Archive for October, 2012

If You Believe…

Today, it appears that the schism between science and religion is greater than it’s ever been.  But why should this be so? Historically, a great many of the Founding Fathers were religious, yet believed that science and the pursuit of facts were not only in accord with a belief in a higher power, but were necessary elements of that belief.

Let’s start with the basics.  There either is a higher power – call that power God for lack of a better term – or there is not.  If God exists and created the universe, then that universe was created with a set of rules, because without consistent principles, all of the ordered matter we observe and measure, including us, would not exist. Since we and the universe do exist, there is an organizational pattern behind that creation. One of the goals of science is to discover that pattern, and at times, to replicate it.

As a matter of fact, that scientific search for the nature of God was the underlying theme of Robert Sawyer’s 2000 novel, Calculating God, in which scientifically advanced aliens visit Earth and attempt to enlist Earth scientists in their efforts to search out and verify the existence of God.  For true believers in a deity, wouldn’t this make sense?

Yet, in today’s United States, when scientific discovery goes against theology, the reaction from most religious bodies seems to reject the science rather than the theology.  Why?  Wouldn’t affirming a better understanding of God’s universe bring true believers closer to understanding and affirming their deity?  And wouldn’t denying what has been proven be in effect a denial of that deity?

If there is no God, isn’t believing in tenets put forth on behalf of that deity misguided at best, dishonest and hypocritical at worst, especially when those tenets go against physical evidence?  If there is “only” a “clockwork God,” as postulated by some, a higher power that created the universe and left it to its and our own devices, effectively the same issues still apply. In all three cases – God exists and remains involved in human affairs; God is only a clockwork God; and there is no God – insisting on a religious doctrine about the world and the universe which conflicts with what science has discovered and proved is unethical, and if God does indeed exist, denying science and what it has discovered is in fact denying God.

Any scientist worth the title will admit that there are things science cannot explain, or cannot fully explain, but there are many things which science has determined that are in conflict with some religious doctrines or the beliefs of some true believers.  Evolution does exist; the world and the universe are far older than 4400 B.C.;  human-caused global warming does exist; all the human population of the world except those on the ark was not destroyed by a global flood [although scientific inquiries do suggest that the Black Sea – not all that far from Mount Ararat – was created by a massive flood when the Mediterranean Sea broke through what is now the Hellespont].

Now… those of you who are believers and who deny any science that conflicts with those beliefs… just pray to your God… and explain to Him why you deny the way in which He has built the universe. Just tell Him that you reject those who are trying to understand the universe better – the scientists.  Go ahead… it shouldn’t be that hard.  You’ve been telling the rest of us that for years… Go on…tell God you deny the principles of His universe.


Science, Religion, and Politics

According to the latest issue of Scientific American, science has created high-paying and productive jobs in the United States, and science is the only way to create them in the future.  Certainly, both candidates for President seem to agree with the need for high-paying jobs… or at least pay lip service to the idea. And the Republicans, especially, are pounding on the need for more high-paying and productive jobs.

So why are so many Republicans so anti-science? Why do they deny evolution, global climate change, vaccination, the seriousness of air pollution, and other findings?  Early in 2011, Mitt  Romney made a speech in which indicated that it appeared global warming was human-caused, then quickly made an about-face after Rush Limbaugh blasted him.  John Huntsman, on the other hand, said that the Republican Party couldn’t “run from science,” and not quite coincidentally came in last among all the Republican candidates.

Science was one of the guiding principles of the Founding Fathers.  Benjamin Franklin was one of the world’s leading scientists of his time, although this aspect of his accomplishments often tends to be downplayed.  Thomas Jefferson believed deeply in scientific endeavor and even created his own inventions.  John Adams extolled the scientific method and the verification and use of facts.

So why has there been such a surge in anti-science sentiment in recent years?  And why especially among Republicans [not that Democrats are immune]?

Part of the anti-science movement may be based on the desire for quick and simple answers, and science doesn’t work that way.  Scientists set forth theories, and other scientists try to disprove them… and often they do… or often they discover that one theory is an approximation of the way something works, and a later theory gives a better explanation.  Science is, if you will, methodically messy, and this century’s “truth” often is later discredited.

For all of its messiness, science has a far better record in explaining both the world and how things work than does religion, and yet Republicans in ever-greater percentages are choosing religious rationales and explanations over science. Perhaps it’s the fact that a conservative mind-set values “certainty” in beliefs over something that changes… or maybe religion is more comforting.  Yet these same Republicans certainly wouldn’t turn in their car for a horse and buggy.  Nor would they prefer the medicine of 1850 to that of today, no matter how much they complain about the costs.  They embrace all the physical advantages of science while rejecting the methodology… and anything in science that conflicts with their religion or beliefs.

Not only is this philosophically hypocritical, but it’s a fundamental threat to the future of the United States. Interestingly enough, both candidates are campaigning for better education in the science-based disciplines of engineering, mathematics, and other hard sciences… and yet in state after state Republican lawmakers are passing anti-science laws… on the grounds, largely, that impartial science education undermines religious freedom.  John Adams would be appalled to discover that religious freedom requires the suppression of unpleasant facts and theories and that “religious” theories with no basis in fact must be given “equal time.”  He’d also be appalled to find that politicians are attempting to insert religious beliefs into law under the guise of freedom of religion.

And so should every American.




It’s more than fair, and accurate, to say that the coming Presidential election is about leadership, about who can best lead the United States out of the current less than favorable economic conditions and who can best deal with the myriad of international challenges facing the country.

That said, what exactly is leadership?  What shows leadership?  Is effective political campaigning and debating a good indication of leadership?

My wife made the intriguing but obvious observation that being the challenger in difficult times is far easier than being the incumbent, because all the challenger has to do is declare that times are hard and that they’re not getting any better quickly, and it’s the incumbent’s fault, and that the challenger can do better.  In essence, that was Obama’s advantage against McCain in the last election, especially since President Bush had just presided over the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, and since McCain was the Republican candidate and a long-time Republican officeholder. Now, Obama is no longer the challenger, but an incumbent who has come to realize, painfully, that inspiring words are not enough to get a divided Congress to act, and possibly that nothing is, and yet he is being held fully accountable.  That’s the nature of incumbency, even when the problems were not of the incumbent’s making, just as the financial meltdown was not totally of President Bush’s making.

What disturbed me about Obama’s first campaign and Romney’s and Obama’s present campaigns is the lack of substance and specifics.  Admittedly, Obama sticks closer to the facts, and he’s tied by his actions to more substance, not all of it good, but, as I’ve discussed earlier, and as Paul Ryan once again demonstrated in the Vice Presidential debate, and Romney has in all three debates so far, the Republicans are playing looser and faster with the facts than in any campaign I’ve witnessed [and that goes back some fifty years] and offer few if any specifics. Oh… I fully understand why this is so, and so does Obama, who avoids unpleasant specifics when he can.  Every single substantive proposal will create more opposition than support, because those who support it will be outweighed by the violence of those who oppose it.  In addition, substance takes time to present, and the media and the American mindset is geared to sound-bites, and almost no one wants to listen for very long.  So simple and practical sounding slogans trump substance.

The thirst for simplicity is also because we have the most complex government and technologically-based society in the history of the world, and simple and easy proposals invariably don’t work in practice in such a society, no matter what anyone claims.  Even when simple slogans are absolutely correct – such as, we can’t keep spending more than we have – no one really wants to look at the details, and the most successful candidate is almost invariably the one who manages to avoid dealing with details in a campaign.

So leadership appears to be measured by popular appeal, and popular appeal is determined by what people can understand and support – except that the vast majority doesn’t want to take the time to learn anything in depth about the problems and consider whether a candidate’s proposals actually make sense… or even whether a candidate has flip-flopped or contradicted himself or denied what he’s on the record as having said or done.  It all appears to be based on how impressive the man is compared to his opponent…and it helps to be taller as well.  Shorter candidates seldom win.

But does mastery of political campaigning translate into leadership? If you look at Warren Harding, Jimmy Carter, and the second President Bush, it doesn’t.  On the other hand, if you take Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, it does.

Maybe a coin flip would be just as accurate.  It would certainly be cheaper, and it might remind the candidates that they don’t have a mandate to try to run roughshod over those who don’t agree with their simplistic slogans. Then again…


Exaggerations or Lies?

Charges have been flying back and forth between the Romney and Obama camps and their partisans, each charging the other with lying, while the most anyone might admit is to a “slight” exaggeration.  So how are we to tell who is “merely” exaggerating for political effect and who is the bald-faced liar?

That’s easy.  My candidate exaggerates just a little; yours is a bald-faced liar.

An exaggeration, perhaps?  From what I’ve heard and seen, not at all.

Romney denies that he said what he said, and his campaign calls it political maneuvering. Romney’s lying. On the other hand, Obama keeps declaring that he’s only going to tax the wealthy, when the specifics of both Obamacare tax increases and his own proposals will definitely have a significant impact on a significant share of the middle class, since some of those taxes kick in at incomes above $100,000, and a family making $100,000 may be “wealthy” in Plano, Texas, or Richfield, Utah, but that’s barely mid-middle class in New York, San Francisco, Honolulu and most of Hawaii, Los Angeles, the Washington, D.C., area, and a number of other places across the United States, totalling tens of millions of Americans. Now, none of those directly affected by his tax plans are in poverty, but to call them wealthy is not only inaccurate, but an out-and-out lie.  I could go on and attack both sides with more specifics, but that’s not the point.

Now, I could say “a pox on both your houses,” because both candidates are guilty of lying, and the only question is which one is the greater liar.  Unhappily, that’s really almost secondary to another question.

I’ve heard die-hard Republicans claim that Obama will destroy religious freedom, annihilate the free-enterprise system, gut our national defense, destroy American womanhood, make abortion free and legal at any time in a pregnancy, and, oh, yes, increase taxes on everyone. They’re right about the last one, because, regardless of Romney’s rhetoric, eventually taxes will have to increase no matter who is President.

Die-hard Democrats aren’t much better, claiming that Romney will create a nation ruled by the ultra-wealthy with wages and incomes falling for everyone else, that he’ll outsource as many jobs as possible to China to keep wages and costs low in the USA to profit the few and the wealthy, a charge not helped at all by David Siegel and the Koch brothers, raise healthcare costs for everyone, but especially to the poor and elderly to the point where few of them will be able to afford medical care, totally destroy a woman’s right to choose by making her carry any pregnancy to term, even if she was raped or the pregnancy will kill her, and, of course, cut taxes on the wealthy while eliminating most deductions to raise taxes on the middle class.

There are grains of truth in both sets of charges, and sometimes even more than that, but this campaign of either lies or reckless exaggeration – take your pick – is more than likely to leave a residue of anger and bitterness that will make actual solutions even more difficult than they’ve been in the past – and we know how few solutions have been considered in Congress, let alone enacted.  No matter who wins the Presidency, it’s highly unlikely that either political party is going to have a sufficient majority in both the House and the Senate to push through its agenda… or anything close.

That means, as I’ve said before, solutions will require compromise, but who will be willing to compromise after all the lies and scorched earth rhetoric?

Unless things change, this election may be the political equivalent for the winner of “the operation was successful… and the patient died”… the patient being the American semi-bipartisan representative democratic experiment created by the Founding Fathers.



Recently, there was yet another hullabaloo here in Utah over “cronyism,” this time in the administration of the state prison system, with charges and countercharges and the head of the prison system resolutely declaring that there was no favoritism, while the rank-and-file claim that standards of performance and conduct for the top administrators are far more lax than for most employees. That’s on top of continuing charges that the Republicans support “crony capitalism,” while they deny it and claim that free enterprise rewards the best and that Democrats who attack any form of capitalism are socialists or communists… or something like that.

The plain fact of the matter is that, in some form or another, cronyism exists everywhere in society, from rich Republicans to LGBT activists, from country clubs to welfare mothers.  It exists because human beings like to form groups and most groups are formed from people with at least one overriding shared interest, if not many.  The individuals in most such groups tend to think in the same fashion and the more insulated a group is, the more likely this is to occur.  As one example, a recent study whose results were noted in the Christian Science Monitor found that wealthy individuals who lived and interacted primarily with other wealthy individuals gave far less to charitable causes than did wealthy individuals who interacted with and had daily contact with those of poor and modest means.  In fact, the more insulated wealthy, on average, contributed 50% less as a percentage of their income than did the less “insulated” wealthy.  Another study found that men who had more than one daughter were markedly more sympathetic to so-called women’s issues, such as equal pay and equal employment opportunity, than were men with only a single daughter or no daughters.

None of this should be surprising.  Many groups follow their unspoken group consensus… and then are surprised to find, or even deny vehemently, that they are practicing cronyism.  They’ve never considered it.  It’s just the way they operate.

Generally, for example, here in Utah, the vast majority of politicians are members of the LDS faith, and they tend to pass laws which reflect the patriarchal nature of the culture.  There are continual charges of cronyism, some of which are definitely founded, such as the recent appointment of the director of the Board of Regents.  One of the finalist candidates, the director of the commission on higher education in a midwestern state, was asked to apply.  He had a Ph.D., had received his undergraduate degree and master’s degree from a state university in Utah and had taught at a Utah university for a number of years, then gone on to high level administrative positions in other states, where he served with distinction for some fifteen years.   When he arrived for his interview, one of the first questions he was asked was whether he’d ever been in Utah before – and he’d been requested to apply and had sent a complete resume which listed his Utah connections!  The legislature selected the former director of public affairs for the board, who has never taught full-time, never actually run any organization, and does not have an advanced degree.  From the news releases surrounding the appointment, it was fairly clear that these politicians weren’t even conscious of their cronyism.  They picked someone with whom they were comfortable, and seemed unaware of the fact that other qualifications just might have been better and/or more appropriate.

I’ve also seen the same sort of group-think on the other side, when the upper administration of a university in an eastern state was controlled by extraordinarily left-wing women, who seemed honestly to believe that no man under any circumstances could possibly be interested in anything but finding a way to dominate and oppress women and minorities.  While the male historical track record in dealing with women and minorities is nothing to brag about, this attitude seemed a bit excessive to me… and the result of the attitude was that, for a time, essentially no men were considered for higher positions and even women who didn’t buy into the mindset were marginalized… the result being what amounted to feminist cronyism.

From what I’ve seen, as illustrated by these two examples, a great deal of cronyism arises from people being uncomfortable with people who have different backgrounds and viewpoints, and, often, a lack of awareness that, at times, no unbiased interpretation of the facts would support their views.  The problem we as a nation face is that high technology allows groups greater self-selection, and that greater self-selection promotes a more monolithic view in each group, with the result that the groups operate as though their view is the only one that has any validity.

Might this just be another factor in the growing political and economic polarization in the United States?


Business Economics

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story featuring a memorandum that David Siegel sent to all his employees, including those in Utah.  In that letter/memorandum, Siegel declared that, if income taxes and corporate taxes were raised by those elected to the Presidency and the Congress in the forthcoming election, he would be laying off employees.  Siegel is the owner of a number of resort oriented businesses in Utah, as well as the founder and chief executive of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned time-share company in the world.  He and his wife are also building the largest home in the United States, a 90,000 square foot edifice called Versailles.

In follow-up interviews, Siegel declared that his letters were not a threat, but a fact based on the economics of business.  Of course, speaking as someone who’s had a little training and experience in economics, politics, and business, the economics of business aren’t exactly that clear-cut. Some business owners might consider other factors besides having enough profit to build and operate the largest private home in America.  Warren Buffet, for example, one of the wealthiest men in the world, still lives in a very modest two-story house.  Bill Gates’ generosity with stock and stock options for his employees made those who worked for him in the beginning very well off.  And there are many other founders of businesses who don’t glory in saying, “You’re fired!”

Obviously, any business that loses money over a period of time [unless it’s subsidized in some fashion, either in the way in which Amazon subsidized its predatory ebook pricing or some other fashion] will eventually have to close, but as any honest accountant can tell you, there are innumerable ways to make a profitable business look unprofitable, as those in the movie industry well know. It’s one thing to claim that increased taxes will have a harmful effect on very small businesses – those, for example, with ten or fewer employees. But in a business with thousands of employees and millions, if not more, in profits?

Like it or not, all too many businesses treat employees solely as a necessary cost, rather than as a source of revenue and more business.  The Darden restaurant group, for example, is “experimenting” with requiring more employees to be part-time so that it won’t have to provide health benefits.  If this “experiment” is successful, other restaurant chains will follow in order to keep their profit levels up, but no one seems to ask what the overall economic cost will be.  When people have to spend more money on health care out of pocket or get sick or have the government and hospitals pick up the tab through unpaid emergency room visits, all this does is shift costs from the restaurants to everyone else.  It may be good “business economics,” but it’s lousy societal and national economics.

What all these “sharp” business economists are talking about, whether it’s complaining about environmental regulations restricting their pollution, being required to provide healthcare insurance, or paying corporate taxes, is essentially an effort to shift costs from their operations to everyone else in order to increase their bottom line… and what bothers me is that so many Americans seem ready to buy it.

In the end, everything costs.  The only question is who pays and how.  In a “truly” fair system, everyone would pay their share.  The problem is that those who are poor often cannot, and that means that, if they are to eat and have health care, for example, someone else must help.  In addition, many lower-paid employees don’t make enough to afford health insurance if it’s not provided in some fashion through their employer.  How such burdens are distributed, assuming the poor are not to be left to suffer and die, requires government intervention, since human history clearly indicates that not enough individuals will do so, or can do so, on their own initiative.  I don’t have a problem with that, provided the distribution of that burden has some semblance of thought and fairness.  What I do have a problem with is businesses and corporations who have negative impacts — financially, environmentally, and in other ways – citing “economics” as a justification for not even carrying their own weight, especially in cases where it’s clear that their founders and CEOs are living the extraordinarily high life.  Like David Siegel.



The other day, I overheard a news story extolling the virtues of yoga in combating stress.  That was fine.  Yoga has proved to be of great value for people in high stress conditions. What absolutely floored me was the section on elementary and secondary schoolchildren.  This is far from the first time I’ve run across the issue of stress in schools.  In fact, most of the college students at my wife’s university complain about how stressed they are.  One of the most common phrases is:  “I’m so stressed out.”

What I want to know is why they think their lives are so stressful. Are their lives really filled with that much stress?  Have they created that stress themselves because they’ve filled so much of their lives with the time-consuming trivialities, such as texting, Facebook, and video games, that they’ve left no time for the necessary?  Or have they been so coddled that any pressure on them to perform and meet any type of reasonable standards creates stress?

I know I’ll sound like an old fogy, but… the generation represented by their great grandparents faced the worst economic conditions in more than a century and the largest world-wide conflict in human history. The generations before that faced the First World War and, before that, the Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. In all these cases, most young men faced the pressure of being drafted and dying in battle.  Their grandparents faced the Vietnam conflict, largely fought by conscripted forces, plus wide-spread civil unrest with bloody riots across the nation… and far wider racial and cultural discrimination, not to mention gender/sexual discrimination,  than any of today’s young people can possibly imagine. 

In the past, although the youngsters of today don’t believe it or understand it, academic standards were either far more rigorous… or the local schools were truly terrible.  Until the 1950s, polio was an ever-present threat, and I still recall contemporaries of mine in wheelchairs and braces. Academic curricula were rigid and unyielding, and woe betide the student who was different, or ADHD, or developmentally challenged.  First year students in college faced opening assemblies where they were told that a large percentage of entering students would fail academically within a year.

Today’s students are told how wonderful they are.  They have extraordinarily high grade point averages, and almost none of them are failed.  College students today spend less than half the time studying  as students of their parents’ generation did, but there are more scholarships and far more financial aid than was available a generation earlier. Even if they drop out of school, they don’t face being drafted into a war where tens of thousands of conscripts die.   And yet… huge numbers of them have little motivation and no goals.  

And  they’re stressed out.

 Stress is and has always been the human condition.  Welcome to the real world.


Beware the Glib and Smooth

Perhaps because I was always the boy who had trouble convincing anyone of anything, even when facts and events proved I was right, I’ve always been skeptical of the glib, polished, and oh-so-convincing fast talkers who also seemed so earnest.  Then, it might be because I lost more than one girl-friend to the type… or because I saw so many of them in politics over the twenty years I spent in Washington.

I’d be among the first to admit that Mitt Romney was smooth, polished, carefully passionate, and superficially convincing… and he scared the hell out of me.  President Obama showed the not-quite-controlled frustration of a man who understands that absolutely nothing under discussion was as simple as Romney made it sound, a man who knows that trying to point out the details that would undermine Romney would merely make Obama himself seem like a quibbler, especially given the insatiable American appetite for the easy and simplistic.

The problem with really good politicians – and psychopaths – is that they have no problem shedding inconvenient facts or even saying that they didn’t say what they did, and doing it so convincingly that most people believe them.  This first Presidential debate showed that Romney is a master of this, and Obama is not.  Obama can shade the truth with the best of them, but it’s clear that he’s uneasy in totally denying it.  Romney shows no such hesitation.

Before this debate, I gave Mitt the benefit of the doubt.  I thought that, even if I didn’t agree with him, he honestly believed in what he was saying, but when a man who has spent months pushing a five trillion dollar tax cut and cutting tax rates for everyone blatantly denies having done so on national television, he certainly disabused me of the notion that he was a true believer in magic tax cuts.  Then, yesterday, he denied what he said about the 47% of Americans, which, while unpopular, actually had some truth in it… and people are buying everything he says now, because, all of a sudden, he “looks and sounds Presidential.”   All this tells me that Mitt’s just like all the smooth talkers I’ve encountered over the years, and it’s pretty clear that the only true belief he has is that he’s so fitted for the job of President that he’ll say anything that will convince anyone.

Is Obama any better?  All I can say is that he was trying harder to stick closer to the truth, and that’s also what all the political fact-checkers have been saying and writing.

As for me… I still have trouble with those oh-so-earnest types who are so convincing… and care so little for the facts… all the facts, and not just those that support their view of the world.


The Scruffy Look

What is it with young American men… or maybe with young men across the world? Everywhere I look – from on the street, to some businesses, to glimpses of television shows and movies, since I’ve been traveling recently – I see young men with what amounts to a two-to-three-day scruffy shadow beard.  I don’t have anything against mustaches or beards, especially if they’re sported by men on whom they look good, but facial hair on men is like extraordinarily long hair on women, and neither looks good on most members of both genders. And I do know, because I once had a handlebar mustache that, in pictures and in retrospect, looked truly awful. Still,,, if that’s what people want, that’s their choice.  

 But the scruffy look… what’s the point?  It’s not a beard.  It’s not a mustache, and on 99% of all men it just looks dirty.  Is it to prove that you’re a he-man?  Or that you don’t have to conform to social norms, or that you’re following the trends?  Or is it because you have sensitive skin and are too cheap to buy sensitive skin aftershave balm?

 Or is it a subconscious desire to be sort-of Middle East macho, but clean-shaven enough to still be identified as western? Or are you too lazy to shave regularly, but not willing to go for a full beard?  Or could it be that a beard wouldn’t look good on you, but you want the world to know that you actually could grow one?

 Or maybe I’m all wet and just missing the fact that three-day beards are irresistible aphrodesiacs?