Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wrong on the Internet

So... the latest bit of "point-and-laugh" to make the rounds of the internet is a 30-minute video of a woman named Megan Fox (although not that Megan Fox) "auditing" the Field Museum of Natural History for "liberal bias."

One of the things that she says, and something that I've heard before from other creationists, is: "Darwin once said 'If the single cell is more complex than I think it is, then all of my theories -- I'm gonna have to start all over again'." This is a badly mangled reference to a line from Chapter Six of "The Origin of Species," in the section named: "Modes of Transition." The section opens with: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." (Note that Darwin continues with: "But I can find out no such case.") Many creationists claim that advances in our understanding of cellular biology over the past 150 years have demonstrated that cell organelles are "irreducibly complex," that is they are complex systems made up of subsystems in such a way that the absence of any given subsystem renders the whole inoperable.

A common example of "irreducible complexity" is the mousetrap. A typical mousetrap has a number of individual subsystems that work together to catch mice. Remove one, such as the holding bar, and the trap fails to catch any mice.

Now, note what this implies: an irreducibly complex system cannot come about in a gradual manner. One cannot begin with a wooden platform and catch a few mice, then add a spring, catching a few more mice than before, etc. No, all the components must be in place before it functions at all. A step-by-step approach to constructing such a system will result in a useless system until all the components have been added. The system requires all the components to be added at the same time, in the right configuration, before it works at all.
Irreducible Complexity: The Challenge to the Darwinian Evolutionary Explanations of many Biochemical Structures
Okay, fine. There's only one problem. That's not how Evolution by Natural Selection works. Organisms don't come together by the random agglomeration of fully-formed parts in the way machines do. And perhaps more importantly, even machines don't really operate in this way. It's likely possible to find an old-school version of a mousetrap that we would recognize as a cruder version of the ones we have today. Then you could trace the refinement of the system through the alterations that were made to the individual systems.

The rest of video continues on in this vein. Fox, as she moves through museum, makes a number of snide comments. She becomes especially animated when she finds "inconsistencies" the museum exhibits or items that strike her as too precise for the evidence at hand. (Interestingly, while she constantly argues that without video evidence of the distant past, scientists simply cannot know certain things, she herself exhibits certainty that, for instance "horsetails have always been horsetails.") And as you listen to her comments (some of which are screamingly incorrect), it becomes clear that not only does she not believe in natural selection, but she doesn't really understand how the process would work, were you to observe it in action. And for this, she has become something of a laughingstock in atheist and skeptic circles.


Okay, so Megan Fox is woefully uninformed about the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and regards other people who believe it as dupes. What difference does it make? Who cares that Fox believes in an intelligent designer, and thinks that if children want to believe that dragons were real that scientists shouldn't dash their hopes? If Fox believes in cave paintings of dinosaurs, why is that of any importance to the rest of us?

Part of it, I think, goes back to the idea that the less-sophisticated must be protected from believing Wrong Things. Because despite the fact that there have been thousands of years of human technological advancement alongside superstition and accepting things that we now know to be untrue, all that will suddenly grind to a halt if not enough people believe the Right Things. Or will it? Innovation and technology don't depend on having an understanding of things outside of one's chosen field. Putting a man on the moon is rocket science to be sure, but it isn't paleontology. If you think that the skull of a pachycephalosaur is actually a dragon skull and that this proves that humans actually saw living dinosaurs as late as the middle ages, that alone isn't going to make you bad at your job, or prevent you from making new breakthroughs in it.

It's easy to believe, I think, that the Flavor-Aid that people we disagree with are serving has been poisoned and that the people who are drinking must be saved from themselves before they are irreparably harmed. But the fact that something may be false doesn't also make it harmful. For many self-described Christians, a lack of believe in the dogmas that they hold to be true marks one as amoral at best, and dangerous at worst. And it might sting to be held as an inferior intellect for holding a different understanding of the world. But there's little point in returning the favor.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How to Have a Shooting

It's a simple recipe.

One) The Supreme Court has ruled that deadly force is justified if an officer is attempting to stop a crime, protect themselves or halt a crime in progress.

Two) It is considered appropriate among some white parents to teach their children that blacks are inherently less intelligent and more prone to violence than whites, and a prominent conservative pundit has gone on the record equating being "strong" and "scary" to being armed.

Three) Most police officers, including many of those who patrol predominantly black neighborhoods, are white.

I don't find it all that difficult to put these three things together and understand why we have a number of shootings. Actually, given these three factors, it seems that the number of shootings of black people by white officers could be a lot higher than it actually is.

And let's add in another pair of factors.

Four) Despite the fact that police officers are trained to deescalate potential violent confrontations, we typically do not hold them accountable for using that training. Therefore, if an officer places themselves into a position that necessitated deadly force to extricate themselves, this doesn't enter into the calculation of culpability.

Five) If the standard is the officer's subjective feeling of being afraid of someone, indictments are going to be rare. After all, you have to prove that the officer is lying. Unless you have some pretty damning evidence, that's a tough row to hoe.

And so it's not surprising that few indictments are handed down when police seriously injure or kill someone who turns out to have been unarmed.

All of these factors were in place well before Ferguson happened. While there is a lot of outrage over the incident and its aftermath, some justified, some self-righteous, the fact remains that this, too, shall pass, and if we don't deal with the factors the lead up to it, the situation is never going to improve.

So... what do we need to do?

Firstly, black communities need to have police officers who come from those communities. Part of this going to be lessening the hostility that some black Americans feel towards blacks who go into law enforcement. Officers who are familiar with the community they work in, and know the people in it, are more likely to know who's a threat and who isn't.

Secondly, the fear-mongering needs to stop. Maybe removing fear as a justification needs to happen, or maybe people need to understand the underlying causes of the statistics they quote. The myth of black pathology has taken root deeply in the United States, and it's going to have to be dealt with. If someone has grown up hearing about how frightening and dangerous a group of peole are, and fear is a justification for deadly force, it hardly seems surprising that there would me more instances of deadly force than a clear-eyed look at the situation may decide are warranted.

Thirdly, when we look into these issues, we can't just start with the moment immediately before the shooting. In the shooting of Kajieme Powell, for instance, when the police officers drove up, even though they exited their vehicle with weapons drawn, they didn't leave themselves room to recover if things got out of hand. Things escalated quickly, and Powell was shot to death by the officers when he advanced on them at close range.

These steps aren't like to likely to prevent, or even delay, the next police shooting or beating. But they will likely delay future ones, and move us to a point where we don't have such a sharp racial divide when it comes to the relationships between police departments and the communities they work in.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opportunities and Costs

I was reading a piece on the economic collapse in Greece, and one of the people they interviewed made a really good point:

There are always opportunities in a crisis, and those opportunities always come at a cost to someone.

I think that the same is true in the United States, and it explains some of the desire of people to return to an earlier time - and the opposition to that idea.

If you're a white, older, male Protestant, it's easy to feel (likely because it's at least partially true) that the opportunities that non-whites or younger people or women or non-Protestants have gained since the 1950s have come at your direct expense. And even though these groups had problems back in the 50s, the male WASP society was most insulated from them, and to a certain degree benefited from them, as those problems were part of the cost of the visible prosperity that middle-class America enjoyed at the time. And then, as now, it was easy to look around you, see how things were, and decide that this how it was for everyone - out of sight, out of mind.

But now it's sixty years later. Most people who remember that time firsthand were children, and it's easy to look back with nostalgia at a time when everything was simple, opportunities were limitless and the big questions in life weren't your problem yet. Because now, things are complicated, opportunities must be fought for and it's become really important that we find the "right" answers to the big questions in life. Life, as always, didn't live up to the promise. And people see a return to a misremembered past as another bite at the apple - or maybe their rightful first bite; the one that was taken from them by people who don't respect that the promises that were made to them need to be fulfilled. And so, out of nostalgia, they want to return to tradition and seek "time-tested values."

And in that vein, I guess you could call racial segregation a "time-tested value." I guess that you could call the enactment of civil rights legislation a bad act on the part of "an over-bearing government." And that's really the point behind calling it "nostalgia." There's this idea that "only the good parts" of the past can be brought back and overlaid over the present to create a time where everyone is happy "again." Or you can simply label everyone who understood that the silver lining of the good old days had a dark cloud to go with it as brainwashed.

The time tested values that many people speak of worked really well for a good chunk of the populace - but the rest of the populace paid for it. As people stopped buying into the idea that others should pay for their prosperity, the culture transformed. In some ways, that was bad. Nothing is perfect, not even progress. But change and totalitarianism are not synonymous. I understand that for many older Americans, there is an honest belief that the apartheid regime that existed in the 1950s is one that the non-white segment of the population should embrace, and they're free to make that case. But I don't think that it has much chance of success, because viewing the advantages that non-whites, women, non-Christians and young people have earned through the lens of the Red Scare in order to hold them up as somehow "un-American" isn't fighting for "Freedom." It's fighting to be free to oppress.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

All Ways At Once

b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof

Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1

I haven't been big on faith for some time now. There are a number of things that I believe, or that I understand to be true, but few things that I really put any measure of faith in. And, for most of my life the supernatural has not been one of those things. In fact, it's arguable if I ever had faith in the religious sense. As a child this was never really an issue - religious education for children, it's been noted, is more or less a process of indoctrination. Since no-one really expects children to understand any of this stuff, being able to go through the motions and recite things at the right time is often all they're looking for. But by the time I was a teenager, especially given that I attended a parochial school, there was a certain level of sensitivity to heresy around, and I, unsurprisingly, ran afoul of it. Not that I had to deal with the Inquisition after homeroom or anything, but my classmates were more keen on enforcing orthodoxy than one might expect of high-school students.

I can't put my finger on when it happened, but at some point I drifted out of the orbit of atheism/agnosticism and more into apatheism. Sure, as far as I'm concerned, there are no such things as deities, spirits, magic, demons, et cetera, but I've lost any investment in whether or not that position is correct. After all, they could very easily exist, and I could simply be unable to perceive them or their effects on my life. But I understand that other people DO perceive such things. And I'm okay with that. But it had always irritated me, even if I never understood why, when other people weren't okay with people's differing understandings of the world.

I understand most people's dislike of Indifferentism - especially when they equate it to moral relativism or amorality (well, Christians mainly - few other people seem to care).

Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law.
√Čtienne Borne
It did, however, always rub me the wrong way, mainly because I felt that people, especially my friends, who felt more strongly about things (one way or the other) than I did often became two-faced. They were warm and solicitous when they felt that I was receptive to being fully converted, but contemptuous and dismissive when I remained disinterested. I'd always believed that it was the two-facedness of it that bothered me, but recently I was in an online debate where it finally crystallized. The person on the other side of the back-and-forth was a self-proclaimed Christian (I refuse to be the gatekeeper of such things) and made the following statements over the course of a single posting:
Christians do not claim to be able to prove that God exists. We believe there is good evidence that He does and that it is a logical conclusion to believe that. We admit though that since there is not conclusive proof, it still takes faith to believe in God.
However God has given us enough evidence to hold us accountable. Romans 1:19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
This idea, that faith is not a choice, to be made based on a rational decision making process, but a divine mandate, and one can be held accountable for its lack points to an idea that comes up over and over in religious debates: that the Abrahamic god is special. Not simply because it is a deity and we are not, but because the rules that it operates under bear no viable relationship to the rules that we operate under.

Imagine a lawsuit where the verdict hinges on whether or not one party knew, or should have known, about a particular event. The plaintiff's attorney stands up in front of the court and openly says that they cannot prove that the event in question ever occurred because there is no conclusive proof of it. The lawyer states that while they believe the event occurred, it requires an act of faith to share in that belief. They then tell the jury that this same event is so clearly self-evident that there is no excuse for not having that faith, simply because an unknown author describes it as such.

And that's when it clicked. Because I could see a jury voting in favor of the plaintiff in such a case. While I can't see myself ever doing so, I can understand that it's possible to simultaneously regard an event as being absolutely unprovable, yet universally self-evident at the same time.

In a way, it's a vestige of the agnostic in me. I can't think of any concept that's both self-evident to all yet provable to none. To be honest, it strikes me as openly paradoxical. But that, in and of itself, doesn't mean that no such concept exists or that other people cannot think of one. Therefore, the lack of a self-evident yet unprovable concept is a feature of my universe, but not necessarily anyone else's.

Which resolves an ongoing irritation for me - the idea that my allowing that belief in something that I do not believe in is reasonable should be answered by an allowance that my not believing in something that others believe in is reasonable.

If, given A (the universe as we understand it) and B (deities do not exist), it is reasonable to believe C (deities do exist) it should stand to reason that given A and C is it reasonable to believe B. But, if one assumes enough of a difference between B and C, then it is possible to understand that A+B allows C yet A+C disallows B.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Everyone's Allowed To Play

As a casual gamer, and not someone terribly interested in broader social issues in entertainment, I'm something of a bystander when it comes when it comes to questions about diversity in gaming. And as someone without much of a stake in the issue, I tend to take what strikes me as the simple view on things. People play games, and to a certain extent, write games, in order to imagine themselves in other places, times and circumstances. And given that games tend to reflect people's imaginations, they are only as diverse as their imaginations are. And most people have very limited imaginations.

Now, where exactly the limits are is open to debate. Some people blame creators for not stepping outside of their own limits, and some people blame audiences for not being open to including people unlike them in their fantasies. For me, the blame game is secondary.

What we need are more people, telling more stories. My conceptualization of a near future science-fiction setting where humanity has colonized the Solar System has a metric truckload of Asians in it. Why? Because China and India are really populous places, and they are unlikely to be left out of the land grab that moving into space would entail. If you assume a breakdown of national borders in space, you can pretty much rest assured that there will be Chinese and Indians just about everywhere you go, and Mandarin and Hindi will be spoken everywhere. So it strikes me as realistic that humanity in space would look much different then suburban America. But if I want this near future science-fiction game (or any science-fiction game where the majority of humans come from the Earth as we understand it today) to come to fruition - then I should write one, and make it clear to any artists I commission what my expectations are. And then I put it out there, and see if it swims. In the same vein, if I want to see a game where roles for Africans and African-Americans don't come across as tokens, then I should write that, and put it out there. If people appreciate it, they'll buy it.

If I write a good game, people aren't really going to care about what origins I give the sample characters, or what ethnicities are represented in the in-game fiction. They might have some appreciation of it, but it's unlikely to directly drive sales. But if people are going to insist on Space Suburbia or the carefully crafted focus-group "multiculturalism" of TV dramas, then I should expect that's what people are going to make - because at the end of the day, making games in a business, and business is about taking someone else's money and making it your money by providing them with a good or service that they're willing to pay for.