You Can’t Fix Stupid – California!

My wife and I have this running commentary about stupidity.  She often says, “You can’t fix stupid.”  I say you can, but I admit that sometimes stupid gets fixed through Darwinian evolution, or stupid gets replaced by other stupid.  Nevertheless, stupid isn’t perpetual or permanent.  She just rolls her eyes.

In this context, stupid is a habit we follow without thinking that gets us into trouble, does us long term harm, or wastes time and precious resources.  It’s difficult to provide an example without offending someone, because admittedly, we all do stupid.  Before I write about California, and in order to avoid offending loved ones and friends, I’ll use myself as an example.

Every two weeks, usually on a Sunday, I sit down at a big table in our home and place a bunch of pills, capsules, and tablets into little cubic containers which help me keep track of when I should take them during the day and the week.  These are nutritional supplements and vitamins.  I do this without much thinking about it.  In fact, while I’m dutifully organizing these little items, I’m usually listening to a book or some music because organizing my pills is boring.  This is a long-term ritual I’ve conducted for at least 25 years, although the specific items in each cubicle have changed over the years.  Recently, because I became curious about what exactly I was putting into my body, I decided to create a spreadsheet with each ingredient listed on the vertical column, the name of the supplement preparation across the top, and the dosage in the corresponding spreadsheet cells.  Too put it mildly, I was amazed at what I’ve been ingesting every day for the last 25 years without much thought and without really knowing if it makes a difference.  Well, I am 77 years old in perfect health (for my age) with no current prescription medications and rare visits to physicians, opticians, or audiologists.  I’m blessed.  Is my good health related to taking these supplements?  Beats me!  Maybe its my genes, or my wife’s good cooking, or clean-living in safe and healthy environments without smoking.  I do this thing because it has psychological inertia after 25 years of doing this thing.  It’s a ritual.  I’m definitely stupid about it.  But I’ll keep doing it because not doing it would be scary.

Anything we do without thinking is stupid.  It might be good for us, it might not, and it could even be deadly.  We need to learn to question our rituals from time to time.  What made sense 25 years ago might be a bad habit today.  We should ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?”  If we don’t ask, we are being stupid if we keep doing the thing.

California is stupid!  In fact, it is so stupid that one hundred years from now, people will fall down laughing at the stupid currently on display.  California is addicted to stupid.  The harm done to this population of 40 million people without thinking will be extraordinarily humorous once all the current perpetrators and victims of this stupidity have gone to meet their maker.   Don’t misunderstand me, California is a beautiful state with wonderful people but an extremely dangerous place to live.  Name a natural disaster and California has it.   There is no logical reason to live there year around unless you enjoy wildfires, mudslides, earthquakes, heat waves, avalanches, frigid cold, volcanoes, tsunami’s, hurricanes, plagues, pests, droughts, floods, smog, and fog to name but a few.  It is all made worse by governments at all levels that are incredibly stupid.

All this comes to mind as I see a report about power outages inconveniencing the defenseless victims of the stupid government they elected (and that’s another example of a stupid habit).  They don’t have enough electricity for their population.  Why?  Because they closed or shutdown power plants.  Why? Because they use fossil fuels or uranium to generate electricity.  Ok, well what is their plan to replace the electricity?  They have a multi-dimensional approach.  They buy electricity from surrounding states, they replace their power plants with wind farms and solar panels, and they reduce the electricity provided to their population.  All of this is done, ostensibly, to avoid adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  If that is true, then why don’t they build more nuclear power plants that don’t add carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?  Crickets!

There are so many aspects of this entire circumstance that exemplify stupidity, it is difficult to know where to begin.  But I will.

  1. Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere isn’t a long-term problem, and it might actually promote human flourishing through greater agricultural productivity and global greening.
  2. Decommissioning power plants leads to energy shortages at exactly the times when more electricity is needed.
  3. The cost of electricity skyrockets when demand exceeds supply.
  4. The poorest residents of the state are the most harmed and inconvenienced by the lack of electricity and its high cost.
  5. The more affluent residents of the state install generators to provide their own electricity, and in doing so they will release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they would otherwise.
  6. Wind turbines and solar arrays require large land areas and use humongous quantities of limited and expensive natural resources, and furthermore, they are difficult and expensive to recycle and only last a decade or two before needing to be replaced.
  7. Wind turbines and solar arrays only provide electricity when the wind is blowing, and the sun is shining, and their unreliability places a significant strain on the electrical grid requiring more base-load power thereby, adding to the cost.

The truth is this.  California government officials do things without evaluating their effectiveness.  They do stupid things in order to signal their virtue to other stupid people.  All the good people of their world will surely applaud them for reducing their carbon footprint.  Unfortunately, the good people of their world are also stupid.  This is stupid impressing stupid.  Both feel good.  And 40 million people are victims of this stupid.

I chose to pick on California, but I could have chosen a gazillion other examples.  I’ve already written twice about wearing masks, and if you do, just ask yourself why.  Don’t be offended.  Like I said, we all do stupid, sometimes.  Virtue signally is often stupid impressing stupid.

Posted in Climate Science, Energy, Human Behavior, Musings, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Closed Schools: Be Careful What You Wish For

The late Harvard Biologist, Stephen J. Gould, Ph.D., was known for his theory of punctuated evolution, the idea that significant changes occur following significant events rather than gradually and somewhat uniformly over time. Highly respected best-selling British author, Matt Ridley, D.Sc., in his 2015 and 2020 books, The Evolution of Everything and How Innovation Works, extends our understanding of evolution to include how society and technology change. This coronavirus pandemic represents a significant global experience.  Undoubtedly, significant changes will happen as a consequence.

One area of society that might experience major change is public education.  Because the current administration, the President and the CDC among others, dared to suggest that schools should open for students this fall, large numbers of partisan opponents, school boards, governors, teachers unions, and others of the “resistance” generally oppose the opening of our public schools. The partisan media also took sides in this debate by cherry-picking the arguments that support their agendas and by assassinating the characters of those who dare to disagree.  This political wrangling ignores the data that shows children, their teachers, parents, communities, and the nation suffer greater risks when schools remain closed.  It’s dysfunction writ large!

In a previous post,  How Do We Decide About Schools, I stated my case. Schools should open this fall for students in classrooms on campus.  I recommended this with some exceptions in those few areas around the country where local school boards determine it would not be safe at this time.  The decision should be rational not political.  In other words, the boards should consider the pros and cons, or the costs and benefits to students, teachers, parents, and the broader community recognizing that there are consequences and risks with any decision, but there are benefits as well.  No aspect of our lives is free of risk or danger.  Sometimes the likely good outweighs the possible harm.

I claim some expertise on this issue as a professional educator with advanced degrees and more than 50 years of experience as a science educator, academic administrator, and college president.  I also claim some insight through my marriage to a talented elementary school teacher with more than 40 years of experience in both private and public education.  I also claim some empathy as a parent whose children excelled in public school, college, and post graduate education and training.  Nothing about my opinion relates to partisan politics.  I see nothing about this decision that should have anything to do with how people vote or even don’t vote.

All of this is just background to my main point.  Public education will change significantly as a result of this pandemic. Parents will find a way.  In school districts that decide to remain closed, many parents and teachers will pursue alternatives for the education of their children.  I predict the number of cooperative neighborhood schools will grow.  I predict private and parochial schools will see record enrollments.  Home schooling will increase dramatically as will effective online and hybrid programs.  You should expect to see more charter schools that avoid the not-so-convenient niceties of collective bargaining.  Many excellent teachers may find themselves hired as tutors, either by the more affluent citizens of our communities or by ordinary people who come together to share the expense.  It seems likely that groups of teachers will establish their own learning centers, perhaps specializing in certain areas of knowledge and training.  Perhaps these teacher groups will form partnerships with other teacher groups specializing in other areas of education.  The number of possibilities is endless.

This pandemic and the partisan motivation witnessed in some parts of our country may ultimately lead to a revolution in public and private education that will move our communities and our entire country forward free of the yoke of the unions and other negative pressures currently inhibiting our schools.  We could see a gigantic leap in the education of our young people.  We generally know how to educate our students, but we don’t always agree on what is important to include in their education.  I’ve always felt that a diversity of educational experiences is best for society and best for our children.

Parents need to have choices.  Competition leads to excellence.  The distributed governance of schools allows for experimentation, and that ultimately encourages discovery of new and better ways of learning in the most important lessons necessary for a flourishing human society.

If your school district decides to remain closed this fall, they should be aware of the consequences.  People are at least as smart as their elected representatives, smarter in many cases.

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Masks in a Sarcasm Free Zone

A few days ago, I offered a sarcastic post entitled “The Belt Order”.  Most got it, a few thought it was real. In this hysterical environment, that’s understandable. Now, I feel some responsibility to explain.

I object to cities, counties, and states mandating masks because that encourages or requires people to wear masks when they are not necessary and, in some cases, even harmful. I also object to these mandates because they demonstrate an authoritarian impulse which may cross an important threshold of constitutionality.

Surgeons and other health care professionals wear special N95 masks manufactured to minimize the risk of infecting a patient undergoing surgery and in other related circumstances. The patients may suffer an immune deficiency, or they are vulnerable to infection for other obvious reasons. Lots of viruses and bacteria are expelled into the air when these medical professionals breath, sneeze, or cough.

In the first stages of this Covid-19 pandemic, the supply of N95 masks was threatened. Many worried that medical professionals would run out of these protective masks. In hospital environments, they are usually worn once and then discarded, adding to the concern about a shortage should hospitals become inundated with infected patients. The public was told they were not necessary and that simple cloth masks or even scarfs would suffice to limit the spread of the virus. To this day, the CDC recommends masks in some situations, but there is no national requirement.

An N95 mask is designed to remove particulates. It does not block gases or vapors, although it impedes their passage. The N95 designation means the mask would block 95 percent of the airborne particles. The “N” designation means the masks are only effective in the absence of oil droplets or other non-polar liquid aerosols. There are other classes of masks designated with an “R” or “P” for use in certain industrial settings. All of these masks would filter most viruses and bacteria absorbed onto the surfaces of droplets or particles. They will not block airborne virus materials to the same extent. Such free-floating viruses are extremely small and of such a low concentration as to not provide a sufficient viral load to infect someone when emitted from the person wearing the mask.

A cloth mask will block some particulates and droplets, but not close to 95 percent. It all depends upon the fabric. N95 masks are made of a fine mesh of polypropylene. Cloth masks are made of woven threads of various natural and synthetic materials. There is a big difference. There is no research demonstrating the effectiveness of cloth masks. We can assume that an infected person will not pass as much contagious material into the air if wearing a cloth mask, but we don’t know how much or how little. We can guess.

There is no good reason for an uninfected asymptomatic person in good health to ever wear a cloth mask. These masks supposedly limit the possibility of infecting others. Masks do not protect the wearer because viruses are extremely small nanometer sized particles which enter the body in a number of ways such as through the eyes and from our hands that have touched contaminated objects. It would certainly not prevent healthy people from spreading viruses into the air, because they don’t have the virus to spread.

There are important reasons not to wear a mask for an extended period of time. Here are some.

  1. Masks decrease oxygen intake by making it more difficult to breath. Blood chemistry may be affected by rebreathing carbon dioxide normally expelled when not wearing a mask. We need oxygen for our health, including for the immune system to function normally.
  2. Masks may cause the re-inhalation of sulfurous, nitrous, and other substances normally exhaled in our breath. These vapors, particulates, and droplets might be trapped or absorbed by the mask causing it to become contaminated.
  3. After lengthy periods of wearing a mask, the decreased oxygen, increased carbon dioxide, and possible toxin intake may put the body of some people into a compromised state impacting their immune response making them more vulnerable to infection.
  4. Our bodies are loaded with viruses which normally do not affect our health adversely. Rebreathing our contaminated exhalations may concentrate pathogens to a potentially dangerous viral load. If this happens when our immune system is compromised, we may be infected by our own pathogenic viruses.
  5. Cloth masks will not trap free-floating viruses in our breath. Covid-19 viruses are between 75 nm and 150 nm in diameter. The fine mesh of a microfiber cloth mask may be 15 microns wide. A free-floating virus particle would sale right through this cloth mask. In fact, 100 virus particles lined up in a straight line would pass right through the space between the threads of a microfiber mask. A cotton mask would allow a thousand or more virus particles to line up in the space between threads. A single virus going through a cloth mask would be like a mosquito flying through your wide-open front door.
  6. Masks encourage a false sense of security for the wearer and for others in a group of people wearing masks. Because of this, they may put themselves into environments with people who may be infected and sick with the virus thinking they are protected. For a variety of reasons, cloth masks are not effective in protecting a wearer from others who may be sick with the virus.
  7. The likelihood of becoming infected with a virus outdoors is exceptionally low. Wind disperses viruses. Sunlight and heat destroy viruses on surfaces. Sunlight helps us produce Vitamin D which plays a role in our immune response to viruses and other pathogens. Wearing a mask in such an outdoor setting is unnecessary and potentially unhealthy.

Who should wear a mask? If you are sick with this virus, you should wear an N95 rated mask if you must be around other people. If you do not know if you have become infected, but you have symptoms such as a fever and a cough, you should wear an N95 mask when you must be around other people at least until you have been tested. If a store or any facility requires you to wear a mask, I recommend that you do so as a sign of respect for the ownership of that facility. If a government requires you to wear a mask inside government facilities, it is appropriate and smart to put one on to avoid being arrested, fined, or worse.

There are people who should not wear a mask. If you have respiratory, heart, lung, or other related diseases or complications and find it difficult to breath or if you are on oxygen, you should definitely not put on an N95 or cloth mask. Wearing a mask while driving could also be dangerous for anyone because it is limiting your oxygen, possibly affecting your judgement, your response time, or even your wakefulness. Wearing a mask during exercise or running could be dangerous because of the limiting of your oxygen intake and causing carbon dioxide to build up with potential electrolyte imbalance consequences.

I have no problem with people wearing masks if that is what they want to do. If they feel it is a sign of respect to others, that is a good reason to wear one when in a group of people, especially among strangers who may or may not be infected or vulnerable to infection. I strongly object to governments mandating that we wear masks. If they can require this item of apparel, they can require almost any dress code. With good information, we are capable of making decisions about protecting ourselves and others.

The most important reason that I object to governments ordering the wearing of masks is because some people should not wear them, others don’t need to wear them, and some environments are not appropriate for wearing a mask. It is government overreach. Just give us the honest information from reliable sources and let us make up our own minds. These city and county commissioners, state legislators, governors, and other government officials are not smarter than the people they serve.

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How Do We Decide About Schools?

Should we open our schools this fall? That is the question thousands of school boards and fifty state governments face as we struggle to return to normalcy. The question begs different answers in different communities and in each state. I may not know each specific circumstance, but I can suggest how these decisions should be considered. I can also suggest what should not factor into any decision.

In life there are always risks. No matter what a school board decides, someone is likely to succumb to the coronavirus or to some other disease or unintended injury. This sad outcome is unavoidable. Deaths occur no matter what decisions school boards make. Different choices lead to different risks and different victims. No one can predict such tragedies. They happen regardless of our actions and our choices. The goal is to minimize the known risks while maximizing the desired benefits. Easier said then done, especially in a highly inflamed political and emotional climate.

There are three populations of people directly impacted by whether we open our schools or keep them closed. Obviously, the children should be considered. What is best for them? But schools are more than the children. Millions of teachers and other school employees should be considered as well. How are they likely to be affected? Parents and other family members also have a stake in this important decision. Their lives and livelihoods may depend on whether their children are in school full-time, part-time, or not at all. Ignoring any one of these groups could be a fatal error. Weighing the risks and benefits to each group would be critical to any satisfactory decision.

Decision are often required before we are ready to make them. The delay or absence of a decision often leads to worse outcomes than a poor decision. Waiting for the perfect solution is both dangerous and foolish. Timing is important. Teachers, parents, and children all need to prepare in order to manage the risks and organize their lives.

In addition to the children, teachers, parents, and many others including employers, governments, healthcare, and even the sports and entertainment industries will endure the consequences of schools opening or remaining closed.

Consider the children first. The benefits of education are known and accepted. What are the risks of children going back to school? A major study of 137 million children and teenagers in the United States and Europe identified 44 deaths attributed to Covid-19 through the middle of May. With therapeutics improving as physicians learn to treat this disease, we should expect the death rate to decline. There are reports of a less deadly but perhaps more contagious strain of the virus evolving. Whatever the risks of this virus in the past, we can assume the risks in the future will be lower. At some point in the future, a vaccine could resolve this health crisis completely. When this will happen is unknown, next winter, next year, beyond that?

How do we assess risk associated with this virus? One way would be to compare it to known dangers we deal with regularly. In the study of 137 million children and teenagers in the U.S. and in Europe, 1,056 died from causes unrelated to the virus compared to 44 who died from Covid-19. In other words, a child or teenager in this population was 24 times more likely to die of some cause other than from this virus. Many of these deaths occurred in homes, on highways, or in a hospital from some other fatal malady. Obviously, children and teenagers would be far safer in school this fall than somewhere else. This virus does not affect children to an extent that would warrant them staying away from school. Recent studies also show that children who may test positive for the virus but remain asymptomatic are unlikely to spread the disease to others especially if basic hygiene protocols are implemented.

Teachers and school employees are much older and more vulnerable to this coronavirus. Some have health challenges making them even more likely to become infected. What is the risk to this population? We know from CDC data that healthy adults who test positive for the virus, usually recover within a relatively short time, days to weeks. In a study of 149,781 cases in Florida through the end of June 2020, the vast majority (85 percent) were 65 years old or older. Among those adults under 65, there were 6,816 hospitalizations. This is out of an adult population in Florida of approximately 17 million. Using these numbers, an adult in Florida between the ages of 18-65 has a 0.04 percent chance of being hospitalized and a 0.003 percent chance of death from this virus. We also know that most (more than 80 percent) of the hospitalizations and deaths are people who have known co-morbidities. A healthy adult has less chance of succumbing to the coronavirus than to the seasonal influenza. We rarely close schools because of a flu epidemic. A teacher between the ages of 21 to 65 is 5.6 times more likely to die from influenza than from the Covid-19 based on 2017 data from the CDC. Furthermore, teachers and other school employees are at greater risk from accidents, cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other causes of death than from this current virus. As with the school children, school employees are safer at school than not at school, and less likely to contract the coronavirus.

School employees who have other health issues should weigh the risks and take necessary precautions, but they should recognize they are at risk at home or at school, wherever they may be. Unlike with influenza and the common cold, Covid-19 positive, but otherwise asymptomatic children, are not likely to spread this virus.

Without question parents benefit from their children going to school and these benefits far outweigh any risks. Think of the loss of employment or the expense and availability of childcare. What about parents who are not prepared to home school their children or to send them to private schools? In some communities, consider the risks to unsupervised children whose parents are working or not at home during the day.  Getting our schools back to normal is a net plus for parents.

The greater community, employers, and everyone else benefits from a flourishing school, system without question.

I can see no reason why most schools, public and private, should remain closed this fall. There may be special circumstances in some communities, with some teachers and with some parents that call for other choices. My suggestion is to make those decision based on rational considerations, not on hunches, intuition, emotion, or politics. The distortions and exaggerations of the so-called free press and politicians have confused and frightened us. Ignore their insane hysterics and look at the data. Schools can be relatively safe, for children, for teachers, and for everyone else.  In life there are always risks.

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The Belt Order (S)

They have gone too far this time. The county commission just ordered the wearing of belts at all times when in the public spaces. There is a sizable fine of $101 for the first offense. Repeat violations may be fined $1,001, and a third time offender could face up to 30 days in jail, except in February which has only 28 or 29 days.

For the record, I will not comply with this idiotic dictate. Do not misunderstand me. I have absolutely no problem with those of you who choose to wear belts. It is a matter of principle. If they can mandate belts, they can mandate the wearing of shoes, or hats, or good grief, they might even require underwear.

It is difficult to understand why the commission did this, and why now. Could it be politically motivated? Since the surrounding counties previously implemented similar mandates, perhaps they are worried their alleged lack of concern for the public could be used against them in the coming election. I question the constitutionality of this ridiculous mandate.

They claim the science is on their side. They point to recent research that shows that most sexual assaults occur when one or both parties are not wearing belts. I would point out to these public servants that there may be a statistically significant correlation at the 95 percent confidence level, but no causative link has ever been demonstrated. In all my years on this earth, I never observed a beltless person being naughty in public. I think these elected officials fear being criticized for failing to protect the children and others with various co-morbidities.  Don’t they realize we are quite capable of comprehending the scientific research and making our own decisions about wearing a belt.  Who decided these elected officials possess greater wisdom?  If going beltless posses an existential threat, just give us the factual information and let us make our own decisions.  Don’t they respect our judgement?

In their rush to implement this draconian order, the commission also failed to specify where the belt must be worn or even what kind of belt we must wear. I will gladly pay the fine for my first offense. If I must venture into the public afterwards, I will wear a belt made of hemp around my neck with a sign that says “This is a Belt” and dare them to arrest me for this entirely innocent public disobedience. I may even rally my comrades in protest to take down the prominent statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the county courthouse garden. Other’s in my community have remarked that he is not wearing a belt, yet they honor him without condemnation. What hypocrites!

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Listening to The Science

Finding the truth, is sort of like counting to infinity. It will certainly take a long time, but the end result promises to be extraordinary. This is the problem of science. It searches for truth, but there are always more truths to pursue.

Every time I hear a governor, or some other elected official, say “we are following The Science,” I’m inclined to find a different governor or elected official whose advice I might consider. Why does an elected official proclaim such faith in The Science? This is obviously someone who wants to end the discussion, and worse, this is someone who wants to control our lives. This represents a basic misunderstanding of science.

In reality, most of us, including governors, rely on the advice of experts, but expert opinions are not the same as the truth. Most scientists spend their lives in a persistent pursuit of ever greater understanding. We call this study or even research. No scientist, that we should ever trust, would claim to know everything about anything. How many times have you seen scientists change their minds? It happens all the time. Even a consensus of scientists can remain consistently wrong until one clear voice exposes their once fallacious fixation.

Even in this present pandemic circumstance the many scientists and expert advisors to mayors, governors, presidents, prime ministers, emperors, as well as kings and queens continue to seek to understand the threats and the consequences of every conceivable mitigation strategy. There is often strong disagreements among scientists, economists, physicians and other public health professionals. They do not even agree on the goals. Which expert opinion should a leader consider, one in particular, a few, or all of them? That requires wisdom, the ability to discern the best options among many.  I’m listening to the scientists, experts, and leaders who demonstrate this wisdom and some measure of humility as well.

If you listen carefully to The Science, you are likely to be surprised by all the contrasting arguments you may hear. But do not despair. In time, all of our problems vanish, one way or another.

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Why Intelligent People Disagree

One of the most amazing features of modern humanity is our individual uniqueness. Siri tells me that in 2018 there were 7,655,957,369 living human souls on our planet. That may have been true at one serendipitous instant, but its assuredly not true anymore. Every one of those persons is unique, distinct, and therefore special. Of course, there are people, twins for example, whose genes might be nearly identical at the moment they become two individuals, but from then on, they have different experiences. The differences between any two humans might be as subtle as how twins are positioned in the womb, or for everyone else, as profound as whether they grow up in Australia or Alaska with one parent or several, with many siblings or none, with pets or without, as males or females, with an extensive formal education or not, well fed or malnourished, what language or languages they speak, what cultures, and on and on and on. The astounding variety of genes and experiences produces a population of incomprehensible diversity.

No wonder we suffer disagreements, but why? If truth is a discoverable reality, why do we perceive it differently? Before we pursue such a question, we need to agree about some terms. There are at least three definitions of the word truth, and people mix them up all the time. If you believe what you are saying, you are telling the truth. If what you say is believed by many people or experts, and you believe they are all telling the truth, then you are also telling the truth. You are honest and sincere by definition. On the other hand, if what you say is actually true, you are obviously telling the truth, but ironically, you may not realize it. The first two definitions represent opinions about what you believe to be true. The last definition describes some absolute truth as established by God, Mother Earth, or the physical laws of the universe. Science, religion, and law among other disciplines, pursue the absolute truth using different rules and methods, but knowing an absolute truth often remains beyond our reach.

Honest people may disagree about absolute truth, such as how many unique human beings live on our planet. There is a number that is absolutely true at this instant, but undoubtedly no one knows it, and it just changed. We can offer our honest opinions, and in doing so we are telling the truth as we believe it to be, but intelligent people will likely disagree, except by utter coincidence.

Now you may ask, who are these intelligent people? For the sake of this discussion, it’s almost everyone. Just as we have unique experiences, some of us have more knowledge about a subject than other people. That knowledge might be highly specialized or unusual. Almost everyone has some aspect of life about which they are smart. No two people possess exactly the same knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to figure things out using what we have learned, and sometimes we call this common sense. Even wisdom has many forms, some people are highly effective in social settings, others can concentrate better when working alone without the distractions of social interactions.

Turn on any television news program where the talking heads are offering their views and you will hear differences of opinion. Sometimes, the differences lead to emotional arguments. Often the program ends without any resolution of the differences. Everyone is telling the truth, at least the first two types of truth defined earlier above. The absolute truth is left for us to discern, and we often disagree about it. Why?

It might be helpful if we identify the different reasons why intelligent people disagree. It turns out most disagreements result from several of these reasons. These are not exclusive reasons. If we know why people disagree, perhaps we have a better chance to come to some agreement.

Different Knowledge

This is the most obvious, but certainly not the most important reason for disagreeing. Differences in knowledge result from our different experiences, the source of our knowledge. Scientists disagree because they do and read different research, or because they interpret the same research differently. Lawyers and their juries disagree because they listen to different witnesses or understand the same witness differently. Physicians disagree because they observe different symptoms or because they interpret the same symptoms differently. We all disagree because we’ve gone to different schools, read different books, listened to different conversations, speeches, podcasts, and radio or television programs. We experience our world through our unique lens. Contrary to the trite expression, we are entitled to our own facts, because facts are open to honest interpretation based upon unique experiences.  Some but not all facts are actually true, but many facts are a matter of opinion or even quite misleading.  It’s a fact that I’m six feet tall, but a more careful measurement might say 6′ and 1/16″ inch.  In fact, they are both true and they are both facts.

We can come to a consensus when we acknowledge our differences and are willing to share our knowledge. If we discover why we have different information, we might learn to accept a common understanding.

Different Values

Sometimes we have different feelings about the same issues. Values conflicts are a common reason for disagreement. It is not easy to accept different values, especially values that we’ve held for much of our lives. Big political differences often result from differences in values. Take the issue of abortion as an example. It is a conflict between the value of freedom and the value of life. About half the people in our country think decisions such as this should be left to a woman, her physician, and her husband. Others believe that terminating a human life is never acceptable. These two groups disagree about the importance of these two competing values, freedom and life.

The resolution comes from values clarification, not an easy task. It takes an open mind and compassion for each other’s perspectives. Sometimes the power of the state must intercede, courts must rule. Even then, people accept the decision, but they still disagree. We may accomplish civility, but agreement remains beyond reach.

Different Assumptions

People often come to different conclusions because they start with different assumptions.   If you assume that human life begins at birth, you would decide that terminating a pregnancy is not terminating a human life. Your freedom to decide to end that pregnancy is not even a conflict of values. If you believe that a human life begins at fertilization or at some other point before birth, that assumption drives a completely different decision.

Assumptions often get us lost, both figuratively and literally. What if you are lost in the woods and you assume the more traveled path is the way home. You might be right. You might be wrong. We even make assumptions about the reliability and veracity of experts and commentators.

If you assume that nature is wonderful and human activities destroy that natural state, then you might decide to minimize human interference in the natural world. If you assume that nature is inherently dangerous, you might decide that human adaptation and mitigation is the best way to protect the population, even if that means modifying the natural world in ways that protect human life.

Getting to an agreement when two or more people disagree requires an evaluation of the assumptions that lead to their differences. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware of those assumptions. This takes discipline.

Different Associations

If I belong to a club that requires that I agree to certain things, I might find myself in disagreement with people who belong to different clubs. The word club is meant in the most general sense. It might mean family, tribe, partnership, organization, political party, fraternity or sorority, professional organization, church, congregation, religion, faith, corporation, nation, race, ethnic group, etc., ad infinitum.

To be a Democrat or a Republican requires certain beliefs, or you get rejected or diminished in stature within the party. Belonging to some group requires something from its members. You have to accept the values, assumptions, and knowledge of the group, or you may be expelled, excommunicated, or worse. It is not easy to change what a group holds as its mission or its values. Organizations have a certain amount of inertia. Change is difficult and usually slow unless a crisis occurs.

Wives and husbands come to agreements, virtual contracts sometimes subconsciously. It’s called loyalty. That loyalty is something of value. Disagreeing can sometimes break that connection, but healthy relationships find ways to compromise or resolve the differences. That is why we sometimes go along to get along. Peer pressure, especially among adolescents can be a powerful influence on decisions, often very bad decisions, unfortunately.

Different Goals

If your goal is to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you may decide to ban the burning of fossil fuels. If your goal is human flourishing, you may decide to expand the availability of clean and reliable energy sources, including the appropriate burning of fossil fuels. Different goals lead to completely opposite decisions.

The surest way to solve a problem is to understand the issues involved and their causes before you decide on solutions. Getting to solutions requires mitigating all the causes, or at least most of them.

Different Incentives

If your livelihood depends on working for Acme Coal Company, you’re probably inclined to approve of coal as a natural resource for producing energy and many other products derived from coal. If you are offered financial support for your political campaign by a pharmaceutical lobbyist, you may be inclined to listen to that lobbyist in the future and come to some agreement related to support of the pharmaceutical industry or a particular corporation. There is nothing wrong with this in the legal sense. You have an important decision to make about the ethics of your favoritism if different lobbyists suggest different decisions or support.

What do you do when incentives are offered? There is a fine line or distinction between an incentive and a bribe or even extortion. You never want to cross the legal line, but the ethical line can be quite tempting if the incentives are significant. Not all such incentives are financial.

Different State of Mind

Emotional attachments to people and ideas affect our ability to agree or disagree with others. Open mindedness is a quality we usually value, but not always. Sometimes stubbornness is necessary to keep moving toward a shared objective. Indecisiveness can have tragic consequences. It is considered a character weakness. Alternatively, blind faith in an objective can result in consequences equally tragic. There is no human quality more dangerous than arrogance when it is coupled with ignorance.

When in a disagreement, listen to the other perspectives. Celebrate some humility. You might be right, but you might be dead wrong. The only way to find out is to explore all alternatives with an open mind.

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Rationalism: A New Ideology for the Future

I don’t like political labels, and I dislike stereotyping whole groups of people who assign such labels to themselves or others. What is a progressive, a moderate, a conservative, a liberal, a leftist, a right-winger, a socialist, a social democrat, a communist, a libertarian, a capitalist, a green, a populist, an environmentalist, a nationalist, and on and on and on? Does anyone know what these words mean? There are official definitions, I’m sure, but political opponents spend so much time characterizing or mischaracterizing competing ideologies that no one agrees on their meaning and all suffer their baggage. Demonizing political opponents destroys the fabric of a society.

From now on I’m going to describe my political ideology with a new term which I will define. I’m a rationalist. A rationalist looks to the future and approaches every challenge and every problem by asking what is best for society in the long run. What will support prosperity and fulfillment in our society? It’s really that simple to define, but profoundly complex to realize.

Humans are not highly evolved. We can disagree with the most honorable of intentions. Unfortunately, we can agree with dishonorable intentions as well. We are dangerously emotional and ignorant at times, some of us more than others, but almost everyone is capable of blundering into unexpected tragedy. Rationalists recognize this. Humility is essential as is the discipline required to ignore emotional irrationality and logical fallacies of all kinds. Common knowledge, consensus, popularity, and authority must be questioned. Going along to get along is forbidden. Rationalism depends upon an open-minded analysis of options and alternatives, looking for costs and benefits, plusses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages without concern for the assumed wisdom of the crowd or tradition, whatever that may be.

Rationalism lights the way. Human flourishing is the outcome.

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Milk and Almond Milk

Most of us humans don’t know much, at least compared to how much there is to know.  We are  easily misled about all sorts of things. Before you get defensive, I admit I’m among the group I’m talking about. We are bombarded with information by advertisers, packaging, marketing tactics, television and radio talking heads, politicians, and celebrities of all persuasions. We even get information from so-called experts, although they sometimes lack expertise in the field about which they pontificate, unfortunately. Even when they are qualified and credentialed, they might be completely wrong in their advice and information. This is the state of our modern world. If you want proof of what I’m saying, just go to a grocery store.

A couple of years ago, my sister showed up to stay with us for a couple weeks. I noticed she liked almond milk instead of regular milk. I’d never paid much attention to almond milk, and I didn’t give it much thought at the time. Recently, I’ve noticed lots of friends and loved ones are drinking almond milk. We even had house guests recently who are great friends and they drink it.

Having a background in biochemistry, I got curious about what it is. It turns out it’s been around for a very long time, probably millennia, or almost as long as people have been eating almonds. It’s quite easy to make. You just grind up some almonds and mix with water. In some parts of the world and among certain cultures, it’s a basic beverage in the diet. I tasted some from the carton left in our refrigerator, and I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve never liked almonds, but this almond milk was quite refreshing. I noticed it had vanilla added and I do like that. I looked on the label for the dietary information and decided to compare it with other milk related beverages. This is what I discovered.

Milk may be one of the most healthful food items we can eat or drink. It has protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. The fats are of the kind we call essential, meaning they must be in our diet or we will become malnourished.  If you drink low-fat or skim milk, you should realize you are drinking milk that has one of its most important and essential nutrients removed.  The carbohydrates in milk, primarily lactose, are completely healthy, unless you have congenital lactose intolerance which is an extremely rare condition.  Less than 1 in 10,000 people are born with this condition, however, most adults have reduced ability to digest lactose due to lower production of the enzyme lactase in the small intestine.  This is not a serious condition if you drink milk in moderation.  Some people have milk allergies which are unrelated to lactose intolerance.  Milk does not contain the carbohydrates fructose or sucrose which in high concentrations can be quite unhealthy for us for a variety of reasons.  Milk also contains calcium and several important vitamins. Nature provides mother’s milk as our first source of nutrition when we are born into this world, so it’s not surprising that milk is good for us.

To sum up what I discovered, whole milk from animal sources is quite nutritious. The plant derived milks from soy and almond are appropriate for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone who likes the taste or does not want to drink animal milk for many different reasons. Certainly, almond milk is the lowest in calories because it’s mostly water, 97 percent, with a pleasant taste and it looks like milk.  

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Up is Down and Down is up: Opinions, Facts, and Truths

Two scientists walked into a bar. The bartender looked at them and asked, “What’s up?” One of the scientists pointed out the front door while the other one pointed at the ceiling. The bartender being a curious fellow wondered which one was telling the truth.

Before I share the punchline, let’s digress and ponder the meaning of the word “truth”. Like most words, there are several definitions. My Merriam-Webster app gives nine definitions, but three are pertinent for my purposes.

  1. Truth is sincerity in action, character, or utterance. In other words, if you believe what you are saying, then you are telling the truth.
  2. Truth is a judgment, proposition, or idea that is accepted as true. In other words, if you offer an opinion that you believe is widely held, then you are telling the truth.
  3. Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality. In other words, if you say something is so, and in fact it is so, then you are telling the truth.

Now back to the bar. The scientist who pointed at the ceiling is obviously telling the truth because just about everyone agrees that “up” is in the direction of the ceiling. The scientist who pointed at the door is also telling the truth because she knew that door was on the north side of the bar.  Almost everyone agrees that pointing north, in the northern hemisphere at least, means you are pointing up north, so to speak. (If you hold a map so that north is on the top of the map, then north is up.)

Now the bartender who is both curious and enlightened, realizes that there can be more than one truthful answer to the same question. In fact, it happens all the time. In the case of “what’s up?” the number of truthful answers is infinite because “up” is a relative term that depends entirely upon how you define “down.” Just ask a space walker floating in intergalactic space. She might point to her feet as down, or above her head as up. She might point to the black hole she’s orbiting and say that’s down the gravity well. In other words, she needs a frame of reference, a definition. Before she can point to the direction that is truly “up”, by the third definition above, she needs to know what you mean by “up”.

I once had a boss who taught us that to settle an argument usually required two things, defining terms and taking measurements. He also taught us that “truth” by the third definition is not the same as an “opinion” no matter how sincere or widely held that opinion might be. This is important! Sometimes, it is a matter of life and death!

Now to the punchline, but it’s no joke.  We have a major problem in our country. People are pointing in opposite directions and arguing about who’s telling the truth. No one is defining their terms. No one is agreeing on how to decide what is reality. It is obvious the two sides just want to argue. It’s like two football teams that want to play ball, but each team plays by their own set of rules. One team is counting yards gained, the other team is counting the number of offensive plays. Neither team is paying attention to the score on the scoreboard. This game isn’t going to end well.

Here is a relevant example. Gallup recently conducted a poll in which respondents were asked to name what is going well in the U.S. today. The most common answer was the economy which was cited by 37 percent. But here is the significant finding: 97 percent of Republican leaning respondents said the economy was fair to excellent, while 74 percent of Democrat leaning respondents said the economy was fair to poor. At the same time, 85 percent of the Republican leaning respondents said the economy was getting better while 60 percent of Democrat leaning respondents said the economy was getting worse.

We should agree that both groups of respondents were truthful by the first two definitions of truth. They answered sincerely and seemed to believe what they say.  Likewise, both the Democrat and Republican leaning respondents expressed opinions that are widely held among their fellow partisans. These first two definitions of truth get us nowhere! All we have is two figuratively angry mobs yelling different opinions at each other, neither willing to accept the possibility they might be wrong by that inconvenient but essential third definition of truth.

This is precisely where our free press is supposed to help us, but they’ve chosen partisan sides just like the rest of us.  We have the Democrat leaning free press and the Republican leaning free press. Neither expresses the slightest interest in exploring answers that are in accord with reality, the third definition of truth. Here is what they should do.

The responsible journalist should begin by separating the questions. The first question wondered if the economy was closer to poor or to excellent? The second question inquired about the direction the economy is moving, toward excellence or getting worse. Competent journalists should then define the terms of the questions. In other words. What is an excellent economy? Similarly, what is a poor economy? Economists could easily provide such definitions in ways that can be measured and compared. It would be helpful to get agreement about the most relevant dimensions of an economy such as unemployment rates, GDP growth rates, stock market valuation, debts and deficits, inflation rates, levels of poverty or affluence, home ownership, loan default rates, etc. The number of possible dimensions is nearly endless, but a significant subset should suffice to answer our two questions and determine the truth by the third and most important definition.

For the sake of argument, lets assume that most economists agree on a set of key dimensions of a national economy. Furthermore, they define and quantify the state of each dimension. The economists can establish standards based on historical information. For example, unemployment rates historically range from lows near 3 percent to highs in the upper teens. Generally, the lower the better. They could establish a standard (frame of reference) by which this dimension is considered indicative of a good or excellent economy or otherwise, fair or poor. This could be quantified in such a way that we could say whether the unemployment rate is significantly above or below that standard. This could then be done for each of the other dimension of an economy like GDP growth rates, inflation, etc. Combining the metrics statistically into one overall indicator and tracking it over time would determine if the economy is getting better or worse in accordance with reality.

This is what journalists should do. Unfortunately, most don’t. They rage on just like the partisans, and we get nowhere. In fact, our social fabric gets ripped apart. We need to hold our news media to be accountable to all of us. They represent us.  This is why we want a truly free press that is our head referee.  We want a free press that knows exactly what’s up!

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