Saturday, December 29, 2012

On New Years Resolutions

Here is just a quick note on New Year’s Resolutions ("nyr"). Some massive percentage of nyrs are broken by the end of January, so my basic advice is don't make any. Making yourself promises that you are almost certainly going to fail at is only going to make you feel guilty, which isn't helpful. I am generally against making promises that you know in advance you won’t be able to keep to, but that's a different story. 

There is a trick I learned a long time ago that is related to how I feel about nyrs. The trick is this: when you are faced with a binary choice that you are not sure about, flip a coin. But instead of doing what the coin decides you pay close attention to your reaction. Sometimes you do care whether you have eggs or pancakes, and it’s easier to tell in reaction to being told which to have. 

And in that theme I would encourage you to think about what kind of resolutions you are inclined to make and see if they shine a light on how you feel about where yourself and your life is heading.

Making one melodramatic (and probably drunken) promise to yourself almost certainly isn't going to get you to go to the gym twice a week. But thinking about what it is you really want out of going twice a week might tell you something about yourself. 

However, if you have goals, and you want to use the event of New Years to help, here is a tip from TED:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Religious Coexistence

I have recently heard in passing some talk that referenced "winning" the argument with religion or just implicitly referencing and end point to the dialogue between the faithful and the faithless. This got me thinking about tolerance. But tolerance has a lot of baggage that I would rather avoid. So I thought I would ask about coexistence. 

The religious are not going to cease believing and they are not going to leave. The religions have survived more and worse than even the great Hitchens’ acerbic wrath. So I'm asking you all to consider how you think we can coexist with the religious.

How many selves does it take to make a person?

In most situations it is simpler and faster to think of the people around you as a single integrated whole. But this is not actually the case. In healthy individuals under normal circumstances there is no reason to "look behind the curtain". But in order to explain people’s behavior it is sometimes necessary to talk about brain functions at a higher resolution. 

The brain is actually a collection of modules that all work in concert. Sometimes, like in the case of trauma to the brain, one module can be damaged with very strange results. Something similar can be seen in the case of drug addicts who want to quit but cant. When a person wants to quit but is having trouble, it becomes obvious that speaking of a single integrated human being doesn't really do the job. 

Imagine if you will, Sally, a smoker who has just quit for the 3rd time. She has a heart condition and really needs to not smoke, but she still craves cigarettes. And while checking her email she sees a party invitation to the house of a smoker, and her first emotional response is fear. She is afraid that if she goes to the party she will start smoking again. 

Now think about how you would talk about her in this situation. What kind of person is she? Is she strong willed? Weak willed? Is her addiction a thing different from her and inside of her? Is it a flaw in her character? How would You explain it?

Because what we have here is a woman who is afraid of what she will want to do that will be bad for her. Talking about her as a single unified agent causes all kinds of trouble and we have a way out.

We don't need to know what parts of the brain are doing what (which is good because I don't) in order to appreciate that referencing the complexity of the brain and its multimodal setup allows for a more subtle and humane description. 

Sally is neither strong willed nor weak willed by the above description. She is an addict who under some circumstances can manage not to smoke, and under other circumstances will smoke. And she knows, from the experience of trying to quit before, which is which. So she is the person who will not smoke at home, and the person who will smoke at a party, and the person who knows the difference. And it is not necessary to form a single version of Sally that takes all of this in at once.

Ordinarily when neuroscience is invoked, it dehumanizes us. Usually when people pull back the curtain it is a dismissive and reductive act, to speak about people as if they were robots. This is not the only way to use neuroscience, it can also be used to be for forgiving and understanding about people. It can be a route to compassion. 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Theologically Queer?

The non-religious have been struggling with how to characterize themselves. Atheist, secular, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, etc ad nauseum. This problem, looked at through the prism of David Niose's book Nonbeliever Nation, begins to look a lot like the struggles of queer culture in including ever more marginalized groups. Trans folks and bisexuals still aren't entirely "one of us" in all gay rights groups. And even the term “gay rights” doesn't really describe all the people that movement means to liberate and protect. But they are all queer in respect to a broad and poorly defined set of norms around sex, sexuality, gender, and orientation. What groups them together is there failure to conform to a collection of norms. 

Would it therefore make sense for learn these lessons of the process of including the excluded and group ourselves under the umbrella of religiously queer? I am not sure but there are deep sympathies and similes here that I would love to hear other people thoughts about. 

Edited for having been written on my phone on the bus. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The moral implications of science.

Again the question for me is no longer what do people believe. It is what is it that people actually do that is objectionable? For one thing they vote, act, and speak as if climate change was a left wing conspiracy and not the most important human issue of the next 100 years. There are people who vote for liars and buy gas guzzling cars and complain about the EPA without a glimmer of a thought for the welfare of their grandchildren or yours. And all of this because they feel like it is their duty and privilege to say “I don’t know anything about climate science Except that it is all a lie”.

This is behavior with profound moral and ethical consequences. And the scientifically literate public seems to have no way to point an accusing finger at this behavior. Those of us who believe in science have allowed ourselves to be bullied into believing that we have no right to moral outrage. This needs to end.

We need to call climate denial what it is. It is criminal negligence on a global scale. Americans do not tolerate lead in our children’s toys, fungus in our injections or e. coli in our food. And yet the fate of our entire culture is allowed to be talked about as a matter of opinion. And here we sit in the ivory tower telling ourselves that science doesn’t have a moral component. It does.

Science can occasionally tell us, to a moral certainty, what is going to happen in the future. And when face with potential disaster it is immoral to allow other people to choose disaster for all of us. We must have the courage of our empirical evidence to argue the point.

But what should we do? The misinformed are not amenable to evidence or reason. And let me be clear on a point here. The misinformed are not bad people. They are fellow Americans who are busy, they are tired and they are overwhelmed by their day to day lives. They rely on the news organizations to inform them and instead they are entertained. The authorities that they trust have told them that climate change is a lie and it is those authorities that should be demonized.

The critical link in the chain that has proven responsive to pressure from the public is the media. The religious right has altered programming on network television since its inception through pressure to maintain the “standards of decency” of the country. And I think it is time that we start pressuring them to uphold the standards of the most successful empirical program in human history, science.

Here are three assertions: climate change is real and impacted by human action, vaccines protect other people’s children and do not cause autism, and evolution is real and there is no competitive theory in existence. If you see reporting that says otherwise, if you see a baseless, ass covering false equivalency or a groundless back and forth: Write a letter. We need to take action to change how this country is governed and I think the first step is to exert pressure on the 4th estate to do its bloody job.

People who do not have the ability, time, or inclination to see past this irresponsible reporting are being so badly informed that they are insisting on endangering our future and the future of our children. Take action to establish the moral standing of scientific research. We all need you to.