Belief…

When it comes right down to it, human beings have to operate on belief. To survive, we cannot prove and demonstrate every aspect of life anew each day. Based on past experience, we believe that the sun will rise each day. When we take trip on an airplane we believe it will get us there. But there are two kinds of belief. There is belief based on the intangible and belief based on the observable and demonstrable.

Belief in a deity or a greater power is belief in the intangible. I’m not saying that a higher power does or does not exist. I am saying that there is absolutely no physical evidence that the universe in which we live was created by such a power or that such a power intervenes directly in our lives. Nor is there any physical evidence of an afterlife. All that may or may not exist, but all religions that postulate any or some of those beliefs as fact are based on faith, not on observable or provable evidence. Conceivably, if improbably, in my opinion, that could change. Robert Sawyer wrote a science fiction novel [Calculating God] in which a future human society and an alien society discover such observable and physical proof of the existence of a higher power.

So when critics of science insist that scientists operate on belief and that the sole difference between scientists and fundamentalist deity-worshippers is in what they believe, the only element of truth in that assertion is that, by necessity, all humans operate on what they believe, to a large degree, in their everyday lives. The question isn’t whether we believe; it’s what we believe.

At one time, the Catholic Church insisted that the earth was the center of the universe. Giordano Bruno insisted otherwise, particularly that stars were actually suns similar to our own, with planets with life upon them, and that there was no “Celestial center” to the universe. Unsurprisingly, given the fervor of true believers and a Church wanting to maintain control, his “beliefs” were denounced, and he was executed. He was, of course, largely correct, especially in overall concept, and the guardians of religion were wrong, as they have been to a great degree whenever they have opposed what science has discovered.

One of the problems that believers in intangibles have is that all too many of them want a simple and complete explanation to the universe. Belief in a supreme deity offers such. So, in a more limited way, does intelligent design explain where we as a species came from – except that explanation is totally at variance with what science has discovered.

Science cannot offer the sweeping absolutes that religion does, because science is based on what we have discovered, and we have not yet discovered everything that is potentially discoverable about life and the universe. In the recent past centuries of scientific progress we have learned more and more about both, but whether we will ever learn everything, I suspect, is unlikely. To me, belief based on facts and what can be demonstrated to be so, even if such explanations of the universe and life are not totally complete, is far more satisfying than simplistic wish-fulfillment. And, in the meantime, until all the evidence is in, I’m perfectly happy in not knowing whether there is or is not a supreme deity, especially since, if there does happen to be such a deity, given all we’ve undergone as a species, there’s certainly no proof that such a deity is unreservedly just and beneficent.

Lessons

Tobacco, lead, and atmospheric modification [i.e., global warming/climate change/air pollution]… what do they all have in common? It’s actually something incredibly fundamental.

All made or make billions of dollars for U.S. industry and created severe adverse health impacts for all Americans, in fact, for pretty much the majority of human beings… and the industrial conglomerates involved in producing and marketing the products that created these massive health problems fought tooth and nail against efforts to educate people and against regulations and laws to stop those impacts…and in the case of atmospheric modification and tobacco, they still are.

From the time of the Romans, people have known that lead has adverse health effects on human beings, but lead has attractive properties for manufacturers. It makes paints brighter and more durable, and in the late nineteenth century essentially all paints were lead-based, but studies showed the danger, particularly to children. As a result, in1922, the League of Nations banned lead-based paint, as did Australia, and within a few years, so did most of Europe. The U.S. did not. In 1943, a report concluded that children eating lead paint chips could suffer from neurological disorders including behavior, learning, and intelligence problems. Finally, in 1971, lead-based house paint was phased out in the United States with the passage of the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act. Even so, a study in 2000 found that 38 million housing units in the U.S. still had lead-based paint, if down from 64 million in 1990.

That wasn’t the only lead problem. In 1921, General Motors came up with a new gasoline formula to allow high compression engines – tetra-ethyl lead. Despite the fact that scores of employees producing TEL either died or suffered severe lead poisoning, GM and its subsidiary, the Ethyl Corporation, effectively lobbied against regulations and managed to avoid prohibition of lead in gasoline for another sixty years. By the time the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive in 1986, so much lead been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children registered toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease. As lead affects cognitive function, chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in IQ scores of exposed children during the leaded gas era. And more recently, researchers have suggested that TEL exposure and resulting nervous system damage also contributed to violent crime rates in the 20th century. Within twenty years of the prohibition of TEL, average blood lead levels dropped so markedly that today less than a million children have lead blood levels of concern, although no safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known sufficiently small amount of lead that will not cause harm to the body.

As for tobacco… in 1912, Isaac Adler published the first medical monograph on lung cancer which suggested that the cause might be toxic effects of smoking tobacco and alcohol consumption. The first known controlled study, by Franz Hermann Müller at Cologne Hospital, appeared in 1939, and five separate and detailed studies appeared in the early 1950s, all showing the direct and adverse effects of smoking.

This was no surprise to the tobacco companies. As early as 1946, Lorillard [producer of Old Gold, Newport, and Kent cigarettes] had a report from its director of research observing that scientific studies linked tobacco use to cancer. Despite the fact that a confidential 1953 ‘Survey of Cancer Research’, written for upper management at RJ Reynolds, makers of Camel cigarettes, concluded that tobacco was ‘an important etiologic factor in the induction of primary cancer of the lung’, cigarette manufacturers buried the evidence and continued to oppose public and government efforts to link smoking to lung cancer.

The 1964 Surgeon General’s report, which officially recognized smoking as a cause of lung cancer, wasn’t a discovery, but an acknowledgement of 20 years or more of research, yet as late as the mid-1970s, Phillip Morris was still spending millions on PR claiming that second-hand smoke was not dangerous to non-smokers.

All of this is scarcely surprising, given that the annual world production of cigarettes is about six trillion and that the annual profit of cigarette manufacturers runs to around $60 billion. The industry clearly doesn’t care that cigarette consumption will result in six million deaths in 2015 or that, according to a report of the Surgeon General just released, the annual cost of smoking just in the U.S. now is $300 billion a year, of which $130 billion are direct medical costs.

Regardless of the rhetoric from deniers, climate change is real. Irrefutable evidence from around the world that includes record temperatures, the incredible shrinkage of Arctic ice coverage, rising sea levels, the overwhelming preponderance of retreating or disappearing glaciers, ,the marked increase in extreme weather events, and record temperatures all point to the fact that climate change is happening now and at rates much faster than previously thought. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) incorporates the work of more than 2,500 scientists from more than 130 countries (and that’s one of the largest bodies of international scientists ever assembled to study a scientific issue) and has concluded that most of the warming observed during the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. IPCC’s findings have been publicly endorsed by the national academies of science of all G-8 nationals have publicly endorsed these findings, as have those of China, India and Brazil.

Yet in the United States, climate denial skeptics still abound, or seem to. Why might that be?

Well, according to various sources, the Koch Brothers, owners of Koch Industries, a privately-held fossil fuels based conglomerate with annual revenues estimate at $115 billion annually [enough to rank #17 on the Fortune 500], have so far spent almost $80 million in funding politicians and organizations denying that global warming/climate change now exist. Exxon Mobil has made over $10 million in traceable donations to shill or right-wing, fellow-traveler organizations that deny global warming, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, among others.

And interestingly enough, Exxon Mobil has been consulting with those folks in the tobacco industry on how to fight science, and they’re adopting the same tactics as big tobacco, and even some of the same consultants.

Given just these three examples, you might see why I tend to be rather skeptical when industry types, and all the organizations that they fund, assure me that whatever they’re doing really isn’t a problem… and, in fact, that the problem isn’t even a problem at all, just like lead and tobacco weren’t.

Always a Solution?

After forty years of teaching at the collegiate level, my wife the professor is getting exceedingly tired of new administrators and presidents who have the “next great idea” or plan or system, but who are largely re-inventing the wheel. Part of that is simply a lack of understanding of the past and failing to take time to learn what has already been tried and worked, at least to some degree, and what hasn’t.

But part of the reason programs and systems are discarded by institutions is because NO program or system offers a “one size fits all” solution. Yet, in the always-chasing-rainbows mindset of too many idealists, politicians seeking votes, and university presidents trying to please legislatures and alumni, all too many good approaches have been tried, worked for a large majority of faculty and students, and been discarded because they weren’t successful enough, because some group didn’t benefit.

The same, unfortunately, is also true in national politics. Despite close to a century of U.S. government programs to help the disadvantaged, while the vast majority are better off, the problems of the poor, and especially the minority poor, still remain. In some areas, one might argue that they’re worse.

All this leads to a question no one, but no one, wants to ask. Is there really a complete solution to such problems? Can all children really learn enough to get a college degree or advanced vocational training so that they can be economically self-supporting with a decent or better standard of living? Can we really come up with effective treatments for all those with mental illness? Can the U.S. military police every foreign conflict that might have an adverse impact on the United States?

Most thinking individuals would answer that there aren’t solutions to such problems that will be universally effective, but everyone shies away from trying to answer the logical next question: What degree of success is realistically obtainable and affordable for a given program or system?

No matter what anyone says, not all children can grow up to be economically and socially self-supporting. Not all those with mental illness or impairment can be treated to make them societally functional. But right now, expectations in so many areas are so out of line with reality and generations of experience and evidence that good programs are saddled with demands for impossible results, and many are junked and discarded because they cannot meet expectations… and another set of administrators, executives, and others must set out to reinvent the wheel once more, usually doomed to fail before they start because expectations demand a physically impossible level of perfection.

What Isn’t There

All species with some form of cognition, especially humans, have a cognitive bias that we almost never consider. We focus almost exclusively on what exists, if you will, what we see, hear, feel, and believe we know exists, not on what doesn’t. This sounds supremely rational at first glance, but it’s not, because we ignore the impacts and the costs of what is not present, but might otherwise be.

What brought this to my attention was a demonstration of canine skills by the local police organizations’ canine [K-9] units. One of the points that emerged was that while trained police canines are not cheap, they save lives and money, at least in our region. Just over the last ten years, there have been more than a score of documented cases where armed suspects who were involved in narcotics, armed robberies, and other stand-off situations would not surrender to police officers, but who immediately or quickly surrendered when they were faced with police canines. This not only likely saved the lives of officers, but also saved the lives of the suspects. Even those suspects brought down by canines came out better off, suffering at the most the need for a few stitches, rather than being shot and likely severely wounded or killed. The medical costs alone that were avoided in these cases likely far exceeded the costs of acquiring the dogs and training these K-9 units, not to mention the costs of deaths and burdens on families that were also avoided, but I’ve never seen even an estimated quantification of costs that were avoided.

A study whose results were just published in New Scientist attempts to quantify in general terms how U.S. elections would be different if the death rates and imprisonment rates of African American males were the same as those of Caucasian males, and according to the analysis the effects of the absence of those dead and imprisoned blacks, as well as those who died prematurely because of health factors, would have been significant. You might say it’s another unquantified effect of how black lives matter.

I mentioned in an earlier blog how American aerospace R&D is decreasing. What’s not decreasing are the R&D efforts of major players outside the U.S. What’s not there – more basic research and development – will definitely have an impact in years to come, but I doubt many will trace it back to what wasn’t spent on R&D over the past few years.

Today, everyone in politics and business talks about cost-effectiveness, about how to do more with less, but I don’t see anywhere close to the same enthusiasm about asking what investments that we are not making could reduce costs. And sometimes, I suspect, what isn’t there just might be more important than what is.

Everyone Wants More

Like most people, I do try to be charitable, both in attitude and in making an effort to give something to organizations whose charitable purposes with which I agree. But I’ve noticed a change in almost all of them over the past five to ten years. Now, it seems, as soon as I contribute, not only do I get a thank you, but another plea for more money, and another… and before long, another. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but repaying my charitable efforts with more and more demands for contributions tends to make me less charitable, not more… and I find myself more willing to contribute to groups that don’t press me and less willing to give to those who do.

It’s not just charities. It’s everywhere. The U.S. air transport and aerospace industries are investing less and less in research and development and spending more and more on share buybacks and dividends. Airline profits are up, thanks to all the extra fees and charges levied on travelers. This trend is sweeping business, as I’ve noted before. Not only that, but now business after business wants the consumer to do their market research for them, by asking for customer feedback on everything from banking services to lodging, consumer products, transportation, automobiles, and who knows what else. Company after company wants me to go paperless, but I can’t go paperless for many because the IRS likes paper receipts and documentation, and if I go paperless, I’m the one who has to take the time and paper to print out all those receipts and documents.

Our state electric utility now wants to charge customers who use solar and wind power – because their use of less electricity will impact the utility. Politicians want more and more contributions for their re-election, and, in turn, business lobbyists want more and legislative favors for those contributions.

Students coming to universities not only want scholarships and more financial aid, but they also want better grades for less effort, and unhappily, due to the fact that most universities had bought into using student evaluations as part of the formula for determining faculty raises and retention, they’re getting higher grades for less effort. Of course, fewer of them are being taught by full-time experienced faculty.

All too many readers want books that are cheaper and cheaper – if not free – and I’ve had more than a few readers complain that the prices of my books are too high. Yet, given inflation, and market pressures, most publishers are making less per book, in real dollar terms, than they were ten or fifteen years ago, and that goes for almost all authors as well.

In ways large and small, almost everyone is being asked to do more, give more, spend more, do more of businesses’ work. Is it any wonder many people are less charitable in thought and deed?