparently has been verified.  I'm not happy about that, however.  Sadly, a storm chaser has been charged with running a stop sign and killing two people in the resulting collision.  Time will be needed to learn the details, and to determine whether or not he is guilty as charged.  If this storm chaser was actually chasing at the time, and the fatalities are proven in court to be his responsibility, this will be a very sad time in the history of storm chasing.  It's another predictable but terrible "milestone" in storm chase history, just as 31 May 2013 will live in infamy because of the unfortunate deaths of three storm chasers who were hit by the El Reno, OK tornado.  Although Tim Samaras and the Twistex team were quite responsible storm chasers, their objectives required them to take extreme risks.  Note:  at this point, I have no idea if this chaser is routinely irresponsible in his chasing, but it only takes one incident of irresponsibility to ruin everything.  Hence, although some of this blog may not apply to him, it's the incident that has caused me to reflect on extreme chasers, who engage freely in life-threatening acts.

Extreme (or "outlaw") storm chasing has become relatively widespread, likely in part because of what people routinely see in entertainment media.  It's not reflective of the majority of chasers, but extreme chasers apparently like to think of themselves as "above" most other chasers.  The whole notion of being an "extreme" chaser is considered in those circles as a badge of honor, worn with pride by those willing to do virtually anything to catch a sensational event, right up to the edges of death.  Those of us advocating a responsible approach to chasing have been ignored openly.  Further, we've even been bashed in social media by some of the extreme chasers, who enjoy flaunting their disrespect for advocates of responsible chasing.  I certainly have been singled out by some as a target for their antipathy.  It's precisely that sort of macho bravado that concerns me:  I predicted that fatalities inevitably would result from extreme chasing and, in this case, being right is cold comfort.

This case is even worse than having chasers die in a tornado chase.  Having one's actions result in the death of two innocent people simply going about their business is worse, as I see it, than a chaser dying as a result of doing dangerous things around a storm.  I've said all along the greatest threat to chasers is being on the streets and highways, and that threat includes any non-chasers who happen to be in the path of a chaser doing extreme things.

Years ago, my wife and I were chasing - I think it was in Nebraska but I can't recall - and we came upon the scene of a collision in a small town (with brick streets).  A chaser had T-boned some locals, although apparently without serious injuries.  The chaser's vehicle wasn't one we recognized; it had some decals that indicated it was a chaser, however, and had CO license plates.  Although we didn't see the collision, it seemed evident that the local driver had underestimated the speed of the approaching chaser (who likely was exceeding the in-town speed limit) and tried to cross the intersection before the chaser came through.  I never heard anything afterward about this wreck, so evidently the media never picked up on it.  With today's social media, we'd probably have heard more about what happened and who was responsible.  This was a very sobering consideration - many extreme chasers are quite ready to admit they often exceed speed limits in their efforts to get a storm*.  I've seen their own videos showing them speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road, running stop signs, etc.!

I'm unaware of any fatal collision initiated by a chaser before the current example.  However, if any such wreck has happened in the past, we just may not know about it.  Although not as well-known, it seems some inexperienced chasers were killed by the Tuscaloosa, AL tornado two years before the sad death of Tim Samaras and his team.  The AL fatalities didn't receive a great deal of media attention, so there could be earlier incidents of chaser-responsible traffic fatalities about which we haven't heard.  If extreme chasers continue to be irresponsible, my forecast is that there surely will be more examples!

The "outlaw" chaser, perhaps seeking to borrow from the romanticized image of the fictional anti-heroes so popular in the entertainment industry, is not a flattering image for storm chasers.  I certainly have become quite tired of having to answer for the irresponsible deeds of "extreme" chasers.  These are not just playful antics or about the courage of the chaser - they represent a real hazard to the extreme chasers and those who happen to be near them in the heat of a chase.

*I won't claim I never exceed the speed limits, but I certainly would not want to speed through a small town - not just to avoid getting a speeding ticket, but because it isn't a very responsible thing to do.  If I occasionally speed in open country, it's not something I would choose to boast about with the media.  It's behavior I prefer not to advertise as something of which to be proud!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is religious indoctrination of children abusive?

This blog is the result of seeing the headline question posted on an atheist FaceBook forum.  The statement is made by some atheists to the effect that when parents indoctrinate their children with religion, it's a type of child abuse.  I wanted to offer my thoughts on the topic here.

For the most part, in the USA, we're talking about christianity, although some of this might apply to other Abrahamic religions.  I'm not so knowledgeable about them.  I also acknowledge that your experiences and understanding may vary from mine.  That is, there are around 40, 000 different versions of christianity, and they distinguish themselves in various ways based on their particular doctrines.  My comments are keyed to the version of christianity that I was taught in an evangelical lutheran church because that's what I know best.  Of course, my understanding of that is biased since I never really bought into the program, and left it as soon as I felt I could.  Hence, I admit my comprehension could be flawed in detail, but probably not in basic doctrine.

So, disclaimers done, let's proceed:  in the version of christianity I was taught, there's an all-powerful, all-knowing god who rules the universe he created from nothing.  This god is acknowledged to be a jealous god (a curiously human sentiment for an all-powerful being), so he has no tolerance for belief in other gods.  He demands humans worship him, and only him (sounds like deep insecurity to me).  Somewhere in the universe, this god created two places where people would go after they lived out their days on the Earth:  joyful heaven for the believers and horrifying hell for the heathen unbelievers.  Evidently, this god also created an evil opponent (for no obvious reason), the devil (satan, or whatever) to seduce people away from the path leading to heaven, in order for them to land in hell where he tortures them forever.  This is pretty much the prototypical "carrot and stick" for humans.  If you swallow the story, you get the carrot;  if you don't, you get the stick - hard and forever!  Because a woman was convinced to eat some fruit by the devil (in the form of a talking snake), all of humanity is scarred by her free choice to disobey god (See the messages, here?) for all time.  Now that's god's justice and love, right?

I think it's pretty safe to say that the vast majority of christians in the US were born into and raised within christian families.  It's virtually certain that this, and this alone, is the primary explanation for the predominance of christianity in the US.  Religions are perpetuated in this way - Richard Dawkins has referred to religions as "God Memes", where a meme is defined as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture".  The meme is, therefore, self-replicating.  Not everyone exposed to a meme is brought under its influence, of course, so not unlike the way DNA operates, the replication is not always completely perfect.  I'm an example of someone who didn't accept the this "god meme" - what I was taught never made any sense to me.  But for many (most) believers, being raised in a family with a particular religious bent is sufficient to indoctrinate them with the meme and by this means, the meme is perpetuated.

From my viewpoint, I have no problem with someone accepting the tenets of christianity, although it's always puzzling to me when otherwise intelligent, rational people choose to accept what I see as a preposterous story with virtually no supporting evidence.  There are many positive aspects of christianity (although they vary from one to another of the 40, 000 flavors), so inculcating the traits of kindness to others and love for all god's creations, for example, can't be a bad thing.  Many christians find the notion of love for all god's creations (e.g., homosexuals or socialists) pretty challenging!  The message may (or may not) be inherently abusive, but what I find to be obvious child abuse is the creation of fear and self-loathing.

In the version of christianity I was taught, all humans are scarred indelibly with the sin committed by the first two humans who were tricked into going against god's rules.  Presumably, a (temporary) human sacrifice (by the "son" of god, via a "virgin birth") is the only way to redemption chosen by god for the original sin, provided one accepts the temporarily murdered son of god as their lord and savior.  Frankly, I find this notion totally absurd, but everyone is free to believe whatever they choose.  Just don't ask me to buy it!

In any case, many children born in christian families are told that fire and brimstone forever awaits them because even if they act only with kindness and love for their entire lives (which I think even children realize is pretty much an impossible standard of behavior), their damnation is assured by a sin committed by someone else long ago.  They're made to feel shame and guilt for their "transgressions", notably including sins they themselves didn't actually commit.  The only solution is to embrace the jesus meme even more, which breeds even more guilt for the inevitable human "failings" (like sexual lust, for instance).  Fear, guilt and shame are powerful tools by which the meme controls its believers.  And, by a bizarre twist, regardless of the massively heinous crimes someone may have committed, if at the end of their miserable lives they accept almighty jesus as their lord and savior, they go to heaven!!  The only way to avoid hell and damnation is to believe.  [Reminds me of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz.]

The content of religion isn't necessarily abusive on its own.  But the use of fear, guilt, and shame to force children down your parental "path of righteousness" is child abuse.  If you're a christian, you almost certainly want your children to accept your version of the one "true" religious faith.  Using abusive tactics to accomplish that goal clearly is an immoral thing to do, at least in my book.

If you're an atheist, the proper thing to do is to encourage your children to make up their own minds about religion.  This necessarily involves letting them learn about religion, and to give them the self-confidence to resist the peer pressure they'll surely get from their indoctrinated peers in order to make an informed choice as they mature into adults.  Most atheists don't seek to force atheism on believers - they want believers to (a) support separation of church and state, and (b) accept atheists without hate and contempt, thereby living up to the positive ideals of christianity.