On Secular Morality

This brief missive came about from indirectly observing the argument of… we’ll say a friend of a friend, on Facebook. This individual was discussing morality, specifically the need for morality to be centered around religious tenets. Between his initial post, and a comment concurring with him, the gist seemed to be that without the structure of religious belief, and in particular, the fear of holy wrath, there was little to stop humanity from dissolving into mindless anarchy.

This is hardly a unique perspective, and it’s particularly prevalent among those with a religious background.

This initial Facebook discussion inspired me to dive down the internet rabbit hole… first of discussions for the need of religion to govern morality. Then I refreshed my memory of the history of secular morality, and typed up a quick response to the Facebook thread. After some consideration, I decided not to dive into the thread, but I thought what I wrote could be a decent primer for those who believe that a higher power is needed for human morality. This was written as a response to a conversation, so forgive the occasional lapses in the second person.

I will also note this is a HUGE topic, and this little rant barely scratches the surface. So if any reader would like more depth, please click on some of the links I added, and feel free to dive down the rabbit hole, too.

Anyway, here goes my response to the argument “religion is necessary for morality:”


Part of the problem is that your mental framework is still built around the concept that morality is a set of absolute rules enforced by a higher power. Without being able to even consider alternatives, you’re limiting yourselves. Instead of starting from a more open and flexible position, you’re opening the discussion with the assumption that the religious point of view is the right one, and you need evidence to change your mind. The thing is, that evidence already exists, and has existed just as long as religious justifications for morality. You just need to do the reading.

There is a massive trove of literature on secular morality, much of it dating to well before Christianity, and even before Judaism. Ancient thinkers and philosophers in the East have pondered morality without any sort of deity for millennia. Even Greek and Roman philosophers have covered this topic. Plato and Socrates both had good stuff to say on the concept of secular morality. Socrates’ (as written by Plato) Euthyphro dilemma takes a stab at inquiring as to what makes commands by god inherently good. Even today, the Euthyphro dilemma vexes religious scholars. Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil philosopher, wrote on ethics at least a century before Christ. His works were entirely secular, and never assumed any sort of deity as the backbone of his ethics. That framework of requiring a boss to lay the ground rules simply wasn’t there. Chinese philosopher Mozi discussed an early form of consequentialism (more on that later) 400 years before Christ – and no gods to speak of were involved.

Secular morality has a long and rich history, as I’ve already shown. One of the more straightforward concepts of secular morality can be explained via consequentialism, which is itself derived from utilitarianism. There are plenty of other schools of thought regarding secular morality, but if one has a handle on consequentialism, then that provides a decent starting point. As Peter Singer has described, consequentialists don’t start with the rules themselves, already handed down by god. Instead, they start with goals. What do we want to be happy, healthy, and productive? What actions will we require to live good lives? And from there, we work backward. Killing each other, robbing, raping, lying, committing fraud – none of these acts make for peaceful or productive communities, much less peaceful or productive individuals. We’ve known this since we’ve had communities. We’ve known this since before we developed writing. There is even some paleontological evidence that our hominid ancestors figured this out, even if they couldn’t articulate it. No gods needed here.

What a consequentialist is concerned with is the outcome. They ask, what behavior produces the best outcomes? Stone tablets and fear of eternal damnation aren’t as important as not wanting to live in anarchy. Eventually, this concept leads to community rules, which leads to ever-evolving ideas of laws and governance. That’s the structure you guys feel you need. Laws created by humans, for humans. Considering there is no evidence for an actual magic sky daddy, it’s reasonable to argue that god-enforced laws are just as man-made as any secular government.

And of course, as noted earlier, consequentialism is just one aspect to secular morality. But that’s partly my point. Morality without god is still vast in scope. Maybe larger than morality with god, since it isn’t constrained by rigid doctrines.

Meanwhile, adherents to religious morality – always in fear of the potential anarchy of secularism – don’t have a great historical track record themselves. Do I really need to go over the enormous number of atrocities committed in the name of enforcing one group’s notions of religious morality? Is Socrates or Jeremy Bentham really more of a killer than Richard the Lionheart or Hernan Cortez?

Indeed, it can be argued that religious morality requires a rather extreme form of coercion to work. Demanding obedience in fear of endless suffering is just as authoritarian as the worst dictatorships. Indeed, many supposedly secular tyrannies have used religion as justification for the misery they beset on their fellow humans. It could be argued that concentrating on the real-world results of one’s actions produces better outcomes in the here and now.

Bernard Williams (despite his criticism of both utilitarianism and consequentialism, his thoughts are still valuable here) discussed the need for a divine framework for morality thusly, “Either one’s motives for following the moral word of God are moral motives, or they are not. If they are, then one is already equipped with moral motivations, and the introduction of God adds nothing extra. But if they are not moral motives, then they will be motives of such a kind that they cannot appropriately motivate morality at all … we reach the conclusion that any appeal to God in this connection either adds to nothing at all, or it adds the wrong sort of thing.”

It frightens me to think there are potentially billions of people who believe the only thing preventing civilization from dissolving into something out of George Miller’s nightmares is a potentially imaginary religious fantasy. Is that really what one needs to keep from murdering and looting? Is that the “solid framework” morality is built on?

The devil is in the details, but your point of view requires the devil to provide those details.

Your position assumes one of two things –

  1. There is definitely a god of some kind, and your particular interpretation of its edicts includes all the necessary values needed to live a good life now.
  2. Or, you don’t really know or care if there is a god, but you believe humanity is too simple and savage to be able to handle moral lessons without fear of divine punishment.

Now, I shouldn’t have to tell you what’s wrong with both assumptions, but because I likely still need to do so;

Number 1 assumes that an inherently unprovable assertion is fact, without the necessary evidence to back it up. Number 2 is cynical and easily disproven, as I have done in the preceding paragraphs. It assumes the world is becoming a more dangerous and chaotic place as it becomes more secular, despite the fact that the contrary is true.

I have some homework for you. So you have a better understanding of what you’re discussing here, please check out some of the works from the following writers:

For overviews of utilitarianism, start with some of those who inspired utilitarian thought. Let’s go back to Epicurus, then jump forward to David Hume and William Godwin. Then for the origins of utilitarianism itself, check out Jeremy Bentham, first and foremost. Then take a look at works by John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Elizabeth AnscombeR. M. Hare and Peter Singer.

After that, for secular morality of a different order, you can delve into works by the aforementioned Bernard Williams, Julian Baggini, and Greg Epstein. Sam Harris is problematic, but his 2010 work The Moral Landscape, might be one of the best modern arguments for secular morality, and can be largely compartmentalized from some of his major flaws.

And for an idea what is actually happening to the world in regard to human progress over the last few decades and centuries, there are three books I like to recommend:

Atrocitology by Matthew White

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook.

None of these works are philosophical in nature, but instead discuss the recent history of human civilization, and note the (admittedly slow and inconsistent) bias toward progress and higher standards of living for all of humanity.

Please do some research, and make sure you have an idea of the history behind a topic before discussing it with the assumption of authority. I myself am a dilettante in the area of philosophical morality, being self-taught, with no formal education. But it’s important to me to understand how the world works, and how societies function, so I still seek out that education, albeit in informal ways. I really know you guys can do the same, and I encourage you to do so. I can lend you some of the works I listed above, and can give you titles to check out for some of those I don’t have. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.


There’s much more to morality. So much more, what I wrote wouldn’t even amount to a decent introduction to any serious work of philosophy or ethics. Nonetheless, I would like people to consider that religion may not be the best starting point for morality. At least, it’s not the only one.

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A Skewed Perspective

When we look at another person of approximately equal height, we often perceive them to be a bit taller than we are. We’re often looking at their height as peaking at the top of their head, and our eyes will be a few inches shorter than this. So, we’re still looking up at them, especially if we find ourselves comparing them to us. It creates a perception of inequality, even when none exists.

Humans are talented…

…at tricking ourselves. We can convince ourselves of things that aren’t true, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

A similar phenomenon exists with a lot of white people, especially (but not exclusively) straight white cis men.

Imagine a footrace across an American football field. As a straight white cis male, I’m already at the 5 yard line, getting close to the end zone. The end zone can represent… really, anything culturally positive. Financial success, comfort, happiness, political power, influence, you name it. And I’m already pretty close. The only reason I’m not already there was because I wasn’t born into wealth.

I started at the 10 yardline, and thus far, I’ve only moved five yards. I look back and see genuine progress by people who don’t look like me. That black guy made it 40 yards in the same time I ran 5. What the hell? It’s uneven! From my perspective, I’ve barely moved, whereas there are all these programs, all these movements to help out those guys back there. And they’ve moved so much farther than I have!

Of course, with that perspective, I lost sight of the fact that I started at the ten yard line, and he started way back behind midfield. A century ago, his great grandfather wasn’t even allowed to leave the other end zone.

White people, I’m not telling you this to attack you. I’m saying you should be aware of the fact that you started out way ahead. Other people making progress, and wanting to fight for more, isn’t an attack on you. It’s not a way to beat you or to bring you down. It’s simply them trying to reach the same level of opportunity, to get the same shot at that end zone.

There’s a competition fallacy many have, even if they may arrive at it unconsciously. It stems, in part, from primitive tribalism. If another group is succeeding,  we often believe that success is in spite of us, or even directly harming us.

This is a harmful and outmoded viewpoint. We create a better world when we have a vested interest in everyone succeeding. I would much rather stand in the end zone with everyone than get there first and block it off when I arrive. Social imbalance is good for nobody.

When a protest turns violent, far too many people (who look like me) will accuse the people who protested of doing something wrong. We accuse them of wanting too much, or pushing superiority. Without having experienced the same kind of day-to-day struggle that people of color, LGBT people, and women face, privileged white guys like me end up feeling under attack.

I get it.

It’s easy to feel like its personal.

The thing is, my fellow white guys – it’s almost never personal. I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. When people who have historically struggled in our society say that something is wrong – don’t dismiss it. Don’t argue, don’t act as though the complaint is about you. Just listen. Don’t try to pick at flaws or errors. Don’t change the subject. Did a window get broken, or someone get arrested? Maybe. But concentrating on that is an easy way to ignore the reason for the altercation in the first place.

The fact that straight white men feel this pressure is both proof that there are societal imbalances biased in our favor, and also proof that people are trying to do something about it. But it’s cool. We can be allies. We can acknowledge that we’re much closer to the end zone, and we were born that way.

That even goes for those of us who are financially depressed. A poor white guy is still less likely to be treated with suspicion by a cop than a rich black person. There are things that I can get away with that a person of color cannot, even if that person is in better financial shape than me.

I address my fellow straight white cis men quite often. Because we are the ones with all the advantages, even now. We run most of the corporations, and control most of the government. And yet, we are the ones who are often the most in denial about our advantages. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years debunking cherry picked crime stats and explaining how the United States, even post-slavery and post-Jim Crow, manages to make life harder for everyone who isn’t a straight white cis man. And when I do, I’m almost always arguing with another white man. It’s always someone who doesn’t know the struggle, and isn’t interesting in trying to learn about it.

The problem lies with us white dudes, and the society we put together 200 plus years ago. We designed it for ourselves. Even centuries later, with greater awareness of our initial inequality, there is still reflexive resistance to getting everyone else pulled up to social, economic, and political parity. Don’t believe me? Look at the White House. Yeah, there have been a million competing thinkpieces arguing for and against the role racism played in Trumps’ election. It certainly wasn’t the only reason. But a reflexive white backlash against the idea of increased diversity under President Obama WAS definitely a contributing factor.

White people, I’ve asked this of you before, and I need to do so again…

Don’t always trust your gut. Don’t look only at the surface and react to it. You see people of color have made progress? You see marriage equality become the law of the land? You see transgender people become more ubiquitous in our popular culture? Yeah, you see all of that. And you assume that means the struggle is over, or at least that it’s wrapping up. Well, that’s because we have a bias to see things from our own perspective, and not think about what the world looks like from the eyes of another tribe. That made sense when we were competing with the other cave for the next woolly mammoth. But we humans now number 7.5 BILLION. We are on every continent, and we are losing resources and room quickly. We have no choice but to drop the tribalism. Our perspective of others is skewed, and we have to start learning how to change that perspective.

Equality isn’t competition. However, equality does require those who have long been in the lead to slow down, and either help make the race even, or stop racing altogether.

Black Lives Matter is a great example of this. I saw a poll recently showing only 14% of white Americans held a favorable view of the BLM movement. That means a huge percentage of white people distrust the idea that black lives matter. Or they believe it to represent something different. Meanwhile, these black lives are literally struggling to prove their value to white Americans. And they shouldn’t have to. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that White Lives don’t. It means that white people have been ignoring or even actively hurting black lives, and black people are fed up with it. Who could blame them for that?

White people, please just shut up and listen for a change. Understand that by fighting against equality, and being defensive about your privilege, only leads to more struggle, more instability, and more demagogues stoking fear and hatred. We fall for con men, and then when they steal off with our money, wreck our environment, and destabilize our government, we blame everyone else, except ourselves.

I’m not perfect. I have biases and kneejerk reactions, too. But I’m doing my best to remember where I started. And I try to remember that I’m not going to improve my life if I ignore the struggles of others.

Others have said this stuff better. If you get a chance, take a look at this piece by Jason Pargin (writing under the name David Wong). He’s also addressing white people who may not be all-out racists, but have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s perspective. It’s a good article.

And think about my admittedly strained metaphor. We may all be racing to the same end zone, but white people, especially straight white men, have had a much easier run. It’s about time we use our advantages to actually help get everyone else to the end zone.

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Not quite like rain on your wedding day…

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I’ve been on a bit of a posting hiatus lately. The day job has been busy, and my attention has been scattered. But I’ve gradually been piecing together drafts for posts, and will likely start posting regularly again soon. Hopefully on the boxing blog, too.

In the meantime, the world is giving me plenty to write about. Donald Trump, the man who keeps trying to break the concept of irony, just launched 59 irony bombs at an airfield in Syria. I want to talk about this, at least enough to figure out how it to pertains to Alanis Morissette.

Okay, first of all, let me first work out a timeline. I’m trying to get this mess straight here, so bear with me a moment…

  • In 2013, President Obama argued that military force was justified in response to chemical weapons being used on civilians in Syria.

  • Then-private citizen Donald Trump repeatedly argued (mostly through Twitter) that this was a bad idea, and demanded that Obama receive authorization from Congress.

  • Obama eventually agreed, and sought that authorization.

  • Congress refused. While there certainly has been US sponsored military action in Syria, the type of strikes Obama was requesting did not occur.

  • Over the next few years, multiple Republicans would use the eventual lack of action to take political jabs at Obama despite their own refusal to authorize action in the first place.

  • 2016 – Donald Trump campaigned (in part) on non-interventionist (and even quasi-isolationist) rhetoric. He lied repeatedly about “always opposing” the Iraq war, and frequently argued the US should avoid military entanglements in the Middle East.

  • He also campaigned on limiting immigration, especially refugees from places like Syria.

  • January 2017 – Trump scraped out a narrow Electoral College win despite losing the popular vote bigly. His administration was far too disjointed to attempt to push meaningful legislation or even effective executive orders. That is, with the exception of a sloppily executed order to ban immigration from 7 Muslim-majority countries. In particular, Syrian refugees were blocked from entering the US. Well, at least he was being consistent. He wouldn’t go into Syria, but he would also keep Syrians from seeking shelter here, in the name of security. Of course, this ignored the fact that refugees are safer to US citizens than bees, dogs, lightning, and even furniture. But I digress. The courts struck down his order, and its lightly-modified sequel.

  • April 2017 – More chemical weapons kill more civilians in Syria. With a disorganized government, collapsing approval ratings, and nonstop political losses at home, Donald Trump orders a missile barrage on a largely empty Syrian military base. His justification – atrocities committed against the civilians that he refused to help in the first place.

Okay… that’s the timeline as I figure it off the top of my head.

Let this sink in. Especially the events from this week. Donald Trump used dishonest and bigoted arguments to justify barring Syrian refugees. He argued they were potentially dangerous, and even invented fictional terror attacks to help prop up his argument.

And then, when everything seemed to be going downhill for Donald Trump, he wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on what amounts to really expensive fireworks in order to “help” Syrian civilians… you know, future refugees.

Finally, in one last bit of depressing hypocrisy, he blames Obama for the current situation in Syria… that is, despite screaming against such an action four years ago. If I wanted to be charitable, I could use a different word. Instead of hypocritical, I could call it ironic. Still depressing, but definitely ironic. As we know, Alanis didn’t use the word quite right. Rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic as much as just being unfortunate. However, the man who railed at President Obama for being too aggressive with Syria just took irony and blew it up with Tomahawk missiles. When he insisted Obama get Congressional approval for military action… but then ignored Congress for his own attack, he kicked irony right in the junk.

He’s not just the amalgamation of an avaricious walrus and your creepy uncle, he’s also the real subject of Jagged Little Pill’s catchiest song.

Okay. Deep breath.

Jokes about irony are how I keep from running screaming into the night. How I really feel is… well, less amused at irony abuse, and more… enraged. Seriously. This is more than just a political issue, or an issue of hypocrisy or irony. This is a moral issue.

If Trump actually cared about Syrian victims of Assad and ISIS, he would open our doors to those victims, not lob Tomahawks and then blame his predecessor for not doing the same. If those “beautiful children” mattered to Trump, he wouldn’t waste time and money burning down Syrian rubble. He’d give those kids food and shelter in a place that can handle them. Like say… here.

There is no moral justification for this. It’s entirely a cynical, political distraction. Trump has had a lousy run lately, and it seems convenient that he jumps on a single (admittedly awful) atrocity to fire weapons of war at an empty airstrip. And the “liberal media” is doing their part, scrambling over themselves to praise Trump. Nothing feels “presidential” like a few volleys of cruise missiles and a pithy speech about noble humanitarianism.

Meanwhile, his own party is doing their damnedest to prevent meaningful investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with a hostile foreign power (in an attempt to undermine American democracy). But that doesn’t matter now, because chemicals and Syria and whatnot.

So, irony is dead, or at least beaten to a pulp. Hypocrisy is at embarrassing levels. And the United States government is determined to spit in the eye of morality by turning their backs on those in need, and telling us all to look at the shiny explosions instead. And the gas attacks will continue, and refugees will remain stuck in limbo.

Posted in foreign policy, Governance, History, immigration, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

One down, 207 to go…

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for one week now.

Just typing that feels strange. Like a different reality.

I’ve been re-watching episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine lately, and I’ve recently gotten to one of the “Mirror Universe” episodes that peppered the series. Following up on a classic Original Series episode, our heroes find themselves transported to a twisted version of their own timeline, where the political and military balance of power has shifted, and by the DS9 era, humans are all scrappy rebels, and pretty much every mirror version of the main characters are … well, jerks. It’s entertaining enough (although each subsequent foray into that universe diminished in quality), but also clearly meant to be something of a nightmare world.

All this week, a small part of me is hoping I’ll figure out how to reverse the transporter accident that dragged us into this bizarre hellscape, and return to boring reality.

But anyway, enough of my flights of nerdy solipsism. This is real life, unfortunately. And since we can’t fix this problem using phasers or technobabble, I’m forced to use the most powerful weapon at my disposal.

Information.

Facts matter, even while the new leadership is working overtime to pretend otherwise.

Impeachment may or may not be possible. Unless a bombshell hits, proving Trump’s collusion with the Russian government, it will likely be near impossible to get Republicans to join in on impeachment before the midterms. So for now, we need to assume we have 207 more weeks with this guy in the White House.

And while we as citizens may not ever be able to force him to be honest, we can at least observe and record every terrible decision, every sickening lie. We can make sure that we understand what is happening to our country. Maybe it could eventually be used to kick Trump out of office early. Maybe we’ll have to suffer for three years and fifty one more weeks.

Whatever happens, we can make sure we have a record of everything Trump says and does. I probably won’t do this every single week, but expect regular updates of the new President’s actions. It’s important to have documentation.

I have an extensive list of major reasons why he shouldn’t have been elected in the first place, and have devoted plenty of writing to his absurd and dangerous cabinet appointments, his anti-establishment hypocrisy, as well as his constant lies about voter fraud.

I will include this piece in the “Elected yet unelectable” category, though the sheer scope of his flaws and failings will make it different in format from my other “Unelectable” articles. More of a continuing adventure than a one-off piece.

So, with that lengthy (and meandering) preface complete, let’s talk about Trump’s first week:

Right off the bat, within hours of taking the oath of office (somehow avoiding combustion of Abraham Lincoln’s Bible), Trump suspended a recent Obama executive order reducing insurance premiums on FHA loans. The basic upshot is that low income homeowners will end up paying upwards of $900 more per year on home insurance premiums. Straight out of the gate, Trump’s first significant action is to intentionally hurt low-income homeowners.

Wait, let me backtrack just a little and talk about the speech itself. Other than the rain and the low turnout (more on that later), Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was… well, mercifully short and to the point. But what exactly was that point?

Paranoid fear-mongering is an apt description. Lies about the state of the nation, about the state of the world. It was similar to his RNC speech, except edited for brevity. He told America that they lived in an economically depressed, crime-ridden dystopia, beset on all sides by the spectre of immigration run amok, of terrorism at our doors.

I’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating – none of what Trump says about the state of the nation is true. Quick facts:

  • Trade deals had relatively little to do with the loss of jobs in manufacturing. Automation, technological advancement, and shifting economic priorities take most of the credit/blame there.
  • The American economy, by and large, is doing pretty well. There are definitely sluggish aspects and weak points, but employment is quite strong, wages are finally rising again, and the US came through the global recession stronger than pretty much every other advanced nation.
  • The United States is actually near a historic low point for crime. Despite a marginal recent uptick in a handful of urban areas, we now live in arguably the safest era of American history.
  • Net immigration, especially from Mexico, is essentially zero. Immigrants, both legal and otherwise, commit less crime than native-born citizens, and even undocumented workers actually act as a benefit to the economy, not a burden.
  • Terrorism is a real problem, but ISIS itself is gradually declining, and death by Islamic terror ranks quite low on the list of things that harm Americans. Just remember that deer, bees, furniture, stairs, and armed toddlers are all significantly greater threats to American lives.

Meanwhile, after the inauguration, Trump immediately took offense to comparisons of the size of the crowd at the event itself to Obama’s inauguration 8 years prior. Aerial photos on the moment Trump was sworn in seem to show a significantly smaller crowd than what President Obama enjoyed in 2009. Numbers from local transit authorities bear this out as well.

It really shouldn’t be much of an issue. And yet, the Guinness world record holder for thinnest skin seems to be obsessing about it. He actually pressured the US Park Service to release favorable information about the crowd size. His press secretary and notable gum enthusiast, Sean Spicer, devoted a ridiculous amount of time at an early press conference arguing that the obviously scant crowd was the largest in history.

Days later, Spicer, Trump, and Kellyanne Conway were all still arguing about the size of the crowds at the inauguration, despite the twin blows of reality, and most people having long moved on.

Meanwhile, as Trump attempted to distract the world with frivolous issues, he started off his administration in violation of Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the US Constitution – the Emoluments Clause. Basically, by remaining invested and connected with his businesses after taking office, he is accepting “reward,” meaning profit, from foreign interests, as he has many businesses around the world.

It is not completely clear how effective invoking the Clause will be for Trump opponents, but there is certainly reason to think multiple lawsuits will follow the first one.

While Trump is taking advantage of his new position to further enrich himself, he’s also doing his best to make life more difficult for others, including women around the world. On his third full day in office, Trump signed an executive order banning foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from mentioning abortion when counseling women on reproductive health issues. It’s the “global gag rule” pushed by Ronald Reagan in 1984, but now greatly expanded. Under Reagan, it ordered foreign organizations that receive funding from the U.S. for family planning services can’t discuss abortion. Doing so could result in a loss of funding – as of 2016 was about $600 million. Now, that includes any organization that provides any medical services, including AIDS medications, malaria treatment, or anything else. So now nearly $10 billion worth of funding is affected. Since abortion is mentioned by multiple health organizations as a reasonable procedure in certain scenarios, this could lead to an enormous amount of suffering and death. It will also hurt women disproportionately, and likely lead to an increase in back-alley abortions around the world.

Trump also ordered a hiring freeze on the federal workforce. This is not actually totally abnormal for an incoming president. It can take a bit of time to sort out priorities and directions, and pausing everything can be useful. But he also ordered the hiring of 5000 border patrol agents… which would be the opposite of a hiring freeze. So who knows what he actually wants?

What else? Did he do more? Oh yes…

Trump’s first public address after the inauguration was at the CIA headquarters, where he rambled about inauguration crowd size, suggested stealing oil from other countries, proclaimed his distrust of “the media,” and lied about never having a beef with the intelligence community. It was a disastrous event, to say the least.

Trump’s pick to chair the FCC is an opponent of net neutrality. Prepare for a vastly more restrictive internet over the next few years.

How about the environment? Noted climate change denier surrounded himself with a cabinet full of climate change deniers (and a few lukewarm climate changers who won’t be much help). For starters, Trump put every government body with a scientific mandate under a gag order. The EPA, the National Park Service, NASA, and so on. The NPS decided to to directly defy Trump, but the others are all now being represented by private allies with new Twitter accounts. But in the meantime, Trump appears to be preparing for massive changes in science policy, especially regarding environmental regulations. Trump has also decided that all new environmental policies will be required to undergo Congressional review to ensure they fit the political preferences of the GOP. Protecting clean air and water is out. Providing false information about the cleanliness of coal is in. Working to reduce carbon emissions will be a thing of the past. Withdrawing from the Paris accord seems likely. The potential environmental damage caused by Trump policies may take decades to reverse.

Trump also dealt another blow to both environmental concerns and civil liberties, when he decided to restart the DAPL, and reopen the Keystone XL pipeline.

But while we deal with that, back in Washington, the US Supreme Court will soon get a new conservative justice. Trump has apparently narrowed his choices down to two right-wing extremists of the Scalia ilk, and a third – William Pryor – who is an outright reactionary bigot. My personal cynicism leads me to think Pryor will be the likely choice, as he is by far the worst option, occupying a spot on the ideological spectrum between Robert Bork and Mussolini.

Throughout the week, Trump has also come back to a pre-inauguration claim that he was the victim of widespread voter fraud. In an election he officially won.

Yeah.

Trump has repeatedly (and falsely) asserted that his 2.9 million vote deficit to Hillary Clinton was entirely due to “illegals voting,” on the order of 3 to 5 million. Of course, he has provided no citations, no evidence. He briefly referenced a 2012 Pew survey that said nothing about voter fraud. It merely discussed issues with states taking time to clean up voter rolls. As people move, die, and re-register elsewhere, irregularities occur which forces states to periodically purge and clean their voter rolls. Multiple investigations have occurred over the years which showed that actual cases of fraud were less common than lightning strikes. It’s a topic I’ve discussed previously on this blog. But Trump recklessly stated that the largest case of voter fraud in world history has occurred –  in an election he won – and every single one of “3-5 million” illegal votes were cast for his opponent. If this were real, it would require pretty much a freeze of all government activities, and an investigation on an unheard-of scale. But of course, that’s not happening, because no such fraud occurred. But Trump gets away with such slander with no more consequence than people like me preaching to the choir.

Trump and his team continued to lie throughout the first week. Trump told a massive falsehood about ACA registration, falsely claiming that estimates of insured people didn’t include those who lost insurance during implementation of the plan. He’s wrong. They do. And the ACA has resulted in a net increase of at least 20 million insured people over the last few years.

Trump continued ranting about voter fraud and crowd sizes throughout the week, even several days after the inauguration. By the way, it turns out much of Trump’s family, and many on his staff are registered to vote in two states.

Trump lied about people being killed during President Obama’s farewell address.

His chief of staff, Steve Bannon, lambasted the media for… well, basically just reporting on the new president’s actions. Sean Spicer declared the media as “the opposition party.” Kellyanne Conway mostly just rambles and changes the subject.

Further hypocrisy happened when it was revealed that multiple people within Trump’s staff have been using private email accounts. You know, the one topic that hurt Trump’s election opponent more than anything else. The topic that Trump ranted about at almost every opportunity for months. Yep, he did it too. Trump also turns out to be tweeting from an unsecured Android phone.

Trump pledged to cut all government funding of the arts. The NEA andthe Corporation for Public Broadcasting are on the chopping block. PBS gets 15 percent of its funding from the government, and NPR 2 percent, so while both will be affected, neither should be wrecked.

Supposedly, Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. While not a big deal in the same way as some of the others listed here, it is amusingly (and sadly) appropriate. Jackson was one of the most bloodthirsty presidents in American history (and there have been plenty of those), was fiercely nationalistic, ran on a populist platform, happily owned slaves, fought multiple duels, and badly mismanaged the economy. Really does make sense.

Trump officially authorized construction of his southern border wall, claiming that he would pay for it with tariffs, then drastically underselling the likely cost of the project.

Trump continued to make a case for bringing back torture and reopening black sites, despite condemnation from many in Congress, and even disagreement from his new Secretary of Defense.

While all this nonsense occurred, something bigger happened. Proving irony to be long dead and buried, Donald Trump officially ordered his promised “Muslim ban” on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Seriously.

The actual details of the ban are scaled back slightly from his original campaign rhetoric, but are still extensive. Trump officially ordered a ban on Muslims from 7 countries: Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Sudan. All of which are majority Muslim. And none of which were the birthplaces of anybody who has successfully carried out a terrorist attack on American soil in decades. The countries he didn’t include in the ban? Countries like Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, the UAE, Lebanon, and Russia. All of which contain people who have killed Americans in the name of terror. It should also be noted that most of those countries spared banning contain Trump business interests.

The ban doesn’t just include new immigration. It also includes existing legal visitors and residents with valid green cards. And it includes refugees. Yes, including the millions still stuck in Syria, and somewhere in between here and there, fleeing the worst catastrophe of the last few decades. Trump has happily shut them out, incoherently ranting about the need for “extreme vetting,” not understanding just how lengthy and extensive the current vetting process is for refugees.

Among the refugees that Trump has stated he will accept – the priority will go to Christian refugees, in blatant defiance of the US Constitution.

As a further attack on immigrants, Trump vowed to shame sanctuary cities by compiling and releasing a database of crimes specifically committed by immigrants.

So, to summarize – in just a week, Donald Trump has lied about what would be record-breaking voter fraud, lied about his own popularity, ordered a shutdown on information from science organizations, banned Muslims from seven countries that aren’t threats to the US, stepped all over the establishment clause of the constitution, makes profit on from foreign investment, celebrates Manifest Destiny, pledged to strip 20-30 million Americans of their healthcare, while claiming he was doing the opposite, ordered construction on a massive “bridge to nowhere” style infrastructure project that will fail to prevent illegal immigration, but will likely damage the local environment and economy.

Whew!

Well, at least he’s keeping busy.

In all seriousness, this has been a spectacularly scary start to a new administration that appears to actively want to harm Americans. This is going to be a rough ride, everyone. As long as we remain vigilant, we should endure. But that vigilance is going to be required of pretty much everyone. Don’t get complacent, don’t get comfortable. Because we can’t afford to let Trump get comfortable.

As always, much of what I wrote has been summarized better. Check out some of the links below:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/27/fact-check-president-trump-first-week-job/97147802/

https://newrepublic.com/article/140175/just-happened-review-president-trumps-first-week

https://nytimes.com/2017/01/20/opinion/what-president-trump-doesnt-get-about-america.html

http://www.vox.com/2017/1/21/14347812/trump-press-briefing-sean-spicer

http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-us-russia-20170123-story.html

http://www.vox.com/2017/1/24/14371256/trump-freeze-epa-grants

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38734450

http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/315974-trump-expected-to-take-executive-action-on-immigration-in-the-coming

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/25/14390106/leaked-drafts-trump-immigrants-executive-order

http://www.npr.org/2017/01/25/511469982/hiring-freeze-and-obamacare-repeal-could-clobber-veterans-affairs

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2017/01/25/trump_issues_gag_orders_on_science_agencies.html

http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/trump-science-epa-review

http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/1/25/14370712/trump-science-gagging-explained

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/01/25/today_in_trump_s_america_was_the_worst_day_yet.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/the-doomsday-clocks-new-and-dire-warning/514544/?utm_source=atlfb

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/26/14392530/trump-executive-orders-leaked-aides-immigration-torture-wall-black-site-deportation

Posted in Budgets, Civil Rights, Economics, Elected yet unelectable, foreign policy, Governance, Healthcare, immigration, Infrastructure, Politics, Science, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yes, climate change is real

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The Larsen B ice shelf on March 7, 2002, after it shattered into thousands of smaller icebergs. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Myths and Misconceptions – Part 1

I recently wrote about the perils of politicizing science. It’s legitimately harmful for accepted scientific principles to be treated as hoaxes due to political, religious, or business reasons. In a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, willful ignorance of basic scientific concepts is problematic for individual citizens. For elected “leaders,” it’s downright hazardous.

So, in the spirit of pushing back against intentional ignorance, I will start the first of what will likely be many posts related to explaining and correcting bad information that far too many people believe. The first of these pernicious myths that crop up in our world is the notion that climate change is a hoax.

A majority of Americans agree with the premise that human industry and agriculture is leading to warming of the atmosphere and oceans of our planet. The science behind this is well established, and has been understood for decades now.

The websites for NASA, NOAA, the EPA, and the Union of Concerned Scientists all have significant information documenting the evidence for human-caused climate change.

Scientific American, National Geographic, New Scientist, Skeptical Science, and the Royal Society have all devoted pages of information to explaining why global warming is real and a serious threat to our future. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame has discussed the topic on multiple occasions.

If you’re skeptical about human-caused climate change, I highly suggest you check out the links I provided. All of them provide real information from real climate experts. They represent a wide array of beliefs, ideologies, and experiences. They aren’t all politically-motivated, but they all are motivated by facts and evidence.

But if simply providing links to climate experts is not enough, let’s actually talk about this. I’m going provide a brief primer on the evidence for anthropogenic climate change.

First of all, what evidence do we have that the planet is warming?

Simply put, we take the Earth’s temperature. Air and ocean temperature has been reliably recorded by scientists from multiple countries since late in the 19th century (good records date back to 1880), and more extensively since 1950 or so. The immediate trends of the last 150 years are easy to see. Going back farther takes a bit more digging. There are plenty of historical documents available, discussing climate and weather patterns in different parts of the world, going back several thousand years. Europeans of the Renaissance and back into the Middle Ages, Muslim scientists toward the end of the prior millennium, Viking explorers, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans, the Chinese, and so on, have all documented their climate. Much information can be gleaned from ancient texts. Beyond human civilization, many of the trends of climate on Earth can be found in other ways. Looking at ice cores pulled from glaciers and ice sheets is a good way to read the record of ancient climate. Tree rings, erosion of rock layers, and the location of glaciers all tell part of the story. There is plenty of evidence that the Earth’s temperature, both globally and at more local levels, has fluctuated greatly over the years. It’s certain that more rapid changes in global temperature have been recorded during human civilization. The immediate effects provide proof of warming, even beyond temperature readings. Sea levels and damage to polar ice are clear signs. Webcomic XKCD provides a wonderful chart explaining the trends of temperatures on Earth for the past 22,000 years. The next step is differentiating between natural fluctuations and mad-made change, which leads us to…

How do we know people are the cause?

There are a few ways we can tell. First of all, the timing of the temperature increase coincides clearly with the increase in carbon output by human industry, transportation, and agriculture. The type of carbon in the atmosphere also corresponds with human-caused emissions, compared with natural occurrences (such as volcanoes and forest fires).

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We have a good idea of the human footprint on the planet’s atmosphere. We know pretty conclusively that increases in global temperature have been concurrent with the massive surge in atmospheric and oceanic carbon of the 20th century. There have been thousands of scientists, research projects, papers, and studies all driving toward the simple fact that humanity is causing the temperature of the planet to rise.

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Good information on evidence for human-caused climate change can be found here, here, here, and here.

Oh yes, and we should remember that 2012 was the warmest year on record. Until 2014 was. And then 2015 took that crown. But wait, it looks like 2016 may have been the warmest year in recorded history. The ten hottest years have all occurred since 1998, with the records themselves going back to 1880, when human industry was still a tiny fraction of what it would be 70 years later, much less today.

Okay, so people are causing the Earth to warm up? What’s the worst that could happen?

Where do we start? First of all, we already have seen see levels rising, thanks to major sheets of ice in Greenland and Antarctica melting. As the oceans continue to rise, coastal communities will be imperiled. Some are contained enough (and wealthy enough) to likely survive, albeit at tremendous cost. I could envision New York, Sydney, or Hong Kong spending the money to build sufficient barriers, levies, and retaining walls to keep the ocean at bay. Some cities, like New Orleans or Manila, might be in bigger trouble. Miami would have to become an artificial island in order to survive.

Beyond the levels of the ocean, another effect would involve increased acidity. That change to the oceanic PH balance would have devastating consequences on marine life.

Speaking of animals: the rate of extinctions – already increasing due to humanity – would increase even faster with further warming. Many animals require a fairly limited range of temperatures for survival. Warming trends would force migrations, changes in diet, and often mass death.

Meanwhile, temperature increases would lead to great instability in local weather. Droughts would grow longer, and floods would become more intense. Disease would spread more easily, as tropical weather expands further from the equator, bringing insects with it. Ground level ozone increases also help to hold more particulate matter in the air. So the improvements we’ve seen in air pollution – especially in American cities – would be short-lived.

Some crops would do better in the short run, others would do worse, as growing seasons would lengthen. But the increased risk of drought would imperil any potential improvements.

Some of the longer-term projections are trickier to work out. But it isn’t tough to extrapolate from the current effects of the warming we see now. Plus, there is enough evidence of life on a warmer Earth thanks to the fossil record, and our knowledge of extinct species and past epochs.

I have provided some good information about the likely impact of global warming on human civilization here:

https://www.nrdc.org/stories/are-effects-global-warming-really-bad

http://www.livescience.com/37057-global-warming-effects.html

http://education.seattlepi.com/long-shortterm-effects-global-warming-5666.html

http://climate.nasa.gov/effects/

https://www2.usgs.gov/faq/categories/9772/5641

Didn’t some scientists claim that the Earth was actually cooling, not warming? What happened with that?

This comes up in some right-leaning opinion pieces. “Didn’t everyone in the ’70s used to worry about global cooling? Can we trust the science now?”

Beyond the obvious fallacy in assuming that changes in scientific consensus invalidates that science… it’s also not really true. Even in the 1970s, most papers discussing climate change were more concerned with warming than cooling. This whole myth stems from one article published in Newsweek in 1975. The author of the piece, who was a good science writer, later rescinded much of what he wrote. He wrote a new piece in 2014 acknowledging his errors, and expressed support for the current accepted science. The horse continues to be beaten to death by conservative pundits today, despite stemming from one guy who later admitted he was wrong.

What about Climategate?

In November 2009, several thousand e-mails from the University of East Anglica in the UK were illegally stolen and leaked. The resulting furor was an entirely manufactured controversy, caused by multiple statements taken completely out of context, and a lack of understanding of scientific processes and debates. Almost every single “gotcha” e-mail that was released and turned into “proof” against  the scientific consensus was contrived BS. RationalWiki does a good job discussing some of those individual statements here.

It’s cold today. So much for global warming.

Every winter, somebody tries this one. James Inhofe famously brought a snowball into the US Capitol Building to disprove climate change.

This one is almost too simple to bother with, except almost every denier uses this argument. So, I’ll make this refutation quick.

Climate and weather are two different things. Weather is what is happening locally. Climate is the regional and global trend of all the local weather. When we discuss global warming, we speak of the overall warming of the entire planet. However, while even just a couple degree temperature increase can have devastating effects – local weather will remain highly variable. In fact, as the overall temperature rises, local weather patterns can become more extreme – and that includes winter storms and cold snaps. Yes, Inhofe’s snowball may have been an indirect result of global warming. And a direct result of him being an idiot and a corrupt pawn of the fossil fuel industry.

Ted Cruz says there’s been a lull in the warming trend for 15 years.

So do several other people who aren’t scientists. Guess what? They’re wrong. Even back in 2013, when that claim was first making the rounds, it was demonstrably incorrect. Much of it involved a misunderstanding of global trends combined with the natural rollercoaster-like cycles of warming and cooling that occur within those larger trends. Phil Plait did a lot of good work debunking the lies perpetuated by science deniers in Congress and the media.

After 2013, more data continued to pour in, further destroying claims of a global warming “pause.”

Then, in the last month, new research was released, which explained how some temperature data required recalibration. This shift actually showed even greater warming than before, further disproving the likes of Ted Cruz and James Inhofe.

Some other year was the “warmest on record.

Nah. These are simply more examples of cherry-picking data in pursuit of continued obfuscation. The 1934 claim in particular involved temperatures only in the United States, not worldwide.

Okay, so if all this is true, what do we do now?

Well, let’s make sure not to vote for the American Presidential candidate who denies the facts of climate change and seeks to increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Oh, whoops. Damn. Nevermind, then.

Okay, what now? Well, at least in the long run (since current American policy is going to be backsliding soon), we need to cut our carbon emissions. By a lot. We will need to eat less meat. We will need to stop using coal for power. We will need to get rid of gasoline-burning engines. We will need much stricter emissions standards in every nation on Earth.

On a personal scale, there are several good guides providing ideas for what individuals can do to help reduce our own footprint.

We have to do more than yell at elected officials (although that is important). We need to take responsibility for our own lives and our own output. One person alone won’t make a big dent in the problem. But millions? That will definitely help.

Why do people deny this? What do they have to gain?

I talked about this a couple years ago. Quite a few lawmakers receive substantial contributions from companies that directly contribute to global warming. In many cases, they’re simply scratching the back that funds them.

There are also other motivations for politicizing science. Outright science denial is often seen as a badge of ideological purity. Sadly for human progress, many political figures receive extra credit from their political base when they oppose EVERYTHING the other side opposes, even when it’s opposing facts and logic. Sometimes religious extremism also comes into play, although that usually leads to opposing sex education, genetic research, and biological evolution, more than climate change denial.

Smarter people than I have covered this topic with more depth and wit than I have here. I have included a few additional links at the bottom for more information from those smarter people.

With my effort here, I primarily just want to provide a guide to those who may be on the fence, tools for those who want to learn more, and ammunition to those who relish the debate.

Anthropogenic climate change is a fact. As much as any area of scientific study can be. It’s happening, it’s real, we know why it’s happening, and we know the basics of stopping it. Unfortunately, there are many who are still fighting on the wrong side of this issue. It will take a concerted effort from all of humanity. But for that to happen, we all need to be informed of the facts.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2016/01/13/new_study_disproves_another_climate_change_denier_claim.html

https://www.skepticalscience.com/empirical-evidence-for-global-warming.htm

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/seven-answers-to-climate-contrarian-nonsense/

https://www.epa.gov/climatechange/climate-change-basic-information

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Global_warming

Posted in Myths and misconceptions, Politics, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Raiding the henhouse

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Foto: Jonn Leffmann

Two years ago, I discussed the appointment of various climate change deniers to posts as heads of Senate committees in charge of science-based institutions. Those institutions are tasked with addressing (among other things) climate change. That was a perfect example of “foxes guarding the henhouse.” But at least the Obama Administration was able to keep a check on the amount of damage those individuals could cause. Now that Donald Trump is running the executive branch, the foxes are no longer bothering with the pretense of guarding the hens. They’re just rushing in for lunch.

Trump has decided that he is going to surround himself with people who – like himself – have minimal knowledge of the organization they are tasked with running. Many of these people believe the organization itself should not exist, and will likely run it in such a way as to delegitimize it. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around the possible effects of many of Trump’s appointments. Not every single appointment has been entirely terrible. But many raise multiple red flags for those who would like to see a working government serving the interests of American citizens.

It’s already bad enough that the new president-elect was actively aided in his election efforts by a hostile foreign power (with which he has done quite a bit of business). But now he has nominated the following rogues gallery to serve as his primary officials and advisors:

Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Tillerson is lukewarm at best on climate change, and has deep ties with the nation that intentionally broke international laws and compromised American sovereignty to help elect his new boss. He’s a businessman with no government experience.

Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Sessions is an actual, confirmed racist with a long history of suppressing minority voters and denying jobs to people based on the color of their skin. And he is going to be the head of the US Justice Department. Because that’s what we need more of in America; racist cops.

Steve Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury.  What a shock, no government experience. Mnuchin has a background as a movie producer, and used to work for Goldman Sachs, providing additional irony to a Cabinet already dripping in it. Trump spent much of his campaign railing against the influence of Goldman Sachs on primary and general election opponents alike. Mnuchin was personally enriched by home foreclosures during the worst of the Bush-era housing crisis. He has declared his primary goal to cut taxes for the rich – people like himself.

Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy. Unlike many of the other choices, Perry has government experience. Like the others, however, he has expressed an interest in dismantling the organization he will be leading. In addition, he is painfully unqualified to do the job. His last two predecessors were renowned physicists. Perry is a global warming denier who managed to forget (in a debate) which government departments he wanted to eliminate. Perry may actually be less intellectually curious than his predecessor in the Texas governor’s mansion, which is kind of an impressive accomplishment. It’s frightening though, to have such a person in charge of the American nuclear weapons infrastructure. As a side note, Greg Abbott may be even dumber (not to mention meaner) than Perry. Hopefully Texas can turn this trend around one day.

Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. Rich and inexperienced. The pattern continues. She has demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge of education policy, she wants more religion (Christian only, of course) in public schools, and is an advocate for private and charter schools – at the expense of public education. Oh yeah, and she supports guns in schools to keep bears away.

Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor. Wealthy business owner with no government experience. Against pretty much all regulations on business, against minimum wage laws, and blames government oversight for the last economic crisis. A man who is as anti-labor as possible in charge of helping advance the cause of labor. This will go well.

Tom Price for Health and Human Services. Price has some government experience, but has been a vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and seeks to dismantle it as soon as possible. 20 to 30 million Americans would stand to lose their health insurance if Price gets his way.

Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Okay, now this just looks like a joke. Trump’s appointment of Carson seems to stem from his correlation of “black people equals inner cities” as well as an attempt to demonstrate a lack of racism. Meanwhile, Carson refused to swear that money from HUD wouldn’t go to Trump businesses, he appeared to admit his goal was to help as few people as possible, and of course, he has no knowledge of public policy or even the basics of governance. He previously refused a cabinet position on the grounds of his own inexperience! The actual logic used at one point for this appointment was that Carson once lived in public housing as a child. That’s sort of like me saying I’m qualified to run a car company because I drive a car.

Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce. Sleazy plutocrat with no government experience. He made his fortune from buying and selling off failing businesses. Has profited from the deaths of others. He has no business running any more businesses, much less a governing body.

Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency. This fits the general theme of the incoming cabinet. The future head of the organization tasked with protecting and improving the environment believes the organization shouldn’t exist. He is an outright denier of the fact of man-made global warming, he is a supporter of the coal industry, and he wants to eliminate most regulation on polluters.

Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations. This appointment isn’t quite as obviously egregious as John Bolton’s appointment by George W. Bush. But it is a bit of a head-scratcher, as Haley has no foreign policy experience. It was almost as if Trump just threw a dart at a list of prominent Republicans.

Mike Pompeo as CIA Director. This one is pretty scary. Pompeo is wrong about pretty much everything. He lied about Muslim leaders and clerics, praised American intelligence officials who committed acts of torture, supports bulk data collection, opposed the recent nuclear deal with Iran, and has called for the execution of Edward Snowden. Basically, Pompeo believes that the show 24 is a good model for American intelligence services.

Linda McMahon as Secretary of Small Business Administration. She ran the WWE. And has no government experience. Sigh.

Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist. This appointment will require no Senate confirmation. Bannon is already in and ready to go. So far, he seems to be a good fit. Vaguely racist and anti-Semitic, experienced in media and business, but little knowledge of public policy. I recommend reading Breitbart articles from the last few years to get an idea of where Bannon is coming from. That may be the only time I suggest reading Breitbart, except possibly as a form of masochistic entertainment.

Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. Ultra-aggressive conspiracy theorist and anti-Islamic bigot. Anybody who was hoping for a less-hawkish foreign policy from Trump should be concerned by this appointment.

There are a few other nominations that don’t look quite as bad. Elaine Chao and James Mattis, for example, are downright reasonable selections. At least, by comparison. But they are exceptions to what is otherwise an unprecedented cabinet-to-be.

Ever since the Republican Party had decided (rhetorically) that the biggest problem with governing was government – they have worked diligently at enacting a governing philosophy which may now be reaching its apotheosis in Trumpism. Simply put, government (as opposed to business) is always the worst, most incompetent, most corrupt, and least efficient institution. Naturally, it seems like the idea is to prove that philosophy by governing as poorly, incompetently, corruptly, and inefficiently as possible. Despite this overarching theme of the post-Reagan GOP, there have always been adults in the party who were genuinely interesting in running a (mostly) democratic government. Trump is testing those grown-ups in a way never seen before. Not only is Trump uniquely ignorant of governing, public policy, and even basic civics – but he has chosen to surround himself with like-minded people.

Now that all branches and levels of the US government system are dominated by one party, we will get to see the full effect of an American federal government run by people who want to tear it down. We have wealthy business executives who despise regulation, taxes, and unions. We have foreign-policy advisors contemptuous of international cooperation. We have people soon to be in charge of massive organizations (with budgets in the hundreds of billions) who have no experience in running anything similar. And worst of all, at least six of the aforementioned nominees are hostile to the very mission of their intended assignments. They seek to tear down and/or neutralize departments that are designed to help millions of Americans.

The incoming administration represents a radical departure from the last century of American governance. If you detest the fight against climate change, loathe labor unions, hate racial and gender equality, scorn universal healthcare, dislike consumer protection, benefit from income and wealth inequality, enjoy immigrant scapegoating, and embrace Vladimir Putin – then the Trump Administration may just be for you. For everyone else – this is going to be a long four years.

Posted in foreign policy, Governance, Healthcare, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Politicizing Science

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Now that science denial is coming back into (political) fashion, and indeed, an entire government is going to be built on lies and bad information, I feel like it’s now my duty to combat incorrect information as much as I can. I’m going to start posting frequently on issues where bad information is prevalent. It will be sort of a political myth-busting. The hope is that each piece can be used as a guide to the truth on a particular subject. It may not change many minds, but hopefully will at least help provide an argument for the side of reason.

Many of these pieces will be science-based (although not all of them). Science is a toolset – a framework for understanding the universe. A willingness to absorb and not dismiss new information is paramount. Openness, flexibility, and a thirst for new information are key elements. Trying to squeeze and manipulate a premise around an existing set of beliefs is the opposite of what we want here. Unfortunately, the new administration seems to be leaning away from science, and toward pandering to business interests.

Far too many people distrust science as something nakedly partisan. Indeed, one of the two major American political parties has spent a significant amount of time – especially since the nineties – as the anti-science party. Much effort has been made by Republican public officials, business interests, and media outlets to argue that certain scientific disciplines contain inherent political bias. This attitude now has increased power and influence under Donald Trump.

Writer Chris Mooney has written extensively about this. I highly recommend checking out his works on the topic. He has discussed at length how anti-science attitudes within the Republican Party has allowed the creation of bad laws and has damaged our potential scientific, technological, and even social advancement in the world. Education suffers when science is treated with political suspicion.

The fact that the basic framework for understanding the material world is treated politically is a major problem. We can have reasonable disagreements on taxes, budgets, firearms restrictions, the role of government in regulating business and healthcare, and on and on. There is a spectrum of reasonable positions to be held on these topics. However, the scientific consensus on certain topics should be above politics. There aren’t debates on the Senate floor over whether or not the Earth is the center of the universe, or if germs exist. Why are confirmed facts like anthropogenic climate change, biological evolution, the safety of vaccines (more of a fight on the right, contrary to some pundits), and the failure of abstinence education treated as an ideological litmus test?

Obviously many people don’t have an understanding of what the word “theory” actually means. And “scientific fact” is rarely completely clear-cut. But the following points are as much a scientific truth as germ theory or the heliocentric solar system:

* Anthropogenic climate change is real. I will devote an entire post to this to explore it in greater depth, but suffice to say, the planet IS warming because of human effects. Pretty much all serious climate science has confirmed this.

* The enormous variety of life on earth can best be explained by evolution via mutation, natural selection, and possibly other processes yet understood.

* The Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, and our universe is somewhere around 13 billion years old. The evidence for this is strong and has yet to be successfully refuted by those with religious agendas.

* Genetic research, stem cell development, GMOs, and so on are all vital areas of study, and have done much good for humanity.

* Governments have had a role in funding and administering scientific research for many years and are often best equipped for doing so. By providing government funding for R&D (compared to private research), the profit motive is removed or reduced, and important innovations can be developed that may not reap immediate financial rewards. A great deal of our modern, computer-based technologies can be attributed to government-funded research in pretty much every scientific discipline. NASA alone is responsible for an enormous amount of spin-off technology.

The reasons for Republican hostility to science vary. For many, it’s simply based on greed. I’ve discussed before how opposition to climate change seems to coincide suspiciously with the amount of campaign funding provided by fossil-fuel companies.  This is the very definition of corruption, but seems to be shrugged off by climate change deniers. That the Earth is warming is not in doubt. The human impact of that warming is a near-certainty as well. The science is clear, solid, and well-documented. But such scientific stalwarts as NASA, NOAA, and the EPA are all derided as politically biased – by those with their own specific political biases and a minimal sense of irony. Climate change research is likely to take a major hit under the Trump Administration, as Trump insists on staffing his Cabinet with people who make money off releasing carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. The potential for long-term damage to human civilization is horrific, and the Republican Party not only doesn’t care, but actively denies the problem. This issue will be one of the first I plan to discuss in depth, as it may be the greatest long-term threat to humanity. And that threat is exacerbated by the politicization of science.

Religious extremism also comes into play here. Opposition to research on contraception, genetically modified crops, and stem cell development all seem to be prevalent among the Christian Right. Despite the blatant unconstitutionality of making laws based on religious belief, a significant percentage of the Republican contingent in Congress fights against federal funding of certain sciences due to conflict with their religious convictions. Or, more cynically, some may simply be voting in the direction their electoral base might support. Either way, science is cherry-picked for reasons unsuited to running a secular government.

Some of a more libertarian bent simply believe (regardless of opinions on the science itself) that any government investment in scientific fields is a problem. These are the Ayn Rand True Believers who equate any government with tyranny. You know, except for military spending. And corporate welfare. And the drug war. And so on. Fake libertarians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul who are just as ethically flexible as anyone else.

Science doesn’t become less valid whether or not scientifically illiterate elected officials believe in it or not. Climate change is real and important to combat. It’s actually not just important, but perhaps the greatest long-term existential threat to human society. I know I already said this, but it bears repeating. Pretending (or believing) it isn’t real when it’s HAPPENING RIGHT NOW is frightening.

Hey Republicans, from this liberal independent to all of you: CLIMATE CHANGE ISN’T LIBERAL OR CONSERVATIVE. Just like gravity or microbes aren’t. The apocryphal apple didn’t remain suspended in mid-air over Newton’s head, waiting for Tories to approve.

It becomes a point of faith that certain sciences are liberal hoaxes. Public support for and against these sciences follows predictably partisan lines. And political leadership works hard to reinforce this divide. Meanwhile, scientists of all political ideologies are increasingly aghast at obstruction and denial of reality. The Republican Party will endanger lives and marginalize themselves by fighting against reality. James Inhofe can play with snowballs during sessions of Congress, and meanwhile, the oceans will continue to rise, extreme weather events will occur more frequently, and the most powerful and advanced country on earth will turn a blind eye to the problem.

Increased political polarization and legislative gridlock doesn’t seem to be improving. And with a new Executive Branch set to follow the same science denial as the extreme fringe of the GOP, ideological division isn’t likely to improve. Somehow, science needs to separate from ideology. That’s going to be a difficult task. The human mind is adept at allowing all sorts of biases to cloud our judgement. As long as Barack Obama understands that climate change, evolution, and gravity are all real, there will be a number of people who vehemently insist on the opposite. What will it take to change minds? Will Chesapeake Bay be pooling around James Inhofe’s ankles during his next snowball fight? Will that be enough?

As always, others have said it better. Check these links out for more information:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/apr/28/can-the-republican-party-solve-its-science-denial-problem

http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-07-23/republican-says-his-partys-denial-climate-science-courting-disaster-voters

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2016/06/30/donald_trump_is_the_inevitable_result_of_decades_of_gop_denial_of_reality.html

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/why-republicans-still-reject-the-science-of-global-warming-w448023

https://www.wired.com/2015/01/senators-dont-believe-human-caused-climate-change/

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