Sunday, December 10, 2017

Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy

We all know the verse that Linus recites at the climax of Peanuts Christmas. Charlie Brown is questioning what Christmas is all about. Linus ends his reading with “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” That’s great, and by 1965 when that was made, most Christians throughout the world agreed this is the meaning of Christmas. Trouble is, this was written before there was the modern version of Christmas and it originally said, "Peace on earth for those whom God likes." You need to understand a bunch of Greek and Latin to understand that, but simply, you drop one Greek letter and you have to also change the whole subject/object stuff of the sentence and that’s what you get.

I heard this a few times, and it just sort of passed by me. It’s an interesting artifact of history from a time when there were no copy machines. A simple mistake. No real harm done. Except, when you start digging through the various copies throughout history, it was not a mistake at all, it was quite deliberate. This didn’t just happen in the third century and now, with better tools of historiography, we are discovering it. This has been known throughout the history of Christianity by the few people who had control of these books. Just like now, where we have neighbors who are happy to break bread at their ecumenical gatherings and multi-denominational dinners and also fundamentalists who want holy war and, there were people who said they wanted peace in the world and others who knew their scripture said only some of them should see that peace. Sometimes it was the same people, saying one thing while knowing the other.

The difference between now and then is the balance of power. For the most part, those who truly believe in tolerance and peace are in power. But every day we see signs that it is still a struggle. Mainstream religion may appear to hold these values, but the facts of these discrepancies in our manuscripts raises some questions. If you accept the expert opinion on this, if you accept that people who spend their days pouring over these fragments of paper and studying the ancient languages actually got it right, then why don’t we change the Bibles? That is, correct them to what they originally were. Even if we don’t change the Bibles, why don’t preachers tell us this is only what modern people believe, not the people who first wrote the words. Those were the people who were closest to the events that inspired the words. If we are saying that we should listen to what they say, that their ancient wisdom has value, why shouldn’t we be listening to what they really said?

There are a few ways to go from here. We could believe that peace should for only a select group. We can believe that something from outside of the physical universe somehow guided these hands and created these words on paper once, then had another hand erase it or misspell it and somehow that series of changes was slowly revealing this truth to us. We can believe that the original authors had some special vision, maybe divinely inspired or maybe just some special set of circumstances that they observed that helped them tap into this wisdom. Or, we can believe we are creatures with the ability to reflect on the past and future, trying to figure out what to make of our existence on this lonely planet. There may be millions of other planets like ours, but the universe is rather large, and we can calculate the odds of contacting one of those other planets, and they aren’t good. We might want to figure out how to get along with just each other for the time being.

To put it simply, we need to say that whoever wrote the gospel according Luke, was wrong. And when I say “we”, I mean it needs to come from the people who make a living interpreting this book. Those authors were wrong on this account, and they were wrong about some of the other things they said. We have fought wars based on religion. That includes Christians fighting over the meaning of words like these. We have had Kings anointed by gods and we have died for them. We have believed that the world could unite under one set of laws, inspired by some spirit, and experience a thousand years of joy. We were wrong.

We have found that allowing for borders and respecting the sovereignty of others is a way to deal with our differences. We found we have universal values despite theological differences and tried to create international laws, and sometimes we even got it right. Sometimes, nations put aside their differences to keep one nation from getting out of control and imposing its will on weaker people. It’s rarely pretty, but we muddle towards a world where we talk more than fight.

Instead of looking to something that was said hundreds or thousands of years ago, we look to what can be demonstrated by our senses. We extend our senses with tools created by an understanding of basic principles that have been tested over and over again. We know the sun has come up every day regardless of what sacrifices were made, so we don’t make ritual sacrifices anymore. We know the earth compressed the organic material from millions of years ago to give us fuel to light our universities so people can work late into the night curing what was once called a curse. To make that happen, we also know that we need to have some degree of peace with the people who are sitting on a lot of that organic material. The same goes for copper and materials needed to create more sustainable energy infrastructure. What is important is, so far, we just have this one planet.

You can accept what I’m saying or not. You also have the tools to research this yourself. The manuscripts with these words on them have been cataloged, numbered, digitized and are available to you free right now. The 1% of today only have power over us because we don’t do this work. The 1% in the time of Luke had a much easier time of it because they were the only ones who could read at all. The fact that I learned these things is the result of the accumulated knowledge I mentioned above and the cooperation of people across borders. The internet began as a way for scholars to share their work. It has become a way to avoid the lines during the Christmas rush. How it will be used tomorrow is our choice.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

People Suck

I came across this meme the other day while looking for something else. It's from a local Lutheran church. It's a nice church. I have friends there. They do good things. I don't know who put this up or how many of them would just agree to it without thinking. Hopefully not too many.

I couldn't confirm the exact quote, but it does paraphrase a work by Augustine, The Confessions. Augustine was born after Christianity was made legal by Constantine and contributed greatly to the work of trying to figure out what St. Paul meant and what the gospels were trying to say. Things like the Trinity were still being hotly debated at the time. Unfortunately, the people who won the debates were from some of the worst, most extreme forms of Christianity. The ones we would today call The Fundamentalists.

They wouldn't have called themselves fundamentalists, because they had not yet decided on what the fundamentals were. Today we define fundamentalists by those who call the Bible the literal word of God and consider Jesus to have been a real person, the son of God, who actually died and bodily resurrected . Back then, they were still debating which writings belonged in the Bible and if Jesus was a man, fully human and fully God, a spirit, a man who was born then possessed by the holy spirit, or what. The difference then was, people on all sides of those debates had some degree of power and influence. Today, suggesting that Jesus was not a physical human, walking around and talking to people, will get you laughed at in most circles, even outside of church.

So, why am I bringing this up? Sure, it's from 16 centuries ago. But here it is on a modern "wall". It's posted by a church that was founded by a guy who protested against a church that was corrupt. The Catholic Church claims to have it's roots in communities founded by all those writers from the first few centuries that Augustine was debating about. Those communities were protesting the corruption in the Roman Jewish community in their time. Churches today will often claim that they are challenging the world order, that they are uncovering the corruption of power, that they are symbolically turning over the tables of the money lenders in the Temple. And sometimes they do. But they also will tell you that you are not good.

Whatever other traditions churches might have, the legacy of them telling you that you are not good enough for God has endured throughout all of them. When you do that, when you convince people that there is something they don't know, and they need to keep coming back to you to figure out what it is, you can get them to do anything. In the case of the late 4th century Christians, they got people to burn the scripture they didn't like, tear down the churches that didn't teach the right brand of Jesus, and to do the same to people who sat in the wrong place and read the wrong books or said the wrong things.

This is not some alternate history. It is well known. It is the beginning of what came to be known as "The Dark Ages". I'm not blaming the Christians for this. The Romans started their own downfall when they kicked out Aristotle and gave power back to corrupt rulers instead of promoting democracy. Something would have replaced that, and we could have done worse, but we could have done a lot better.

After about a thousand years, we did start doing better. Instead of reading interpretations to people, we taught them to read. We didn't treat people like slaves, we encouraged each other to work for each other. We found out genius and inspiration was everywhere if you just gave it room to grow. Seems pretty obvious now, but it was a struggle to get where we are. People like Susan B Anthohy, Rosa Parks, Ghandi, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali continue that struggle today.

All of them fought using reason. They read, understood and developed philosophy that valued human dignity and human feelings. They didn't try to figure out some logic that explained why a God who claimed to be ultimately good could allow for evil in the world. They acknowledged that there is good and evil and they tried to find ways to deal with it. They didn't provide simple answers. They asked for the right to ask the question. They claimed the right to participate. If someone claimed authority by referring to someone from the 4th century who said they weren't good enough, that they could never measure up to some ultimate authority, they questioned that authority. It's the basis for the world of freedom we have today.

Keep what's good from religion if you can find it, but get rid of stuff like this.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Troubled Times

I found out about this the other day while listening to Laura Erickson’s “For the Birds” on the radio. It has nothing to do with birds, but Laura ventures into philosophy now and again. This is what the internet and modern communication is supposed to do. It connects us to the wisdom from 600 years ago and reminds us of what is important to all human life.

Actually, the fear is not of tomorrow but of the day after, and that is its danger — for the fear of death can keep us from living.
The essay was written in 1951 and begins with a reference to a book written as people were awakening from the nightmare of the Black Death and beginning to experience the Renaissance. It talks about what to do in the face of such destruction and relates it to the fear of the time when it was written, nuclear annihilation. In the 14th century, people hid out in abandoned mines. In the 20th century, they cached weapons and fuel and built compounds in the wilderness in Oregon. For some today, they just stay home and don’t engage with the rest of the world. All of these are choosing death while they are still alive.

If you knew you were to die day after tomorrow, what would you do tomorrow? Only one answer has ever been sensible: Just what I would do if I did not know — go to the office, take the children to the park, go on with the job, get married, buy the house, have a baby.

People still respond by hiding and isolating themselves. If anything, we’ve just expanded what we fear. We fear the modern medicine and modern farming that was supposed to fix the problems of disease and starvation. We fear the government that was created in response to unchecked monarchies. We fear we are being lied to by the institutions that are supposed to offer us access to information so we stop trying to figure what is true. We build virtual walls by shutting out the voices of people not like us and by ignoring our neighbors.

This may all seem like a downer, but DeVoto offers an answer, perhaps “the answer”, an answer that is repeated throughout history in stories and poetry.

The link is to Laura’s blog. It expands on the quotes I’ve put here. It further links to the complete article by Bernard DeVoto.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

How many partners do you need?

When I ask people what we should do when we disagree, most people say we should go find people who do agree with us and work with them. At best they might make some sort nod to inclusivity. This worked fine for most of human history, but then we found out that what we do affects people on the other side of the planet. What we wear and what we eat can cause suffering for children on other continents. What we don’t do can result in death and disease just down the road from us. Even if we want to be selfish, ignoring that suffering will eventually result in problems for us and our loved ones.

There are answers to the question. We have rules of order for running meetings. We have neighborhood groups and community organizations. We have Constitutions and International Law. We have the Rule of Christ if you prefer, Matthew 18:15-20. But very few people know how these systems work and even fewer actually use them or use them wisely. All of them are designed to regulate common decency; take turns speaking, respond to what was said before starting a new topic, when consensus doesn’t exist take a vote, seek facts, agree on how to determine truth then stick to that agreement. Drawing a boundary and keeping some people outside of it is the last resort.

I left the 3rd largest denomination of Christians because they couldn’t agree on how to deal with the issue of homosexuality. The United States moved on and I realized my church was no longer a leader on one of the most important issues of our time. But I didn’t blame all Christians. I blamed half of the people in my church and I blamed the poor system of decision making they all inherited. But I still acknowledge and support those who are fighting that fight from the inside of what I consider a flawed organization.

That’s around 6 million people I consider allies, not enemies. I’m sure I have many differences with many of them. But they have a voice that gets heard in tiny villages all across Africa where they still have the death penalty for loving someone in the wrong way. They have ways and means of building community that I don’t. My facebook post congratulating my friend and his husband doesn’t have that kind of impact.

I just picked this one issue. If you think this post is about advocating for LGBTQ or whatever initials I forgot, you missed the point. Pick your issue; GMOs, Afghanistan, vaccines, big government, big organic, sending food to Kenya, choice, life, free speech, then think about who you can’t talk to because you disagree on those issues. Then pick an issue like breathable air or drinkable water or creating communities where children can grow and discover their place in the world. How many partners do you need to make that happen?

Friday, July 28, 2017

You're own evil demon

I came across this rather interesting use of a very old thought experiment. Descartes was trying to figure out if he existed independently, or if something was controlling him, like an evil demon. He eventually concluded his ability to think proved his independence. The use of this is something I see people doing to themselves or trying to do to others. They try to make people into their own “Cartesian demons”.
You can do it to yourself by thinking you are a failure, then believing it. You can let others do it by allowing them to tell you that you are in some way flawed. You can let them convince you that they are smarter, or that all humans are incapable of understanding some fundamental truth or that none of us know the real way things work. Of course they have the answer, and if you believe them, you give yourself up to them to get it. Or, you just give up to the idea. Either way you’ve let an imaginary “demon” take control.
The extreme case is a cult, but less extreme cases can be seen every day with fake headlines or fake science and claims that reality is fakes. Well established facts become a conspiracy of the elite. Extensive investigations into voter fraud are tossed aside because one paper ballot was counted twice. Always left unmentioned is that the problem was caught and corrected, otherwise, how would we know it ever happened?
People believe we can’t make a difference and that we are being controlled by invisible forces. They fear poison in the water, in our food and even in our medicines. We accept the status quo that there will always be poor despite centuries of solving social problems. There is always some disaster or someone being slighted to prove the point.

The good news, no special powers are required to escape this demon. Just think for yourself. If it’s a claim about science, then find all the research you can and learn how a scientific consensus if formed. If it’s government, get involved. The US just had two polar opposites in the presidency. I’m guessing no one is controlling this. If it’s just that we can’t know everything and we’re just animals, then how do you know that? You would need to know everything to know that we can’t know it. There is nothing to do but learn more. You don’t know what your limits are.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Truth Pledge

People say I argue a lot on facebook. I’m not going to argue about that. But most of the time, I’m trying to just get the discussion on to an honest track. I try to find agreement about basic facts, like pain hurts, and people die, and life is risky, and there are things we don’t know, and love is better than hate. Okay that last one is not a fact, but you get the idea.

 I Pledge My Earnest Efforts To:

 Share truth

  • Verify: fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
  • Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
  • Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
  • Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts

 Honor truth

  • Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
  • Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information

 Encourage truth

  • Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
  • Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
  • Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
  • Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth

I heard about this through Bart Campolo’s podcast where he pointed out the people who sign this are going to be the people you already trust. Maybe. Or they are going to be those “others” that you don’t trust and you see as people who sign pledges and don’t understand them. Yep. But it’s a start. If enough people, important people, people who are in positions that are supposed to be trustworthy, sign it, it will begin to carry some weight.

It’s very short and all you do is click the orange button. Email is required, which I know will scare a few people off. It’s not for everyone.

Meanwhile, we can actually start doing this with each other. It’s like recycling. We can shake our fists at the big polluters of the world, but if we aren’t reducing our plastic consumption and separating our garbage, nothing is going to change. As Bart says, “Science can’t proceed unless people agree to be honest with each other about their results. Everything has to be verifiable. When people lie about their results, it slows down the whole process. Science is a conversation and this conversation can only go forward if we agree to these ground rules. In the same way, collective governance, the social contract, social cooperation can only really do well if we agree to have the conversation where we all use the same facts. If we are going to live together, have a community, large or small, we’ve gotta agree to some rules of conversation. The first of those is everybody’s gotta tell the truth about physical things, money that can be accouted for, etc. Without that, we can’t make any decisions, we can’t even argue.”

Oddly enough, I’m now going to cite a study on Buzzfeed. It was also mentioned in the podcast. Usually I don’t trust Buzzfeed, but this one has been reviewed and cited by more reputable sources. It compares the top 20 fake news items on facebook in the last election cycle to the top 20 real news stories. The fake news engaged 8 million people, while real news only had 7 million shares. That’s you. That’s every time you share something and say, “I’m not sure about this, but I’m sharing it anyway.” Or even when you say, “This is dumb.”

I know that’s hard not to do sometimes, but it’s something I’m trying to do lessof myself. There are ways to avoid it and still engage the issues.Share an article that discusses the bad science or “alternative facts” and provides the facts that were left out, or explains the bad analysis. Sometimes, in the case of bad science, the counter argument is to simply show the actual scientific study underlying the discussion. Often, the summary of the study tells you the opposite of what the fake news story says. If we do that we’ll have a facebook full of actual data instead of the interpretation of someone who knows little or nothing about the field. With politics, link the full speech, or to a chapter from Adam Smith, or the Supreme Court decision that is being claimed as supporting evidence, or a longer story of the historical event in question, or a Pew poll,anything but the fake news. You can refer to the fake article by giving the source, title, author and date if you want. I can usually determine fakeness just by examining those four things.

There is also a menu item in facebook to report fake news. This of course requires that you read it and do a little fact checking, but it’s the tool we have for now. Some of you have already figured out to just not join facebook, but I’m assuming you aren’t reading this, so I’m not talking to you. This is for all of my online relationships.

One little story before you go. I participated in my first online discussion group back in 1993. It was a computer group supporting getting technology into the community. In the middle of some other discussion, someone popped in and said we should all be concerned about congress wanting to tax email. He included a number identifying the bill. I dismissed it. This urban legend continued to make the rounds on the Internet for years, making it all the way to the 2000 presidential debate between Al Gore and George W Bush. Neither of them knew how to answer the question or had heard of this bill, because it never existed.

Back then, I learned about and started educating people about this and other stories that only existed in emails and discussion forums. It took over a decade to get rid of that one story. It would have been great if Al had known about fake news, but the term wasn’t on anyone’s radar at the time.It sure is now, but it is already out of control and it played a yuge part in the 2016 election. We owe it to ourselves to create a public square filled with honest discussion.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fake News

I have an ongoing "discussion" with a local columnist in the free rag in Duluth. He writes about every conspiracy under the sun, his favorite being "Big Pharma". I write to the editor, and get published most of the time. This one is about where fake news comes in general, and how to spot it:

As Gary moves on to the next conspiracy theory, let’s look at his strategy in general. I showed Gary these steps. He says this is what Big Pharma and mainstream media and whoever else he rails against does. I’ll show how you can tell fake from real after showing this 7 step method of phony science.
This system starts with an industry that is somehow threatened by established science facts. It funds and creates information that looks scientific, but isn’t. You can see where the Duluth Reader begins to play a role in this, somewhere around step 5. Whether the Reader or Gary Kohls are unwitting participants or willing supporters of these industries is known only to them.

1 – Create uncertainty about accepted views of science. Not with new science, but by cherry picking papers or experiments that were never confirmed or were proven false. Any isolated article will do.
2 – Spoon feed the press with this disinformation through non-profits and bloggers.
3 – Build and finance industry-aligned front groups that appear to be grassroots efforts.
4 – Recruit professionals into the campaign.
5 – Talk-radio and cable news and more from the earlier steps should pick up the story at this point. They might not realize the source.
6 – The political support is now there. Votes can be had by supporting the ideas. Questioning these unscientific sources can get you labeled as the one who hasn’t read the latest research.
7 – The industry behind the phony science can now step out of the shadows, supported by every aspect of mainstream society. They can appear to be neutral and positive voices in the debate. Maybe even play the victim.

How can we recognize this is happening? It’s not as hard as you think. You need to compare the stories that are published through all the steps with the actual science. You don’t need a degree in every possible science, but you need to learn what actual science looks like. It looks like the articles printed in accepted journals like Nature or Scientific American. It looks like what is being taught in Universities around the world.

You may not be able to evaluate every study but you can evaluate the methodology. You can see who did the study and see if they have knowledge and experience and if they are respected by others with similar knowledge and experience. You can see if something was predicted based on their knowledge that was later shown to be true. You can evaluate where they say their knowledge came from. Did it come from institutions of learning where you would send your children or are they someplace you’ve never heard of? If a study is quoted, get the name of it and who wrote it. Look it up and look up if it has been refuted or even retracted. Often, you need look no further than whatever article you are reading. Does it have a byline saying who wrote it? If there are sources, check a couple of them with the above tests. I have seen citations that actually don’t lead anywhere, or lead to studies that don’t say what the article says it does.

Try this test. There is probably something that comes from universities and science journals that you accept, like the earth is 4.5 billion years old, we went to the moon, climate change is being caused by human action, or germs make you sick. Look at how you were convinced of whatever you accept as true. Look at all the things that would need to be explained if they were not true. Now, apply those standards to vaccines or chemtrails or whatever else is being questioned. If you apply standards of logic and evidence honestly and equally, you will arrive at the best conclusions that humans are currently capable of. If you want to align yourself with the real world, you should at least give it a shot.

If you want more, and I know you are dying for it, click here. My comments are signed with various versions of John W. They go back 3 weeks. I have ones for June 14 and May 25th somewhere, I'll try to get them online. The one with the graphs is a doozy. May 17th is probably my favorite. That's where I started.