COVID 19 and Science Denialism

“Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.” Isaac Asimov, The Secret of the Universe

As of today, May 20th, 2020, COVID 19 has killed 324,962 worldwide.  Almost a third of those deaths, 93,533, have occurred in the United States.  We are currently conducting what I call the Grand Experiment here in the States.  In spite of the unanimous opinion of scientists and doctors, we are opening the United States back up, giving the virus back vectors that allowed it to spread and quickly threaten to overcome both the healthcare system here in the states as well as other healthcare systems around the world.  In the interest of higher stock prices, we are willing to risk both American lives and the sure destruction of the economy if the virus gets out of control.

Donald Trump has called this effort a “war”.  His critics claim he is simply using hyperbole so as to cement his legacy as a “war-time” President. In this instance, however, I agree with him.  Invaders can take all forms and come at us in many different ways. It doesn’t necessarily have to be rival gangs of mammals equipped with guns, aircraft, and explosives.  It could be an invasive species of insect that preys on insects beneficial to our agriculture or, as with the Zika virus, the insects can transmit a virus directly. In the case of the Coronavirus which causes COVID 19, we are the carriers as the virus spreads throughout our environment. So this is a war in every sense of the word; our opponent uses stealth so it is invisible.  Science, until it develops a vaccine or a treatment, such as Tamiflu for the influenza virus, has given us clear instructions on how to slow down the spread and, when followed to the letter as the South Koreans did, even stop it in its tracks.

Most countries have recognized the seriousness of this Pandemic and followed the science.  Three countries, the United States, Russia, and Brazil have not.  We are about to experience the full force of the virus while Brazil and Russia are at the very cusp. While the United States still leads the world in the number of new daily cases, 20,289, Brazil is second with 16,517, and Russia is third with 9,263.  Brazil is poised to start passing the United States in many of the categories, the most sobering being new deaths each day.  It is interesting that all three countries are led by a self-proclaimed Strong Man who is quite willing to ignore the scientists and other experts and instead follow his ‘instincts’.

While I could write volumes on Putin or Bolsonaro, living here in the United States I am way more concerned with the consequences here.  Each day the internet is filled with right-wing websites, blogs, and social media pages vilifying the science and the scientists who are tasked with fighting this war against COVID 19.  Their recommendations are viewed as liberal assaults on ‘freedoms’.  The issue of wearing a protective mask illustrates this anti-science/anti-expert sentiment like nothing else.  It is as if there were Londoners during the blitz who refused to turn their lights off to help stymie the German bombing runs in the name of ‘freedom’. No one could be that stupid, you say?  Hold to that claim and I can guarantee the right-wing in this country will make a fool out of you. Even if a vaccine is developed, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans would refuse it.  Why you ask?  Because the anti-vax community has convinced them that this is a surreptitious way of introducing a microchip into people in order to track their every move.  This they tweet, post, and IM from their cell phones that they willingly carry around with them everywhere they go.  Mad, isn’t it?

“I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
― Christopher Hitchens

There is an exception to this anti-science rhetoric by the right-wing.  One of the more common canards you hear is that modern medicine is hiding the cure for cancer and that all one needs to do is a search on Google and YouTube for both the proof of this claim and, more importantly, for the myriad of cures that are out there. One of my favorites is German New Medicine which claims, among other things, that “mainstream medicine is regarded as a conspiracy promulgated by Jews.”  You can find out about it and others here.  There is a notable exception to this narrative about cancer and the medical community. It happens when they or a loved one gets diagnosed with the disease.  Gone are the posts about the nefarious medical mafia and their schemes.  Suddenly we are all extorted to pray for the doctors so God will guide their hands and to pray for the unfortunate victims.  They sit silently in front of the cancer surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists, mouths shut, hanging on every word. “We must pay close attention and do what we are told by the experts in order to beat this terrible disease.” But what about the coffee enemas?  “Shut up, you are not a doctor!”  Sorry, I was just repeating what you told me a few months ago.

You can cut the hypocrisy with the same knife the surgeon uses to remove the cancer.

The Greatest Discovery Of All – Part 1

I’ve often posed the question to people, “What do you consider the greatest discovery in our species’ history?”  The answers are all over the board; all of them very good ones.  Many point to writing, some go even further back to the discovery of language.  Some point to our building skills, clothing, various monetary systems, and such.  Some will dive into science where there are a plethora of ideas all seeming to vie for the moniker of “Greatest Discovery”.  Darwin’s evolution, Semmelweis’s nascent discovery of antiseptic, the discoveries of anesthesia, vaccines, and the pathogen theory of disease are but a few that could be named. Astronomy would strenuously wave the flag as well, as would Physics and I could devote paragraphs delineating the many history-changing discoveries of both.

I’m sure the reader has thought of a number of things that they might offer as “the greatest”.  Let me ask the reader:  were the discoveries that came to mind discoveries about the world we live in?  Discoveries that changed how we lived, discoveries that lessened the suffering that for thousands of years seemed to be our lot?  I humbly suggest an answer that it was a discovery about ourselves, not the world external to us, that was the greatest discovery of all.

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”   — Christopher Hitchens

Up until this discovery, certainty was a hallmark of our understanding of the universe and our place in it.  We only needed to ask the religious leaders of whatever land we found ourselves in.  We can even do it today.  Take any religious leader that you know.  Are they absolutely certain about what they know?  This claimed knowledge and the certainty of it were beyond questioning.  In the cases of religions that were in the position of making an offer no one could refuse, questioning this certainty would cost your life.  Not giving verbal assent to those certainties would cost you your life.  There are places in the world today where this is the state of affairs and in those places where it is not, the religious continually yearn for a return to those days and are actively working on making that happen.  The discovery that I would offer rejected that certainty and in its stead claimed to be certain of nothing and to know nothing about the world operated.  It was that seminal grasp of our ignorance when looking out at the universe we found ourselves in is what I would claim to be the greatest discovery of our species.  It was that intellectual cornerstone upon which all the future great discoveries depended on.

Can we pinpoint in history when this happened?  No, I don’t think we can and even if we could point to a specific example, I would suggest that this epiphany has happened many, many times, over many centuries and in many lands. It happens today. It is the driving force behind science and the search for truth. The understanding of how little we know about the universe lights in us a quest to fill that void with knowledge. This knowledge has turned our existence from what Thomas Hobbs called, “nasty, brutish and short” into the lives that we experience today.

More to come….

Review |Beyond God – Why Religions are False, Outdated and Dangerous by Peter Klein

Beyond God - Why Religions are False, Outdated and DangerousBeyond God – Why Religions are False, Outdated and Dangerous by Peter Klein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great subtitle to this book would be, “An Antitheist Manifesto.” Peter Kline has written a book that is required reading for secular activists. Contained within its 266 pages is a point by point evisceration of religion and the harm it causes across the spectrum of human existence. Not just informative, this book is both inspirational and practical. Each chapter discusses how religion and its barbaric views poison just about every area of human life. Example after example is given along with the plethora of religious texts that support these backward and draconian views. This is also one of the best books to give to your religious family and friends when they ask about why you hold such stringent views towards religion.

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Atheist or Anti-theist?

“I’ll tell you what you did with Atheists for about 1500 years. You outlawed them from the universities or any teaching careers, besmirched their reputations, banned or burned their books or their writings of any kind, drove them into exile, humiliated them, seized their properties, arrested them for blasphemy. You dehumanized them with beatings and exquisite torture, gouged out their eyes, slit their tongues, stretched, crushed, or broke their limbs, tore off their breasts if they were women, crushed their scrotums if they were men, imprisoned them, stabbed them, disemboweled them, hanged them, burnt them alive.

And you have nerve enough to complain to me that I laugh at you.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

 

“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”

― Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

 

In his book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, David Silverman makes the argument that non-believers should self-identify as ‘atheist’ with the caveat “when it is safe to do so”.  He contrasts ‘atheist’ with other terms that are sometimes used such as ‘freethinker’, ‘humanist’, ‘naturalist’ and various others.  His argument, and it is a compelling one backed up by data, is that most people have absolutely no clue what someone means when they label themselves as a ‘freethinker’, let’s say.  On the other hand, everyone knows exactly what you mean when you tell them that you are an ‘atheist’.  I can attest from personal experience that Silverman’s observation is accurate.  I’ve used terms such as ‘humanist’ and eventually the question comes up, “But you do believe in God, right?”“No, I’m an atheist” has always my reply.  These days, however, in addition to stating at the outset that I am an atheist I always say that, furthermore, I am an anti-theist.  So what’s the difference?  An atheist is someone who rejects claims for the existence of god due to the complete lack of evidence.  An atheist thinks much the same way regarding trolls, fairies, angels, and Leprechauns as they do about god:  no evidence at all so the claim of their existence is rejected.   Things would be fine if both sides left at that.  Unfortunately, the religious never do.

“Religion is not the belief there is a god. Religion is the belief god tells you what to do.”
Christopher Hitchens

While many atheists hold to a live and let live philosophy when it comes to theists, anti-theists view the beliefs of theists as positively harmful.  In fact, were it not for theists being so active in proselytizing and expecting special privileges for themselves, their beliefs, and their institutions in society there would not be any anti-theists in the world.  It isn’t what theists believe but their insistence that everyone else believes as they do and acts accordingly that is the problem.  While religious theists tell you that it is the eternal destiny of your soul and the life after this one that concerns them over and over we see this is just a lie.  They discriminate against women in this world. The seek political power in this world so as to require everyone to believe as they do or suffer the dire consequences of being convicted of blasphemy, which is another word for thought crime.  Not only do they presume to tell you how to act they even claim the right to tell you what you think.  The are after power and property in this world, the most valuable property by far being the inside of your head.  They will stand in front of your claiming to ventriloquize the divine and issue commands at you telling you how to live and what to think as they point to “god’s word on the page.”

The anti-theist will have none of that and will let the zealots know in no uncertain terms that he or she will do everything possible to stave off this poison using the antidotes of science and reason where ever it is found.  This anti-theist refuses to go back to the time when religion “was making an offer that people could not refuse.”

 

 

Trump’s Maginot Line

As we enter the longest shutdown of the U.S. government in our country’s history over the building of a wall spanning the US-Mexico border one wonders how shutting down the government and causing so much pain to almost a million Federal employees is going to force Mexico to pay for this wall as was promised on the campaign trail by Donald Trump.  To be sure, in classic Orwellian fashion, Trump, while admitting he said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall in the same breath denies that he said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall.

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But what is this wall Trump is so hellbent on building no matter how many Americans he hurts in the process?  The wall has gone through various iterations and as of this writing it has become a fence built with steel slats.  Its purpose is to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, drugs, and human trafficking from Mexico which now, according to Trump, have reached emergency proportions although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) DHS Border Security Metrics Report says otherwise.  Quoting the report, “Figure 2 depicts available data on estimated undetected unlawful entries for FY 2006 – FY 2016, the years for which data are available. As the figure indicates, estimated undetected unlawful entries fell from approximately 851,000 to nearly 62,000 during this period, a 93 percent decrease.”

figure 2

Trump is proposing building a modern day Maginot Line, a multi-billion dollar wall  rather than investing in the technologies and methodologies that, as anyone can see, works in reducing the amount of illegals successfully getting across the border.

The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, was a 943 mile long wall of fortifications built along the French-German border in the 1930s intended to deter German aggression against France.  As history shows, specifically images of German troops marching as conquerors past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it was considerably less effective than was originally thought. It has become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.

Trump, ignoring all factual evidence, is proposing to build a modern day version of the Maginot Line on our Southern border claiming it will work where all other attempts to use a wall on scales such as this have not worked. What has worked is an investment in the most modern technology and efficacious methodologies that employ them.  Opponents of the Maginot Line, most notably such as Paul Reynaud and Charles de Gaulle, argued for investments in other technologies such as armor and aircraft to repel the German forces and the war against Germany may have had a different outcome had their suggestions been heeded.  The historical legacy of the Maginot Line was that it was an extremely expensive way to provide the French people a false sense of security.  Trump’s wall, a modern day Maginot Line, will do exactly the same.

Review | The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

This book is a collection of essays written between 2012 and 2014 covering subjects including the collapse of the US economy, the loss of opportunities, the shrinking middle class, and the transformation of higher education into a debt trap by the super rich. While the book is focused mainly on ‘flyover country’ also called the mid-west or the ‘rust belt’ it will also ring true with those in such places as Williamsburg and Greenpoint Brooklyn, where gentrification has pushed out middle class families some of which had lived there for generations. The author successfully predicted the election of Donald Trump and each essay describes the angst that motivated disillusioned voters to cast their vote for him. To be sure, his populist rhetoric set fire to the simmering anger you could easily see at his rallies but populism is a plant that can only grow in a specific type of soil. These essays describe the soil in which his message took hold.

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Review |Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book the author delves into the perilous depths of predicting the future. Regardless of where you come down on the issues and his prognostications you will be thinking about this book long after you have put it down. The author takes two technologies still in their beginning stages, biotechnology and data processing coupled with ever more powerful AI algorithms and extrapolates the impact these two fields will have to economics, humans and the value of human life. The author uses a broad brush so the reader gets everything from the ‘rose colored glasses’ scenario to a bleak dystopian future chronicling the last days of the human race. One comes away with the impression that both scenarios are possible; it all depends on who gets their hands on the technology first and their subsequent ability to control it.

Of particular interest to me were the authors treatment of two subjects: free will and Humanism. Discussions regarding free will have become increasingly popular with a number of authors such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett recently releasing books on the subject. Dr. Harari’s treatment of free will is as good an introduction as I’ve seen to the subject. His treatment of Humanism is even better and, while I still have some issues with specifics he has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions and change some of my views. I would love to see Dr. Harari’s next book delve deep into Humanism. His historical approach to understanding a subject would work quite well with Humanism and add a great deal of value to the current discussions.

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