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 Snopes.com 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. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Self Promotion

This is me, on a podcast. It's a guy in Duluth who invited me via the Lake Superior Freethinkers facebook page. His "topic of the month" was "The Meaning of Life". I give a couple answers, one from Dan Fincke, one from Dan Barker that the question is backwards. Aidin does some good probing in to my own journey. It's actually not that bad.

Topic a Month Podcast

I didn't quite get to an expression of my main theme, so added this in the comments afterward:

To tie this all together, the reason for caring for others is that others cared for us. As we expand who we help, who we educate, more people will be able to use their skills effectively and find their best fit in the world. As we have done this, for example, women have become more empowered, giving them the right to control their own reproductive choices. So, counter-intuitively, helping people who are having lots of babies results in decreasing population.
As people see a world of hope, where their children will survive and help each other, they don't see the need to have lots of children. Educating each other, empowering each other, leads to people making better choices for leadership, instead of feeling the need to join a paramilitary group and tear down governments.
We can do this on the world scale, bringing appropriate technology where it is needed, as well as across the table from each other, listening intently, and teaching instead of fighting.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Accidental Courtesy

http://accidentalcourtesy.com/

Available on Netflix and elsewhere. To say this movie is controversial or provocative would be an understatement. A jazz musician, and would-be diplomat is the star. You see his successes; a couple dozen KKK robes that men have given to him when they quit the Klan. Later, you see how difficult it is when he sits down with a couple of young men from Black Lives Matter.

Unfortunately, whatever it is he does, is not easily taught. He does speak publicly, we'll see if his ideas grow in the future. I like his basic premise, that sitting in a room full of people who agree with your point of view and discussing how to be more "diverse", is not going to solve anything. We need to sit down at tables with the people with whom we disagree.

There are a few of those conversations throughout the movie. I suspect they are like nothing you've ever seen.

I've tried to have these myself. I've tried to understand the racist mind or the libertarian ideas. I do some of the things I see Daryl doing. I ask why they think government should not provide services to all people equally. If they think services are provided unequally, I ask why they think that. I ask what it takes to create a free and open society at all. To me it means accepting, even embracing ideas from other cultures while finding common ground. To them there is something dangerous about that. They cite failures in the past when cultures were mixed. But if I cite historical precedents of success, they say they don't apply.

I try to talk about values, because "free and open" does not mean anything goes. Some libertarians will actually say anarchy is possible, as long anyone is free to leave a given boundary. Within the defined boundaries, the rules can be that there are no rules, except for the rule that if you want to leave you can. Somehow, that rule has to apply to everyone. If this sounds like a science fiction premise, I think you're right. There are too many problems with it for me to even begin.

If it's not anything goes, then what should everyone agree to? Fire departments? Police? Libraries? Defending of borders? Food safety? This leads to a discussion of legal agreements, which leads to a need for agreements about what a law is and how they can be enforced. Things break down around that time because they are starting to define governments, not agreements between individuals, but they still think they are talking about a system where if they want to say white people rule, it can work.

I like to talk about when the modern idea of nations was created. I know, I'm using that history that doesn't count as evidence, and in conversation, you usually don't get to do this. In 1638 in Westphalia, the treaty called The Peace of Westphalia was signed, ending decades of religious war. A few years later, Isaac Newton was born and the science that was used to get us to the moon was created. I kind of see those two things as related. When we can stop arguing about how our cultural beliefs are more important than some other culture's belief's and start looking at the problems of survival themselves, we can begin to work together and build that peaceful world we all say we want. When I try to talk about love, that's when things really tend to get out of control.

They tell me that their opinion is sharing of their views and my opinions indicate I am closed minded and that I am not listening. That the values that the government supports that they agree with are the right ones, and the ones they don't agree with are the equivalent of them being forced to do something at gun point. They tell me their evidence, even if they can't show it to me is correct, and my scientific studies are the fallacy of an argument from authority. Eventually, we get to where there is no way to demonstrate truth, no one can prove anything, we don't know if we exist and it's just everyone for themselves. Basically a return to the stone age.

People observing these conversations tend to focus on the emotional argument. The person getting upset often gets the benefit of the doubt that the upset was caused by how the argument was presented. This ignores anything about the logic or reasoning of the argument itself. There is no excuse for presenting an argument poorly or for shaming someone who lacks background information or berating them for failing to understand. But someone's failure to understand is not always the fault of the person making the argument. It's good to remember Bertrand Russel's rule of allowing others time to absorb new information when these conflicts arise.

Some of this is basic ignorance. Not stupidity, just not knowing. In the documentary, Daryl goes to the Lincoln Memorial, with the big statue of Lincoln in a chair. He walks around and asks a couple people to please take a step or two from where they are standing, because that is where Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he gave his famous speech. He knows it's the spot because it is engraved in the marble they are standing on. That's it. No statue, No plaque. It's not even in color. If it's not pointed out to you, you miss it. A lot of history of non-white European men in America is like that. Daryl calls this "standing on the dream". We do it all the time, without thinking about, without knowing what we are missing.