In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…

 

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

A forum that I frequent has polls and a neat little demographic feature that lets you see how different people answer a given question. Recently, the following demographic breakdown caught my eye:

This was a question about whether the wealthy engage in class welfare, so you might reasonably expect a shift in opinion based on education. Sample size is 41. Here, the actual answers aren’t as interesting as the distribution. With educational attainment, diversity of opinion increases.

I often argue that the truth is nearly always more nuanced than political polemic can accommodate. If we accept the notion that, on average, increased education correlates with increased knowledge of the world, then this supports my thesis.

Unfortunately, it also supports what the pundits and politices know so well–oversimplification sells.

What Would Jesus Think?

Continuing our theme of contrary conclusions from the same data, I recently ran across an interesting online debate between a Christian and a skeptic over the meaning of a passage from the book of Mark.

In Mark 7:7-8, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the washing of hands before eating is “the tradition of men”, not “the commandment of God”. He says that a man is “defiled” not by what he puts in his mouth (dirty hands) but by what comes out of his body (godly, actions). To modern ears, this seems like a rather mixed metephor,  because in 7:18-19 he specifically says “whatever thing entereth into the man, it cannot defile him, Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats”.

The skeptic paraphrased it this way:

“Got that? Eating filth does not make you a bad person because food cannot reach your heart…and because it will only be pooped out with the rest of the filth anyway.”

The Christian had, of course, been arguing for the traditional interpretation, the spiritual lesson of admonishment to follow God’s law over the traditions of man, and therefore to follow Jesus. This was, after all, long before germ theory, when the heart was held to be the seat of reason, and when both illness and insanity were widely viewed as the work of demonic forces. So it makes sense that someone living in that age would confound spiritual and physical “defilement” in this way.

But of course, as the skeptic points out, Jesus is claiming to be or to speak for the creator who knows everything and is not limited by the ignorance of the Iron Age. Surely, having warned his people against eating pork (a carrier of parasites) he would not so blithely dismiss gastronomic hygiene. And further, while on the subject, wouldn’t he have taken a moment to admonish his followers against eating improperly stored grain (with its incumbent risk or ergo-induced-lunacy, which due to further misunderstanding of the mind, was a cause of cruel execution all the way up to the enlightenment)? No. He wouldn’t, the skeptic asserts, because he was a man living in the Iron Age and, like Moses before him, had no access to any divine wisdom that might have raised him above the ignorance of the age.

Of course, none of these passages appear in any copies of Mark older than about 390AD anyway, so no one really knows what Jesus did or did not say. Perhaps he taught a course in pathogenic mycology at the local extension office and it’s all just gotten lost in translation.

Equity in Wealth

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Elizabeth Warren

This is not a political blog; it’s a blog about reason. I am not Republican. I am not a Democrat. I have voted for both. I have an MBA and know a little about economic theory.

Captialism works. Government should indeed be very sparing in interposing itself into markets. But as the robber barons taught us, unrestrained capitalism is at least as inefficient and corrupting as unrestrained socialism. There are those who wish us to see a simple, direct, and inverse correlation between taxation and prosperity. Reality is more nuanced. A wealthy man will spend just as much, and invest almost as much, whether he is taxed at 1% or 90%. A poor man CANNOT.

Yes, all things being equal, taxation reduces the money available for spending and reduces marginal return. But all things are not equal. And anyone trying to elicit your vote on the basis of this argument without considering elasticity is a propagandist who is not after your interests, but his own.

Laptop Lifts

It’s 11pm. Do you know where the feet off your netbook are?

When the engineers scaled down from laptops to netbooks, they forgot to account for scaling of the glue surface on the foot pads. You can use any adhesive known to science, they’ll fall off. Laptop lifts solve the problem.

I Know What I Know

Watch the following in its entirety before reading further.

In debates over belief, people often assert “I know what I know, and you can’t tell me I don’t”.

But do you? I–personally–have heard this odd sort of skepticism used to defend gnostic faith in phenomena as diverse as God, ghosts, UFOs, groundwater pollution, and Chupacabra. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asserting that any of these beliefs were wrong—but they were unfounded, at least on the grounds given.

Given what we now know about the functioning of the brain, it is clear that all experience is an illusion, or more accurately, a simulacrum, a shadow of meaning woven together from what the brain thinks is important. The video illustrates this in a fun way (concentrate on counting passes and you may miss the gorilla) but it’s much deeper than that. Right now, part of what you think you see is faked by your brain to cover the rather large blind spots in your field of view. A good portion of the peripheral vision you actually DO see is never consciously accessible, but IS available to help you avoid stumbling in the dark. Based on these revelations, can you really be sure of anything you observe?

The answer, flatly, is “no”, but returning to our theme of contradictory views, what are we to make of this new understanding? Some will assert that, since we cannot trust our observations, we cannot trust science to reveal the truth, since it is ultimately based on observation. But we have no other source of information except for observation. If you believe in God, you do so because you read of him in scripture, because you were told of him, because you intuit his existence, or because he speaks to you or makes himself known to you. These are all observations. All start with electrochemical potentiations within the brain, all are subject to comprehensible bias and distortion.

Given that the brain is clearly hardwired to find patterns and look for boogiemen, what are we to make of perceptions of ghosts or icons burned into toast or the cloud I recently saw, clearly “flipping the bird” at the one area of town that has gotten rain all summer long? And given our fear and our foibles, how are we to evaluate our experience of God or other intangibles against the claims of others?

Ultimately, the answer can only be careful observation. Call it science, call it prayer, or call it existential metaphysics. “Knowledge” not tested against the measuring stick of reality is sure to be mistaken, and prophets claiming knowledge “beyond measuring” are invariably false.

The theological implication, of course, is that belief in the truth should neither require nor admit of faith, and this runs in stark contrast to what many people have been taught. Still, we should not be bothered by this. God understands. He made us this way.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever

This is a wonderful illustration or how different groups can see common wisdom in radically different views.

This euphonious aphorism was recently used in a TED lecture and immortalized by Symphony of Science and YouTube. Usually atributed to Gandhi (the Mahatma) , it actually goes back at least to Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636 in FPA Book of Quotations (1952) by Franklin Pierce Adams).

To rationalists, it is a fundamental truism, reminding us that our existence is precious and fleeting and made wonderful by rational inquiry and understanding. But to Isodore, who was perhaps the last of the ancient Christian philosophers, it was an equally fundamental truism meaning the exact opposite, that mortal life is an affliction, rendered endurable by piety and study of the scripture in preparation for eternity.

Both are right, even though both cannot be right, and handhi and Mohammed, who actually said very similar things, were just Johnny come lately.

Incidentally, the attribution to Ghandi is probably due more than anything to popular awareness (Isodore is not well known), illustrating yet another truth—opinion does not grow more correct with popularity.

Living in Interesting Times

We all know the ancient Chinese curse, but in fact, every age is an “interesting time” and always filled with challenges, hopes and fears. We wouldn’t have it any other way, because life is a ballet of risk and reward. Let us not fear what is or may become, but think and do and understand, and take a hand in shaping times to come.

A Formative Moment

How many of us can recall the one event in our lives that started us down the path we now follow?

My professional life has always revolved around looking at the world analytically, and seeing what others do not. Whether this ability is acquired or innate i cannot say, but I do know when it first became a part of who I am.

In the late ‘60s, I was an Air Force brat, living on Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota. At Ellsworth, the past and the future sat in uneasy company. Shiny new B52s practiced for Armageddon while cattle and buffalo searched out a living among the tumbleweeds and arrowheads. Overhead, astronauts carried human ingenuity to another world.

Our family traveled all over the region, from the geysers of Yellowstone to the craggy gray foothills of the badlands. And in this desolate, dusty landscape, some of my earliest memories are of visits to the Exxon station with its free maps, its tell bottles of grape Nehi, and the courteous attendant with his denim suspenders and dangling oily rag.

Today, it is hard to imagine the import that the gas station had in that time and place. Paved roads were scarce. The idea of a car running 100,000 miles before the first tune-up was science fiction. A family that drove off into the wilds and then broke down might literally never be found.

So as I sat in my mother’s lap in the front seat of our green ’65 Mustang, or on the folded-down armrests of our Big Black Lincoln, I would watch through dust-caked windows as the attendant started the gas pumping and lifted the hood to poke and prod and inspect all the magical gizmos that kept the engine going. Then he would slam the hood with a shudder, and pick up a squeegee.

This was the part that fascinated me. The Squeegee was easy enough to understand, but the way he used it caught my attention. It was always the same procedure, and even when the young assistant was there to help, he did it the same way:

1. First he would scrub one side or the other.
2. Then with a practiced hand, he would wipe off the soapy water and, at the end of each stroke, lift the tool and use his rag to wipe JUST THE TOP of the squeegee.
3. Then he would scrub on the other side of the windscreen, but when he started wiping this side, he would wipe the ENTIRE LENGTH of the squeegee.

Well of course, the reason for this is obvious if you’ve ever cleaned a windshield. But it wasn’t to me at the age of 3 or 4. I had to reason it out. And once I did, I suddenly had possession of something far more important than a mundane car care tip. I had reasoned something out that obviously those around me took for granted. It may seem cute or even silly now, but to a toddler, that was real power, and it started me down my path.

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