Illusion interlude, or interlusion, or something…

I’ve been a little slower in posting than intended, for several reasons, among them dueling on other blogs and doing computer upgrades. I’ll have more coming shortly, but in the meantime, check out this video version of Edward Adelson’s classic checkerboard illusion over at Why Evolution Is True.

… which is not a blog. If you remember nothing else, remember that.

Conformity

Walkabout podcast – Conformity

Secular humanism is the concept that, put simply, human beings can be good without god – no religious or scriptural moral guidelines are necessary, since we have the ability to recognize “good” and “bad” without cribsheets. We’re not abject idiots, in other words. Sam Harris makes this point in his current book, The Moral Landscape, and while I haven’t read it yet myself, I know that there have been several review questions raised about it – more anon. Personally, I am as much, if not more, a secular humanist than I am an atheist, but I use the latter term to identify myself more often because it’s understood better than secular humanism, and because “humanist” often seems to be a term to dodge the negative connotations of “atheist.”

I know this comes as a shock, but I’m not terribly concerned with people’s negative opinions. It is a human trait to have a sense of community, and as I remarked in the last “But How?” post, this often extends to people feeling uncomfortable with standing out in a crowd, atheists included. I’m a nonconformist myself, and try to make my decisions uninfluenced by what the majority thinks, instead concentrating on what works best. Yet I routinely avoid fads, even when I like them, because I don’t like the idea that someone might believe I’m following the herd. There is a definite contradiction in there, in that I’m worrying about the public opinion of perceiving that I’m worried about public opinion, and if that confuses you, welcome to the club, because it confuses me too ;-).

There’s a more interesting aspect to all of this than my own hypocrisy, believe it or not. When we maintain that we can determine what “good” and “bad” are without scriptural guidelines, we are beholden to demonstrate how this can be. This is where Sam Harris received a lot of criticism, because he maintained that this could even be done scientifically, rather than resorting to cultural norms, which admittedly can be widely variable, even among generations. The prime debating point was how someone might quantify “beneficial” in an objective way; Harris’ response at one point was to liken it to health, in that we can strive for good health among the populace without having a measurable definition of what “health” actually is. And I’m in agreement with this – while I’m fine with defining terms distinctly enough to avoid confusion, I know that numerous aspects of science, and life itself, defy concrete definitions; such things shouldn’t hamper us in functionality. The monitor you’re viewing this on, for instance, has no distinct boundary; the atoms that comprise it do not provide a surface, so no measurable boundary at that level, but rather form a cloud with an average distance from each other. So what? The much-larger level that we operate on works very well with that average “surface,” and indeed we can feel no small amount of pain when that non-surface contacts the non-surface of our foot at a decent velocity.

Defining “morality” is much the same. We can get tied up with creating rules that define allowable degrees of individual hardship to provide group benefit, and when and how these should apply, but we rarely, if ever, need such a thing. It usually isn’t too hard to determine what’s bad for someone, and we can generally agree that a group benefit outweighs an individual detriment. We cannot define when a child actually has the cognitive experience to determine their own fate as an “adult,” but can generate an average that functions for most of society. While we might create a test of adult-level decisions to pin this down more distinctly, implementing this would be time-consuming and complicated, far outweighing the benefit of a few individuals either gaining independent status before “legal” age, or being denied it even longer. It’s not a rigid scientific theory that we’re after, but functionality instead.

Yet, issues like “legal age” depend on the culture the child is raised within, to receive the necessary background in both social and thinking skills to cover most adult functions. This may vary significantly from culture to culture (I myself feel that any culture that treats alcohol as something “cool” rather than a mind-altering narcotic isn’t very qualified to judge.) This is where the idea of “conformity” comes in. Providing a benefit to the most people requires, to some extent anyway, the input of the people. Prohibition within this country was an abysmal failure – not because it was ill-conceived, but because the culture hadn’t bought into the damaging affects of alcohol. Their demand for this indulgence created a dramatic upsurge in violent crime that dwarfed the former alcohol-related injuries and deaths. The problem wasn’t the legalization (or not) of alcohol, it was the inability of the public to accept the obvious detriments against their own indulgences. Social morality not only needs to be defined by the culture it is within, it needs to be accepted by the same.

But relying on majority opinion and cultural standards has its own problems. In the US, we took a ridiculously long time to accept that women and different races should have the same rights as white men, partially because of scriptural influence, but also because of social inertia. Slowly, we are heading in a similar direction with same-sex rights, but against a backdrop of people justifying their homophobia with scriptural references to what is “proper” (blissfully unaware, of course, of their wholesale disregard of accompanying passages.) Homosexuality, as a moment of exercising warm brain cells will demonstrate, offers no social detriment, no negative impact on lives, rights, freedoms, or anything else. It’s not infectious; it doesn’t harm children (that’s pedophilia, a different concept practiced by catholic priests.) We have no reason whatsoever to be prejudiced against it.

See what I did there? I made a short, distinct case against cultural influence, showing that there was no reason to have it. It wasn’t hard – reason rarely is, but it needs to be practiced as true reason, and not abject justification of emotional influences. If you want to see it in a quantified way, you can compare the benefits of a homophobic society (let me know if you find any) to the detriments (denial of rights and privileges, ostracism of individuals, creation of judgmental behavior, reduction in adoption homes for needy children, etc.) For the exact same reason that we ignore the whole “sacrificing of animals” portions of scripture (e.g., it’s stupid,) we can ignore the homophobic portions as well.

That’s how secular humanism works. It works in another way too, when one finds oneself, and most especially their religion, to be among the minority within a country, and all of a sudden without the influence of numbers. Scripture can be considered by many to mean absolutely nothing, especially in competition with other scripture, and in such cases feeling “right” isn’t really enough anymore. Authority, even divine authority, is only effective as long as it’s respected. If the only way to determine what defines “good” and “right” is the arbitrary selection of historic writing, it’s hard to make a case against someone else doing the same. The things that define value to society should probably have higher standards than that, such as something that can be argued rationally.

Yet we run into an apparent contradiction here. Morals, laws, rights, and such all entail how we deal with others – the function not of the individual, even if that’s how the laws might apply, but of the individual’s interactions with the community. They require thinking of not of what is best for someone, but what is best for society, or even humans overall (and in some cases, like animal cruelty laws, what’s best for other species as well.) However, it is easy to see how this can be interpreted as yielding to the majority, or that a “democratic vote” should determine what works for the greatest number of people. This definition leaves a little to be desired. We also run into the law of superlatives, where people, desiring there to be no ambiguity or hard thinking required, try to determine what is “best” or, as we see in Sam Harris’ critics, distinct definitions and measurable quantities. This isn’t necessary in the slightest, though – all we really need to determine is what’s “better.” If we can compare two options and figure out one is an improvement over the other, should we need to stall in order to find an unbeatable alternative?

As a species, we already have instincts towards sympathy/empathy, avoiding unnecessary suffering, and even altruism. We don’t need something to goad us in these directions, we simply need some guidelines towards their applications. “Morality” is already an accepted, desired concept. But we also have instincts for competition, protecting our resources and most especially the assets that we’ve worked to obtain, and for very good reasons. It’s not hard to find these in conflict at any given time. The problem lies in that these are instincts, evolved into us because they provided some benefit, but not specific enough to be applied unquestionably to every situation we encounter. On the biological level, we get a surge of endorphins when certain stimuli occur, and we evolved these because, on average, they provided a benefit for the species. But we rarely recognize that these are simple processes, and that what we think is a good idea might be only because of a positive reinforcement from undiscerning glands. Feeding the homeless can be seen as sympathetic and a moral cause for society as a whole, or as being asked to part with money or food that we worked hard to obtain and is not available to those that did not. Either one is instinctual; it all depends on which instinct we feel applies more.

Or, of course, we can recognize the rather simplistic mechanisms of sympathy and competition as something that helps, but needs a bit more guidance than glands provide, and bring out the big guns: rational thought. We can then ask whether someone falling on hard times or catching bad luck with their health deserves to be separated from society and allowed to suffer, or alternately whether a contribution will be used towards an addiction rather than needed sustenance. Obviously, this cannot apply to every situation, but needs to be decided on an individual basis, and thus easy rules cannot be used. However, exercising the brain for a moment or three doesn’t exactly take beaucoup calories or induce a sweat (in most people anyway,) so this shouldn’t be considered difficult in the slightest. All that is necessary is recognizing that simple answers are only for simple people.

Listing the pros and cons of an argument or choice isn’t difficult – there’s an assumption among humans that anyone with a firm decision has already done this (that’s why they have a firm standpoint, right?) In reality, this is often not the case, and what we’re actually hearing from is a self-indulgent opinion, occasionally buttressed by cherry-picked facts. I think this describes 98% of all voter decisions. Decision-making should always involve the pros and cons, and as many of them as can be determined – not just the ones that reinforce our original standpoint. I actually heard someone arguing against same-sex marriage from a tax disadvantage – this is not someone who is expending any effort in their decisions. It wasn’t clear whether they had actually fooled themself, or simply thought it would be sufficient for others; either way it’s disturbing.

Moreover, we need to recognize that we are a cooperative species, and that building communities takes a higher precedence than building walls. None of us are, for instance, going to set our own bones. Think you feel qualified? Show me you can construct a x-ray camera. None of us are going to grow all of our own food. None of us are going to defend our property against all contestants. Despite the apparent attitude of major corporations, we really do need each other. Again, this isn’t a rule to be applied so we can leave the brain in a drawer – some people, such as con artists, have their own interests in mind and should not be accommodated in the interests of “community.” Then again, thwarting their schemes actually is a community interest.

There is a lot of emphasis right now, at least here in the states, on corporate-raider thinking, the idea that making a living is a competition – this is occasionally referred to as “social darwinism,” the concept that our success is measured in how much money we’re making or the power we can wield. It doesn’t bear any relation to the Theory of Natural Selection, and in the long run it produces exactly the situation we see far too frequently: businesses that sacrifice stability for short-term gains, which crash spectacularly when this fails to pan out. As pointed out above, competition cannot take precedence over cooperation, and even the most cutthroat organizations require support from a community or they fail. But it is up to us, the consumer, the citizen, the people that actually make the community, to restore the emphasis on people overall, rather than individualized factions dueling with one another.

Would this work for human beings as a whole? Can we apply moral guidelines to every culture and society on the planet? There isn’t any particular reason why not, but there is a separation between the concept and the implementation – as mentioned above, cultures are slow to change, and are even influenced by an unnecessary deferral to tradition. There may be additional influences, for instance economic and climatological – in the areas of the world where food is scarce, there should be more emphasis on seeing that everyone obtains proper nutrition, than what “fair market value” for food might be (especially if sold to other countries.) Cultures that have allowed a huge profit-structure to be built up around what should be considered a basic human right, such as healthcare in the US, cannot abruptly change this. Like prohibition, it is not that it’s a bad idea, but that the merits of it have to be established and accepted by the culture before the change can take place without undue repercussions – the monetary pyramid around things like medical insurance and pharmaceuticals cannot simply be eradicated, but phased out gradually and rebuilt in other ways.

The way that we apply our standards, how we make our decisions, gives the greatest guidance towards what our morals end up being. It’s not the rules that we make, but the process that we instill to make them that provides the key functionality. Using slavery as an example, we could measure the cons (subjugation, denial of freedoms, physical abuse, familial separation) against the pros (inexpensive labor, competitive market for product.) Seems kind of a no-brainer to us now, since we generally don’t place personal wealth greater than someone else’s well-being, and this is a perfectly reasonable and rational standpoint. One key factor in all of this was that people with negroid (and occasionally oriental) characteristics were not considered “people,” or at least not as advanced and moral as white people, so their hardships counted less than the wealth of proper, god-fearing white folk. This changed in part because it became clear that the differences were superficial and cultural, not racial and inherent.

The same kind of process can be applied to most moral decisions that we face today. Can we, for instance, show a rational reason why socialized healthcare is not something that we should strive for? To do so, the cons must be shown (and they need to be better than some asinine rhetoric about “socialism.”) Issues about same-sex marriage become a complete wash – who can demonstrate that they’re harmed, or even inconvenienced, by permitting such? The worst they can claim is that not everyone in the world is respecting their personal choice of religion (boo fucking hoo.) None of this is hard, or even takes much thought – it only takes the recognition that such decisions should always be made in this way, emphasizing benefits and detriments, not supposed authority, elitism, or some long-obsolete concept of caste.

Maybe this is obvious, but not everyone around us is making decisions rationally, and this is where non-conformity comes in. If we find that rational thought leads us away from what any group of people, large or small, is advocating, then we need to feel comfortable in speaking up, and most especially challenging anyone to put as much thought into it as we have. Another aspect affecting the aforementioned slavery and equal rights was the social inertia, and the fear of standing out from the crowd by speaking against the cultural concept of “lower-caste negros.” Our reluctance to go against the majority is a base instinct too, which has its uses but obviously can lead us astray – again, the brain can take over as needed. That’s what it’s there for.

We need to recognize the difference between what amounts to base urges, and what reasoned thought provides for us. Evolution can accomplish a lot, but the trends developed in times past will not necessarily continue to apply; this is actually a parallel to the idea of how hard it is to distinctly define overall rules for moral conduct. Natural selection’s “rules” may be no better than a rule on how to respond to panhandling or who to vote for, and thus we need to let rational thought override our urges and emotions sometimes – perhaps even most times. And this means speaking out when we’re sure that society’s actions aren’t in society’s best interests.

This can produce a distinct benefit, completely apart from what we fear might happen. Speaking out can suddenly reveal numbers of people who agree wholeheartedly with our points, who had prevented themselves from speaking out because they yielded to conformity. And abruptly, the ones who dared buck the trend find themselves in a new circle of support, feeling more justified in their decisions and no longer standing alone. This is most aptly demonstrated in online forums, where anonymity and the reduction of longer-term consequences allows members more freedom in speaking out. Families, coworkers, and other “face-to-face” social groups can inhibit our desire to voice disagreement, because of the ongoing unpopularity and impact on future interactions, but online forums allow us to gain the support we desire, should our view merit it, or alternately dodge the bullet of ostracism if it’s not shared, since leaving a forum or abandoning a screen name is relatively effortless and consequence-free. In this way, we can build some confidence in the act of speaking our minds, and gain a little experience in doing so effectively, perhaps in the easiest way possible.

Human rights and moral guidance require an overriding view that we’re all human, with the same basic needs, desires, drives, and emotions. This means tearing down the imaginary walls that define us as “American,” or “Republican,” or “christian” or “upper-class” or “white” or “intelligent.” It might be viewed as conformity on a global scale. But it also means rejecting the standards of society if and when they work against collective human rights – which might be considered non-conformity. The sneaky point is, “conformity” isn’t honestly a factor, even though I seemed to base this post around it. It’s a misleading interpretation of our societal interactions, implying that there is a value of some kind within it. However, the main factor is a cooperative human society where different levels of value as a human being (like a caste system) don’t exist, regardless of how many people currently operate exactly this way. We can only develop decent moral guidelines by accepting this, as well as rational consideration, first and foremost. The value falls not on society, but on our attitude towards humans as a whole, and whether we can recognize and overcome justifications and base human emotions.

The followup to this, which will come eventually, is how we might extend moral behavior to other species. That promises to be fun ;-)

Could be

Since Rayl asked yesterday in the comments about what made the web in the previous post, I revisited the river to see if I could find out more specifics. This isn’t as big a deal as you might think; the river is two miles away and the path an easy hike, plus I like practicing for subject assignments. What wasn’t easy was locating more of the same webs, since the conditions this morning weren’t foggy or cool, so virtually all webs were completely invisible. I may have walked under several and never known it.

But, I think I’ve pinned down the responsible party, pending further confirmation. The little spud seen here had a web too far above my head, and while not horizontal, it was leaned over at nearly 45 degrees and the right size. This would appear to be a Mangora spiculata, which doesn’t seem to have a “common” name. This link gives some identifying characteristics to differentiate it from M. maculata. This specimen is roughly 8-10mm in body length, the “orb” portion of the web itself roughly 40-50cm.

Another image can be found here. Because of the height and conditions, I was working from a short distance with the 135-400 lens and an extension tube, and trying to judge a decent flash exposure – in other words, the pics could have been better, but not without a stepladder and more equipment ;-).

I’ll take this opportunity to segue into the fun of spider photography. Usually, your subject is so small in the viewfinder that standard TTL “smart” flashes can’t get a decent reading from them, and instead attempt to illuminate the background, which may be too far away to accomplish this. It means that the camera and flash conspire to blast out maximum light, often overexposing your subject and practically setting fire to the web (okay, I’m exaggerating a tad.) Among many other settings, the Metz MZ 40-3i has a flash compensation switch, which allowed me to reduce the lighting to manageable levels despite the TTL settings. If you can arrange it, holding a branch or some medium-toned object immediately behind the web can give the camera something to expose for and provide contrast for the details of the spider to stand out.

In addition, spiders are three-dimensional subjects (go figure) that require a high depth-of-field at macro magnifications lest some portion of them go too far out of focus, which means a small aperture and thus reduction of the light, requiring more flash power. Trying to do such shots without a flash is simply asking for a frustration-induced stroke, since spiderwebs move with the tiniest of breezes and constantly shift in and out of focus. You will want the instant response of a flash-illuminated image, as slower shutter speeds means the spider will simply ride back and forth while the shutter is open and produce some form of modern art.

If you really want to have fun, you can attempt to snag a fast-moving Spined Micrathena (Micrathena gracilis) as it builds a new web. They’re very cooperative in that they usually construct their webs at eye-level, and provided you spot them before you walk through the webs you’ll often have a decent shot at good closeups. Of course, the shiny black and white bodies mean proper exposure is quite a challenge, especially with nothing in the background. The frequency of this species in the area is responsible for my typical practice of walking through the woods waving my Harry Potter wand in front of me, muttering “Ensnarum dispersus” under my breath. See another pic, also from today, right here. This specimen is roughly 5mm in length.


So, what better time to relate this story? When I lived in Florida, I did a fair bit of bike riding at night to get to interesting areas for night exposures. The rural sidewalks and bike paths made this quite easy, but there were some disadvantages. One night I passed through an orb-weaver’s web so large I felt it across my entire upper torso, from chin to wrist. I am only slightly more self-possessed than the average person when this happens, and managed not to crash screaming, but I did stop under a streetlight and hurriedly flick off the massive brown spider that was crouched on my shoulder following my rude collision. A few minutes later, I got to the lake where I wanted to do some time exposures and slung the tripod off of my back, only to shake off another spider who bounced off my wrist. This one was large enough to actually be felt when it impacted, and probably better than 15mm in body length – in other words, almost the size of a quarter without counting the legs. And naturally I was pulling webs off for the next hour.

Sorry, I promised fluffy bunny pics a while back, didn’t I? I’ll try harder, I promise.

Busy, busy, busy

No, not me so much, but the image. I took this one foggy morning when the woods were laden with spiderwebs, trying to capture the two webs in an interesting way. I’m not sure if I succeeded – while I like the look of the upper web, perhaps the lower web is too unfocused, or the background too complicated to carry the image? If you need to see it in better detail, clicking on the image will take you to a higher resolution version.

Unfortunately, most of my photography of late has been insects, since I’ve been unable to find much else and this area isn’t good for scenics. I’m trying to correct that, but in the meantime I’m sparing my four readers from having to see little else but bugs.

As it is, the stats on the blog seem to indicate that I have more people here for the critical thinking bits anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just thought it would be the other way around. If you’re one of those people (you know, those people,) stay tuned, I’ve got more coming up in a day or so.

Rock Beyond Belief, back on!

Rock Beyond BeliefI just got word that the secular military event, “Rock Beyond Belief”, has been re-approved and is scheduled for March 31, 2012! As you no doubt remember because you’ve read everything I’ve ever posted (snerk!), the event was originally scheduled for April of this year, but then was forced to cancel as a series of curious roadblocks appeared courtesy of the Garrison Commander. Apparently, these roadblocks have been surmounted or removed, and the event is back on the calendar.

What is it? Well, it hasn’t changed from the info I provided in that previous link, but you’re gonna make me retype it, aren’t you? It’s a one-day, music-themed secular event taking place on the main parade grounds at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and will be featuring music by Baba Brinkman, Spoonboy, Words Such As Burn, and Roy Zimmerman – and speakers such as Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, Margaret Downey, Jen McCreight, and Hemant Mehta. That’s not everybody, and it’s a hell of a lineup for any event, much less a free one.

But is this even necessary? Unfortunately, yes it is. It appears the US military has been chasing a peculiar concept the past several years, in that they seem to think that christianity is supposed to be instilled in our soldiers, regardless of the Constitutionality of this practice or the fact that even enlisting requires an oath to uphold said Constitution. This doesn’t make it illegal to violate, mind you – it actually makes it treason, believe it or not. This country was founded on the principles of freedom, and that includes religion – you can practice any religion, or lack thereof, that you like. Most especially, the country cannot show favoritism among any religion, nor incorporate it into the government at any level. It’s so simple a child can understand it, which explains why so many religious folk don’t get it: the government has the concern of seeing that things run effectively, not of instilling arbitrary rituals and observances. Religion is no more its concern than deciding what music we should follow, what food we should eat, and who we should date. Funny, that’s how freedom is defined – just in case anyone missed this in kindergarten. And no, it’s not up to “majority rule” – allowing people to vote on the rights they allow or deny for others is kind of stupid, is it not? We got past that last century. And I shouldn’t need to point this out, but how many “good christians” do you think would support the idea of majority religions if islam was instead the majority, or even scientism? Whoops, that idea now sucks, doesn’t it? Yeah, that was determined several hundred years ago in Europe…

But anyway, since the US military seems to keep promoting christianity through specifically evangelical events on base and some horseshit about “spiritual fitness” (how can an ephemeral concept be tested for fitness when it isn’t even defined?), it’s up to individuals who aren’t afraid to speak up for that freedom to see that alternatives are available. “Rock Beyond Belief” is not an anti-religious event, even though it would be perfectly within the guaranteed rights and freedoms to be. Instead, it simply allows non-aligned, secular, and don’t-give-a-damn soldiers, and civilians as well, to have an event without religious baggage or indoctrination. Secularism is not about attacking religion, it’s about making decisions based on reason and rationality, with the ultimate authority being us alone. Goals for morality and ethics revolve around humans themselves, rather than arbitrary scribblings, and privileges are not granted to groups of people with “special” ideas. The fact that this pretty effectively rules out religions is damning only of religions.

And there is yet another reason, another that shouldn’t even be necessary but is. Atheism and secularism are both considered rather distasteful viewpoints among far too many people (to put it mildly – they’re sometimes equated with demon-worship,) and this means that many atheists, agnostics, and humanists are constantly made to feel unwelcome and ostracized. Events like “Rock Beyond Belief” brings the secular viewpoint more into the open and establishes a support network, allowing those without faith to feel accepted as they are. Atheists do not meet every week in tax-exempt shelters, do not display their irreligious symbols on every streetcorner, do not give thanks to reason at every sporting event and company picnic. Religion is ubiquitous, and most religious folk seem to think it’s their duty to promote this. “Live and let live,” is not among the guidelines for most religions, so such domineering practices do indeed need some counter-balance.

As I said above, the event is free, and open to all. It should be a lot of fun, and who knows? – maybe some of the performers or speakers will produce some poignancy. At the least, maybe some of the myths will be dispelled. I plan to be there, so look for the bearded guy running around with the camera – I’d love to meet you face-to-face. And if you can’t attend (or even if you can,) make sure you show your support through Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other social network methods you like (this is actually a valid use of them!)

Hope to see you there!

UPDATE: I added new graphics as I received them from Sergeant Justin Griffith, the Military Director of American Atheists and the guiding force behind this event. Someone with one of those toys can tell me if this Tetris doodad actually works…

Fear of the knowable


Richard Wiseman prompted his readers to check out the comments on a recent article without getting depressed. The article? A short blurb about his new book, Paranormality, which deals with critical examination of paranormal activity. Wiseman possesses a PhD in psychology and specializes in perception, as well as being an accomplished magician, and the book (according to reviewers – I do not have my copy yet) deals not just with debunking paranormal experiences, but in demonstrating how they work and how the reader can even duplicate them. Many of the commenters, however, knew better, and were quite prepared to pass judgment on both the book and Wiseman without any apparent knowledge of either. The general gist of it is, nobody was going to tell them they were mistaken about ghosts.

This is a fairly common attitude: what someone has experienced personally, or often only through accounts from someone they know, trumps any kind of rigorous tests, controlled situations, and the knowledge of people who know about the limits of perception. While we have an aversion to simply being wrong, there’s an even greater factor at work when it comes to things like ghosts, psychic powers, alternative medicine, UFOs, and similar subjects. The defensiveness over these borders on the pathological – it’s hard to say how much anyone might trust scientific studies regarding other topics, but it takes no effort whatsoever to find open dismissal of science when it comes to paranormal/alternative subjects, as the comments show disturbingly well.

Most noticeable, though, is that science becomes supremely trustworthy when it appears to support the existence of ghost and visiting aliens, and this takes no effort to find either. It becomes obvious that we’re not even talking double-standards here, but actually no standards at all – the only factor is selecting only confirming accounts and ignoring the rest. While examples of hoaxes, mistakes, and suggestibility abound everywhere we look, somehow none of these must be considered applicable in any way to these treasured beliefs, and even implying that some effort might be made to rule out such common factors is insulting in the extreme.

Many people aren’t capable of facing the concept that what they (or any witness, really) experienced may not be what it was interpreted as – mistakes simply cannot be made. Nor does suggestibility or subconscious desire play any role; this is inconceivable! This is one of the reasons I promote critical thinking skills so often. Such denial really doesn’t belong in a species with the remarkable thinking capacity that we possess. While I see such arrogant and dismissive comments, it’s easy to view such people with condescension, but not everyone has received any background whatsoever in critical thinking, and in many places and subcultures the lack thereof is considered a virtue. I’m split on the issue myself – I don’t think it’s necessary to berate someone about something they’re ignorant of, but our society has certainly demonstrated the need for skepticism repeatedly. The article itself was far too brief to do the topic justice, and able to be misinterpreted, but the reasonable thing to do is to read the book, rather than judging from a 450-word article.

Regardless, as an exercise and demonstration, I’m going to take several actual comments and show how critical thinking can be applied to them. I’m not going to disprove the existence of ghosts by doing so, and that’s not the intent; the intent is to show that what is often considered “evidence” isn’t as compelling as it is usually treated.

First off, let’s get something clear: ghost stories are popular, and have been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yes, many of them are made up entirely from someone’s imagination. This does not say that all of them must be, but it does mean that some effort should be made to rule this possibility out before proceeding (lest one look like a gullible fool.) If all you have is a story, well, you really have nothing to work with. And despite the insistence of many that they can tell when someone is lying, such abilities have never been demonstrated successfully in the history of mankind, and even science hasn’t found a dependable way of determining this. Should we presume that those that claim this ability have never had a bad relationship, or even watched a terrible movie based on its marketing hype? Such ideas strain credulity.

Nor does considering the possibility that an oral account might be inaccurate imply intentional deceit – mistakes can be made, and witnesses that are quite sure they saw a ghost might easily have seen something else. This is not impugning them, except to say that they are not perfect, which I’m fairly certain is a prerequisite for being considered human. It doesn’t deserve any kind of defensive response.

So, let’s take a look at how we can apply critical thinking to these brief comments, recognizing that a detailed interview is going to be capable of producing plenty of additional factors, and not all of them supporting the witness. The comments here are all cut-and-pasted, with spelling, grammar, and punctuation intact – they’re right here if you want to check. And while we’re at it, notice the consistent tone expressed, especially towards scientists.

Watson-3812521 says:

How does the egghead explain 3 different people “seeing” the same thing in the same house without knowing the others had seen this thing that isn’t apparently real? We only discovered we each saw the same little “ghost” girl after one of us had brought it up!!

These sightings occurred separately, independently over a year period.

So, did these three people relate their accounts independently of the others, where the others could not have heard them? That might be significant. But if it’s a case where someone tells a story and someone else blurts out, “Me too!”, well, wake me when you have something interesting. Playing “Can you top this?” is not what anyone can decently call “evidence.”

The idea of double-blind studies, as well as police interrogating witnesses individually and comparing the stories, is because we can easily be influenced by others, especially when something interesting is at stake. Even memories can be altered by this, as has been established time and again (some more info on this available here.)

Ahmed-3816577 says:

There are alot of things cannot be explained and scientist always look for a way to explain them. The sleep paralsis is crap because i experienced it a few times and the last time i experienced it,i wasntt fully asleep. I was laying on my belly and my head was turn to the left and i decided to change the position i was sleeping in so i was awake for a little while, I got up and turn my whole body to lie on the right and after 30 secs i felt my ears clogged up (like when you’re in an airplane) and i couldn’t move or my body or talk, and my eyes were half open, i decided to pray as soon as it happen (my mom told to pray when it happens) and it left after about 50 seconds, when i turned to see what was there, there was nothing.

That wasn’t any sleep paralysis…..

Anyone who has actually looked up the traits of sleep paralysis would simply ask in what way this does not fit. It occurs in transitional stages of sleep, and is frequently (perhaps most frequently) known to convince the person experiencing it that they are not asleep at all – the same way that vivid dreams and nightmares do – and often involve dreaming about actually waking up. It frequently occurs when someone returns to sleep after waking briefly. If you’re going to relate details to disprove an explanation, it helps to actually rule out common factors in the phenomenon rather than confirming them.

JB1972 (let me guess how old you are, JB):

Richard Wiseman my have his Ph.D., but he should not write about things he is completely ignorant about. He can explain away cold spots, orbs in photos, and flickering lights. What he can’t explain away is a skeptic seeing a man very clearly in their home before he vanished, not knowing who he was until they saw him in a photo and found out he was deceased but had lived in the home previously.

I would begin by asking how this photo was introduced, and who mentioned the apparition. For instance, if someone pointed to a photo on the mantle and said they’d seen that person as a ghost, just go away, seriously. If they’d said they saw a ghost and someone showed them the photo, I’d congratulate that person on feeding the answer to the witness (it’s called, “cold reading.”) Now, perhaps if a whole collection of photos, only one of them related in any way to the circumstances, were shown to the witness and they picked out the one key photo, we can start to talk “evidence” (I would try to determine if they had any way of knowing the image through other means, as well as making sure that anyone who knew which photo was key was out of the room and unable to provide inadvertent cues.) If the witness sketched the apparition before being shown any photos, even better. Even see a police lineup? Why do they have more than one person in them, do you think?

One might also ask who would be better qualified to speak on the subject of ghosts, if not someone who does serious research on the matter? Presumably JB1972 is qualified, since they offer their own opinion?

Wendy9999:

I saw a ghost when I was about 4 years old,in the sixties. We never saw scary movies, in bed by 7, had limited access to outside influences,and my parents were not the types to tell stories, and were almost boring people. We went to my mothers cousins house, and i saw a lady above the staircase in a pretty dress, she warned me to be careful playing on the stairs. I knew she looked odd and told my mom and her cousins wife about it, later my mom told my dad that I’d seen the wifes mother…as i’d described her….she’d been passed for many years by then.

So, Wendy had no friends, never watched TV, and lived in a box until this apparition was seen? (I believe we are to assume that this child did not know what a ghost was.) And, at four years old, she could describe the apparition good enough for an adult to positively identify it? Pretty impressive, especially since adults witnessing crimes routinely fail this. But otherwise, I’m going to say that the description assigns more factors to support the story than the story holds on its own. It would be fun, I think, to interview the mother and cousin’s wife to see how the story holds up. Notice, however, that identifying the experience as a ghost does not come from Wendy herself, by her own admission, but from her mother, so it doesn’t really matter how much Wendy knows about ghosts at that point – this is simply obfuscating the account unnecessarily (and misleadingly.) Am I assuming too much by pointing out that the mother seems not to be skeptical of ghosts herself? You will note that Wendy did not actually offer this key bit of information – all she said was her parents “were not the types to tell stories,” and we’re left to ourselves to determine what this is supposed to mean. Decent investigators, however, ask.

Dave1981 (I’m guessing nine years younger than JB):

I’m as skeptical as anyone when it comes to ghosts, having never experienced one myself. However, I’m also open-minded enough to know that just because we can’t prove the existence of something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We just don’t have the tools to verify it. Scientists believe something has to be empirically proven before they will embrace its existence.

This is what’s called “begging the question,” or perhaps this is better expressed as “arguing in a vacuum.” Granted, more than one source has credited Wiseman with stating that the paranormal does not exist, which technically is a contentious statement – all we can establish reasonably is what does exist. But the argument about being open-minded is merely a cop-out, an excuse to believe when there’s nothing to support it. Yes, it’s true that science requires evidence to demonstrate that something exists – how else should it be? We have believed in the existence of countless things throughout history, but mere belief does not provide any knowledge whatsoever; we gain value only from verifiable evidence. But not being able to prove the existence of something, and such a thing not existing, aren’t distinguishable in any way (except philosophically, and what does that provide?) If someone tells me they have a flying horse, I’m going to want to see it – I’m not going to congratulate myself on being gullible enough to believe the statement.

Moreover, the book isn’t about a lack of evidence – it’s about examining the evidence that does exist and showing how it is explained by mundane means. This is the point that was missed by so many commenters. If something that was assumed to be paranormal is instead explained in routine ways, this automatically reduces the “evidence” for paranormal activity, just like a surveillance camera might eliminate tall skinny blond men as suspects in a crime. One must reasonably ask how often such mistakes might occur, and how strong the evidence actually was when decent scientific investigation poked holes in it. We shouldn’t be defensive over such things – we should embrace them for helping us to know what really is happening, and preventing us from being taken in by human traits like believing large numbers of stories leads to a verifiable phenomenon.

This is the beauty of critical thinking. While many people think it takes away the magic and mystery, that’s not what it removes in the slightest – it removes the bullshit and the foolishness. What remains are the things we can now be confident are real, that are useful, trustworthy, and accountable. There are plenty of things in the world that are full of wonder and mystery, magic of their own kind. But to simply hang onto some idea solely (a ha ha) for the mystery, even when that mystery can be shown not to exist – to remain willfully blind and deny what we can find by careful examination – that’s disturbing, to the point of being pathetic. Living in a fantasy world is not worthy of rational adults.

If you’re interested, this paper excellently details how an investigation into quintessential evidence for paranormal explanations can be performed, and what can come of it.

Then you can follow-up with this one. And show me the “ghost hunter” who has bothered to go through this kind of meticulous and documented effort.

Six degrees

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but this past week I saw more than normal, and subsequently saw trailers for the new movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, virtually every time. There is no commentary intended or implied in this, merely an observation, but I kept seeing Kevin Bacon.

Mind you, I hadn’t even seen this poster, nor this promo image of Bacon, until I started looking for example images for this post. I was basing it all on the other image shown below, one of several examples seen in the trailers. Naturally, for a thriller/horror movie, they’re not exactly going to have the apes or chimps looking like Bonzo, or even Clyde, just like most skulls tend to have lowered brows over their empty eye sockets in any kind of Hollywood depiction (apparently you get angrier when you’re dead, or something.) I just think Kevin has a decent shot at a lawsuit, here.

I wonder if I can get away with this in the game?


People actually study this?

In the wake of several threads regarding the study of theology on other blogs, such as Why Evolution Is True and EvolutionBlog, I feel compelled to weigh in [yes, this post has been in draft form for a little while – not to mention I like to try and break up the long ones.] I have, for many years now, felt that large portions of philosophy were far more evidence of people trying to impress themselves with their own intelligence, than the actual application of intelligence. Theology has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be firmly within this category.

There are two leading principles of theology (among countless examples) vague enough to apply to virtually all religions and general enough not to directly contradict scientific evidence: the Ontological Argument, and the Cosmological Argument. You are, of course, welcome to investigate these on your own and come back here to challenge my points, but I tend not to get sidetracked from the crux of matters, and I don’t fall for paragraphs of linguistic obscurity. I say this up front because this seems to be a favorite tactic of theologians and their various sycophants.

The Ontological Argument states that, if we can conceive of a perfect being, then the very nature of perfection would confirm that such a being exists. No, seriously. I’m a bit astounded to think of how human beings, stupid though many might be, could still maintain such a vacuous argument for the many centuries it has existed. It smacks all too closely to the brain-damaged concept of “The Secret,” where positive thinking is supposed to bring about physical changes in reality. With the Ontological Argument, we are apparently maintaining that our concept of perfection either brings it about by our mere recognition, or that we could only conceive of it if it was a real thing. I can conceive of many things, among them decent arguments for the existence of a god, but this doesn’t really have any effect on such arguments existing.

The key, as I’m sure someone would try to tell me, is the “perfect” part – the definition of perfection is what leads undeniably to a deity. Of course, I could also put forth that the definition of a perfect being would be one that has no need of vague wordplay to establish its existence – feel free to explain how this is out of line with the argument itself. I’ll also point out that, even if there was some way to demonstrate that such wordplay actually explained reality, we’re beholden to actually conceive of perfection. It should be universal, shouldn’t it? A perfect being couldn’t possibly disappoint anyone, so a perfect being should be easily defined by anyone, and agreed upon by everyone else. Have fun with that, if you like. Alternately, start small, and conceive of a perfect meal for your very next meal (which by the same argument should exist,) or perhaps a perfect bicycle, which must, by definition, be one that you own (it wouldn’t be perfect if you couldn’t use it, of course.) Is it perfect if it is effortless to ride, thus the most energy efficient vehicle imagined, or perfect in that it produces just the right level of exercise? Is it perfectly comfortable, like an easy chair, or perfectly balanced for cornering? Do I need to keep spitting out examples to show that “perfection” is a vague, opinion-related idea?

Further, the mind absolutely boggles at the sheer egotism that this argument infers. I think I’m safe from contradiction when I say humans are not perfect beings ourselves (I know, I’m an atheist and just referred to myself as “human”, but humor me this one time,) but this argument implies that we are both not mistaken about perfection, nor about our ability to conceive of it. Stunning.

The Cosmological Argument is only slightly better. It states that everything must have a cause, and since causes cannot go back infinitely, there must be a First Cause, ergo god. On the face of it, it seems somewhat logical, but only if you accept a pretty bastardized view of logic, which I suppose is fine for philosophers but not a good move for anyone who has to routinely deal with the real world (i.e., everyone else.) We actually cannot establish that everything must have a cause, nor that causes cannot go back infinitely – about the best we can say, based on most physics that we routinely use every day, is that change requires some kind of instigator, generally some input of energy. I said “most physics” above because quantum indeterminacy does not demonstrate this trait. This could be because it really is unlinked to causative factors, e.g., it happens truly randomly without any internal or external causes; or simply because we have not yet found the causative factor.

What’s interesting is if we do a simple substitution experiment and say, “Rocks must have a beginning,” which is the same argument but freed from human ego. Rocks, however, are merely collections of atoms that temporarily hold a particular shape. Before they were rocks, they were molten lava, and going way back, interstellar dust coalescing into the planet. Before that, hydrogen atoms that eventually drew together under their own gravity into a sun, where heat and pressure created fusion. What this illustrates is that we never see the beginning of something, as in, the sudden appearance of atoms that had not previously existed, and we cannot destroy anything either – we see only form changes. Sometimes this is into, or from, energy itself, but the basic premise of cosmology (we’re not talking the theological concept here, but the one that uses real physics) is that the atoms and the energy that forms them is a fixed constant in the universe, tracing back to the Big Bang. Things change, but we see only the exact same amounts, no increase or decrease.

Aha!” says the triumphant yet addled theologian, “You just admitted that the universe started with the Big Bang! Gotcha, neener neener!” But this is a typical misrepresentation – the only thing that has been proposed by the Big Bang Theory is that the universe that we know right now traces back to a particular point of sudden expansion. Does that mean everything, all the energy and matter, sprung into existence then? Not at all, only that we have no way of tracing anything further back than that, because there is nothing to examine – all we can do is some speculative mathematics.

The ugly part of this, naturally, is that matter and energy (which are interchangeable) are constant, based on every last bit of evidence that we have. The whole “there must be a beginning” thing really only applies to just one small aspect: life. And since life is simply a collection of mutual energy exchanges among a mass of atoms with the same history as the rock we examined earlier, what we really consider beginning is consciousness, or our own memories. This is an amazingly self-centered thing on which to base the claim that the entire universe is beholden to First Cause. We think “everything” begins simply because we only relate to the start of life, the beginning of consciousness or even, like a tree, the beginning of a growth cycle from a reproductive stage. Even this is pretty far off the mark, since life springs only from life, from a parent stretching back to the first RNA billions of years ago, and haven’t the faintest idea when consciousness began (nor, for that matter, an effective way of defining it.) It is only because we relate personally to a “start” and “end,” because we view consciousness as a special state, that we think a beginning is even necessary. Once again we’re back to the egotistical attitude.

I think I was thirteen or so when I pointed out the biggest flaw in First Cause arguments, which is, “What caused god then?” You have to admit, it’s phenomenally lame to posit a law of causation that is defeated by the very thing it proposes to prove. “But you don’t understand,” whine the theologians, or more often, the ones who think they make reasoned arguments, “the real argument is that everything that has a beginning has to have a cause!” (You think I’m putting words in their mouths, don’t you? I wish that it were true, really.) What this does, supposedly, is to explain that god does not therefore need a cause, just everything else. Yet I already answered that above – matter/energy has every appearance of being perpetual, so it becomes exempt too. Even if we accept one part of the argument as a given, that “everything that begins must have a cause,” we still can question why a never-ending string of causes (or a periodic causal force) is against the rules while a never-ending god is not. The reasoning behind one being able to be perpetual but others things cannot? There’s none at all.

Which leads us to the biggest flaw of theology itself, which is that it exists only to try and reach a particular conclusion, whereupon the careful and meticulous philosophy stops dead and pretends nothing else matters. Lest you think I’m not going deep enough with such simple arguments, I can also point out another flaw in the Cosmological Argument: time and change are pretty much the same thing – we cannot have one without the other, and in fact cannot distinguish them. For a “First Cause” to even exist, there would have to be no change/time before it, and if there is no passage of time, there cannot be a “first” to mark the change from an unchanging state. “Going back through infinity” (or “eternity” if you prefer) is actually the only thing that doesn’t defeat itself – as hard as it is for us to conceive of it, the physics bears it out, and the logic supports nothing else. Change is constant.

Are you getting the impression of why I find theology so fatuous? Well, hold on, I’m not done yet. But I’ll pause here long enough to say, in the face of those who maintain that theology cannot be rendered as simple as I’ve made it here, that you have the very flaws I’ve pointed out above to explain first. If I’m misrepresenting them, so is everyone else, because these are the exact same arguments I’ve heard for years. Feel free to explain how it’s more “nuanced” than this.

The flaws, however, do not stop here. I want to point out that, even if either, or indeed both, of these major theological arguments could be established as true (I won’t be losing sleep over that anytime soon,) neither of them comes even remotely close to the gods that are supposed to be supported by them. “First Cause” could mean nothing more than a law of physics we have not discovered yet, and involves in no way anything resembling intent, design, perfection, or consciousness, much less beneficence, interest, love, or “goodness.” And a Perfect Being™, naturally, is unlikely to demonstrate the petty and undeniably human emotions that it is claimed to possess, from any religion you care to name, and would also have to pony up to the wildly random expenses of energy in the universe and the incredible waste of space. Religious apologists, as far as I’m concerned, have to explain the huge contradiction between the “conceived perfection” required for the Ontological Argument and their handwaving excuse for all of the misfortunes we suffer through (and the very existence of evil in the first place): “We can’t know the mind of god.” Doesn’t that say we can’t conceive of perfection? Is it really asking too much for explanations regarding god to be consistent? Or are we talking different gods here?

Either concept has a huge gap between the properties it attempts to infer must exist, and the gods that such concepts are used to prove. Neither, nor any other aspect of theology I’ve ever come across, makes any attempt to explain what realm such gods must exist within; where such gods obtain their raw material to forge creation; why such gods would have the faintest interest in creating such temporary edifices, nor why they would think that the affairs of man, tiny little fragile beings in a tiny little fragile shell on one planet among perhaps millions, should be of any importance whatsoever; how such gods could have thought processes so similar to our own; or even why an omnipotent/omniscient being could or should create anything in the first place – the answer, the whole history of mankind and indeed creation, should already be known (that’s what omniscient means.) These are not idle questions, mind you, but rather important to establishing a working theory and key factors in why we seek a god at all. This, to me, has always been the nature of religious answers, in that they raise a far greater number of questions than the ones they purport to answer in the first place (Ha! I kill me…)

Credit where it’s due: I’m sure that these very questions have indeed been faced by theologians throughout history. But the answers that spring to mind end up working directly against our preconceived ideas of omnipotent, omniscient, beneficent gods. If theology were a true aspect of philosophy or (god forbid) science, then it would be obligated to deal with these very issues, which are fundamental problems with the overall theory. String Theory, a scientific concept about unifying quantum and relativistic physics, yields the possibility of untold thousands of universes when extrapolated outwards (well, okay, at that point they cannot be universes but by definition become multiverses.) This isn’t ignored in the slightest by physicists, but instead they start considering what might happen with two -verses in close proximity, or whether the Cosmic Microwave Background might be patchy because of such interactions. That’s how science works – you are locked into the necessary consequences of any theory. Not so with theology, which produces countless additional questions while still not completely answering the ones it set out to, and is expected to be considered important.

Even worse, when faced with these questions, with the very failure of theology to form a decent explanatory theory, theologians frequently resort to rather elitist attitudes, often saying that you need to read umpteen books to truly understand the arguments. Yet, there isn’t one aspect of science I have come across that is not capable of being rendered into a synopsis. I’ve read great explanatory chapters on abiogenesis, the formation of the first cells based upon inherent chemical interactions, using an analogy of mayonnaise (oil and water don’t mix, unless they couple with a compound that binds with either simultaneously, called an amphiphile.) Stephen Hawking explained numerous concepts of space-time and quantum behavior in a remarkably accessible book, A Brief History of Time. The English language is made like that: it is possible to render everything into less detail as desired. Except, it would appear, when it comes to theology. Pose these questions to theologists, and you’ll typically get references to other writings, or a verbal diarrhea of esoteric terms that might sound wonderfully erudite, but make no sense together.

Watch this, because I’ll demonstrate how it should be done: “Theology is indistinguishable from total bullshit.” Notice that I didn’t call theology bullshit (not this time, anyway,) but what I pointed out was that there is no way to determine its value, since it provides nothing to test against, no verifiable results, and no impact on anything that we do or experience. As mentioned above, it provides a weak excuse to go on believing something that we want to, without having proposed it in the first place nor explained how it should work to produce what we already know. Like being told we’re pretty or handsome by our parents, it’s something that we’d like to hear but in a way that lacks authenticity, and as such it provides no value except to those who need to hear it so badly. And they probably don’t need umpteen books on the subject…

It’s a trap!


I was actually on the phone when I spotted this, and rudely begged off the call to go get my camera. Or at least, it might have been considered rude if I wasn’t conversing with another nature photographer; instead, I was encouraged not to waste time ;-)

Jagged ambush bugs (genus Phymata) are common throughout the US, but most people have no idea what they are, or look like. The flower seen here is about 35mm (1.5 inches) across, so the little green bugger could hide under a pea with room to spare – if you’re not looking close, you’re not going to notice it. This lack of attentiveness holds true for many different pollinating insects, which visit the flowers that serve as the favorite hunting grounds of ambush bugs, and thus transition to a different stage in the food chain. Ambush bugs are predatory and insectivorous, fitting in with mantises and spiders, and are quick to react when something comes near. I would have thought their camouflage would be a bit better than this, but I certainly couldn’t pass up this color palette, could I? This is most likely a nymph, based on the half-formed wings seen jutting from the midsection, with a splash of reddish-brown at the base.

It wasn’t long before my subject had taken its prey underneath the blossom and drained it of nourishment, using a piercing proboscis rather than eating its capture whole like a praying mantis. Then the carcass was discarded on the leaves below and the ambush bug took up a position under the flower to await further developments, as they say. You can see the mantis-like forelegs used to seize their food, and just barely make out the tucked-under proboscis (between “wrist” and “nose,” as it were.) The flower later shed its petals and began to look quite unappetizing, but my subject here remained in place for days.

And I realize, as I type this, that’s it’s going up alongside another nasty-looking bug photo in today’s National Geographic Photo of the Day widget on the sidebar. I’m sorry, I’ll try to find some fluffy bunnies for a future post…

We get what we pay for

This is something that’s been bugging me for a while, and while I started on a post some months back, I never finished it. I need to, especially in response to a new article. More below.

Let’s say you have heard of a new species of fish in Lake Tanganyika, and your job entails studying rare fish breeds. Your boss turns to you and say, “We need to bring back live specimens. How much is it going to cost?” Can you work up a budget for this?

There’s too many variables, aren’t there? Where is the fish? How deep does it live? How numerable is it? What’s it eat, what eats it, does it migrate for spawning, can I hire dive boats and equipment nearby, or perhaps seine boats… it’s pretty hard to come up with a budget, isn’t it? Instead, if you have any sense at all, you simply set “obtaining live specimens” as a goal, and attempt to secure open funding for it.

Maybe your task is to create a new fuel efficient engine, from scratch. How much would that cost? You’d certainly be within your rights to look askance at someone making that inquiry and consider them na├»ve and, certainly, not good management material. After all, you’re not using off-the-shelf parts, cannot determine how long research is going to take, and have only basic physics goals to aim for. One can certainly set a budget, but cannot reasonably guarantee results within those constraints.

Why, then, do we expect something different from NASA? A scathing article in Discover Magazine demonstrates this approach, as well as a near-total innocence of space programs in general and the Space Shuttle Orbiter in particular.

Nearly every time I hear NASA mentioned in any form of popular media, some comment about “budget overrun” is made, and this article is no exception. And it is abundantly clear that such issues are what helps direct Congressional funding decisions. The other item you hear often enough is “management problems,” which has been paraded endlessly throughout the media as being responsible for the space shuttle accidents.

If you’re faced with a project or a department that suffers from bad management, what is your choice of action? Slash funding? That’s going to fix the matter, is it? If you have any sense at all, you raise the standards for managers, and try hiring better choices. Are these going to come cheaper? Well, fast food franchises think so, but I’d suspect that’s not a model of business we’re really aiming to emulate. Quite often, the solution is to bite the bullet and hire the best person available, even though they are very likely to come at a higher price.

If you buy a bargain DVD player and it fails within a month, who, exactly, is to blame for this? No, wait, let me rephrase that: if you hand your employee $20 and instruct them to get a DVD player, which fails, now who’s to blame? If you blame the employee, you’re not good management material yourself (I was going to leave the question hanging, figuring it was self-evident, then I remembered some of the idiots I’ve worked for.)

I do feel the need to point out here that the entire United States consistently runs over budget. We should either slash taxes or figure there’s serious management problems, shouldn’t we? Maybe we need to be looking carefully at those people we keep putting in management positions ourselves, the ones that generally couldn’t pass a high-school science final exam. Are these the people we need making decisions on funding such programs?

Leaving congressional incompetence aside, another aspect that continually comes up is what kind of returns we can expect from things like space programs. It’s just research – there’s nothing we can sell afterwards, right? Why bother with NASA at all?

You see, this is a significant part of the problem with a capitalist society – everything is supposed to make a profit. I could go into the economics of how there’s a finite supply of money in the world, and the quest for this to increase is what drives inflation, but that’s not even as direct a point as can be made. Instead, I’ll ask you how much you’re paying per day to receive a GPS signal in the car, or to see weather reports on TV. Do we pay royalties to Maxwell’s family, for the advancements of electrical theory, or Salk’s for the idea of vaccines?

Knowledge itself is a worthwhile investment. Once we have knowledge, we never actually stop using it – it is a permanent, perpetual benefit to all of us. In fact, it is demonstrably the best investment we can make, period. How much is too much to pay for something the entire human race (and even other species) can use forever?

When Einstein proposed the Theory of Special Relativity, where the passage of time between two bodies depended on their velocities relative to each other, it remained just a curiosity for 55 years, because we had no way to test it before then. If, when he presented it, he was asked what the practical applications were, he could only have spoken in terms of a space program we did not have. I doubt he would, in his wildest dreams, have said, “it will one day be used to prevent people from getting lost, for navigation of aircraft and sailing vessels, for pinpointing accident victims, finding missing children, and determining cheating spouses.” Yet the aforementioned Global Positioning System requires precise time measurements to even function, and these could not be made without the knowledge imparted by Special Relativity, since time passes differently for those satellites in orbit than it does here on earth.

If that knowledge had required a demonstrable, immediate profit to even have received funding in the first place, we would not have it now. We would not, in fact, have at least half of the scientific advancement we now use every day.

Returning to NASA, countless pundits decried the lack of foresight demonstrated by both the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, and continue to do so with the lack of a space shuttle replacement program. This borders on the asinine, however, and needs to remain in context; NASA has never been short of ideas, contingencies, and projects. The question has always been, how many actually get funded? Zeeberg might have exercised his remarkable journalism prowess, and referred to Wikipedia if he found himself that unaware of how the program works:

Based on the advice of the Space Council, President Nixon made the decision to pursue the low earth orbital infrastructure option. This program mainly consisted of construction of a space station, along with the development of a Space Shuttle. Funding restrictions precluded pursuing the development of both programs simultaneously, however. NASA chose to develop the Space Shuttle program first, and then planned to use the shuttle in order to construct and service a space station. [Emphasis mine]

Another example is the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, a proposed standby spacecraft to evacuate up to seven people from the ISS in the event of an emergency. Able to be launched on a rocket and docked autonomously with the ISS, it can simply remain in place until needed. Or at least, that was the idea, until funding for it was cancelled. Because of this, the emergency evacuation option is a Soyuz capsule, a product of the 1970s which holds only three people. So the greatest crew the ISS maintains due to this is three, which is far from both functional and supportable capacity. While Congress may make noises about both efficiency and safety, it doesn’t appear that they know what either word means.

The Space Shuttle Orbiter was proposed as a fast turnaround, frequent-flying craft able to perform multiple functions. Once built, however, it turned out to be more expensive and higher maintenance than proposed. Is this bad planning? Perhaps – unlike others, I wouldn’t presume to judge without knowing at least something about the management of such a program – but possibly a lot more like non-psychic designers. No one had ever produced a vehicle even remotely like it before, and virtually none of the parts or components existed. Remember that, when proposed, we’d been in space less than a decade. This was uncharted territory and no one could operate from experience. That’s the very nature of space exploration. The only attitude that makes sense is to accept what comes. However, the inability to meet initially proposed expectations has been held against the shuttle from the flight test days, despite the long list of successes throughout its history.

Yes, the Challenger and Columbia accidents are a tragedy. Were they avoidable? With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s easy to say, “Yes” – but that’s true of any accident, isn’t it? The car you drive right now could be safer – I can say that without having the faintest idea what you drive, and you probably know you cannot reasonably argue with me, either. To be fair, though, automobiles are a new technology, only existing since before powered flight began…

Space exploration encompasses a list of hazards that will remain unsurpassed for decades. This is not news to anyone in the industry, and most especially not the people flying them. Yes, it’s dangerous – so is firefighting. Any pundit insisting or implying that space exploration should be safe is talking out of their ass, and such an attitude need not be fostered or continued – it actually deserves to be treated with contempt and derision. It can be argued that safety can be increased, and this is almost certainly true – but that comes at a cost, does it not? Complaining that the US space program isn’t safe and costs too much is talking out of both sides of your mouth (or ass, or we determined previously.)

The media likes to present simple explanations to people, but this is a bit of a disservice when it comes to space flight, and we need to stop falling for the attitudes implied in every hand-wringing sensationalistic article. The number of people who have died in space flight, the world over, doesn’t even approach monthly highway deaths for most states, much less “friendly fire” incidents in military endeavors. Aren’t these both avoidable? Let’s use some intelligence, here – orbital flight involves accelerating machines magnitudes faster than anything else on earth, using highly volatile compounds. Thousands of factors bear on every flight, every exercise, and they all bring a certain degree of reliability, or lack thereof. Weighing these risks is a routine aspect, but there is no way to reliably assess the total risk involved. The confluence of factors in both the Challenger and Columbia accidents were known, as were countless others that had no bearing whatsoever on the accidents. One must also consider, for instance, the lost opportunities for effective orbital insertion (one of the payloads on the STS-51L, the fateful Challenger mission, had to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet, and needed a very specific trajectory to do so.) One must know how soon the orbiter will be back and overhauled for the next mission (and its own time constraints); one must have emergency options for launch abort available (one of the 51L delays was the unavailability of the emergency landing field in Senegal, a specific and important safety procedure); one must calculate what expensive missions will be thrown away if the SRBs go in for radical redesign. You may have noted that Thiokol repeatedly maintained that they warned NASA about the O-ring issue; did you also consider that this was their own design flaw, incorporated into every solid booster for decades? Why did it take them so long to find it, much less fix it?

You notice that Zeeberg, in the Discover article, points out the difference between projected launches per year, and actual; he also points out projected launch costs, and actual. Did he point out that these were based on initial funding requests from Congress, something that was never received? Did he tumble to the fact that number of launches per year and cost of launches are directly related, having to be worked into the yearly budget approved by Congress? Welcome to the New Journalism, where having some knowledge of your subject is considered completely unnecessary.

Was he thorough enough to compare shuttle costs against other launch vehicles capable of performing the same missions? Too much to ask, I suppose. How about considering the multiple mission scenarios practiced in virtually every flight? How about the construction of the ISS – was an unmanned rocket going to handle that? Repairs to satellites? While Hubble was launched with an unfortunate major problem, most definitely avoidable, it also received not only the repair it needed, but also a major upgrade extending its life, not something even remotely possible with an unmanned mission. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned vehicles were all discontinued, and the products of long-obsolete technology, so some manned vehicle had to be in place, and the shuttle performed far more than simply boosting a small capsule.

Now, of course, we find ourselves with a gutted program and countless cancelled projects, and the absolutely brilliant idea of farming virtually everything out to private contractors. Somehow, this is supposed to make sense, as if a profitable organization is somehow going to provide the services we need cheaper and/or safer than a specific government agency. Now, think about this a second: Congress, in effect, has said that a government agency under their direct purview is too incapable of maintaining both oversight and efficiency, and subcontracted these both out to large-scale corporations with no oversight whatsoever. I suppose we’re lucky they didn’t turn it over to the banking industry.

Too few seem to understand that no private organization is going to pursue this unless they can make a profit, which remains to be seen, and that they’re under no obligation to produce anything, much less the specific launch vehicles we might need in the next few decades. While innovation is all well and good, and I applaud the idea of seeking outside input, I can’t feel that dropping everything in the laps of companies that are far behind their own projected schedules and have no track record to speak of is establishing this “foresight” that everyone seems so concerned was lacking in the shuttle program. I mean, if you find the family car is getting a bit unreliable, does it make sense to throw it out and wait for a brand new one to be created from a company that has never even built a go-cart? And when they cannot, or it turns out to be far worse, what then? And most especially, who’s to blame for that utter fiasco?

Notice that almost nobody ever says anything about the successful NASA missions, either. How we landed people on the moon within the projected schedule, despite it being a complete unknown, and negated the Soviet Union’s head start in doing so (NASA’s budget has never been higher than that period, by the way.) How we landed probes on Mars and radar-mapped Venus through an obscuring cloud cover, and the numerous probes both in orbit and fully operational right now, returning information on a daily basis. How the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are just a wee bit over their projected 90 day mission profile. How we are taking for granted the surveyors of both Mars and the moon which provide exceptional information with every pass; satellites orbiting Mars have returned repeated photos of the rovers, previous missions like Viking 1, and even the parachute descent of the Phoenix Lander. Hubble has confirmed and refined numerous theories regarding the age of the universe and measuring distant stars, and has produced images of the most distant (and thus oldest) objects to date, and Kepler and Spitzer are responsible for the frequent announcements of new planets found orbiting other stars. This says nothing of the global communications, weather, and navigational satellites that every one of us uses multiple times daily.

Now, we hear that the James Webb Space Telescope is proposed to be removed from the budget by Congress – again, citing cost overruns and management issues. The JWST, considered Hubble’s successor, is designed to be capable of many times the imaging power of the hugely successful Hubble, working in bandwidths much better suited towards the information we’ve been receiving. What we learned from Hubble, we can expect to be multiplied significantly from JWST. Not only that, but this is a joint venture with both the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, and bailing on this is, in essence, reneging on an agreement.

I can ask a lot of questions regarding this. I can ask what the monthly cost of maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is (better than twice JWST’s total budget of 6.81 billion dollars); and what the expected advancements from those investments are (nothing – we’ve already achieved the supposed goals, and have been doing nothing but damage control for years.) I could ask what benefit we can receive from the not-quite half of the budget already spent (nothing); or what percentage of the bank bailout that JWST’s budget represents (estimates vary, since it’s ongoing and constantly revised, but 10% is close enough to illustrate); or what percentage JWST is of the annual corn subsidy budget, which largely supports the total boondoggle of ethanol fuel additives (they’re roughly the same, showing that Congress once again needs some help in identifying inefficiency and mismanagement, or even basic science.)

If we’re going to have any space program at all, then we need to speak up to Congress, and emphasize that the goal is to have a space program, not to see if one fits into “disposable funds.” We need to reiterate that science (and education as well, while I’m at it) are not goal-oriented programs, but investments in future prosperity, health, and advancements – there is nothing more important. If management is an issue, then commit to good management, which often means deferring to those that actually work in these fields, rather than treating them as opportunistic swindlers, which has been the attitude towards science advisory in Congress for at least the past decade. We spent twenty billion dollars a year having air conditioning in tents in Iraq – how much could it have possibly cost to start a factory in Iraq that manufactured the damn things (and would have provided ten times the benefit on top, creating jobs and improving economy and relations in that country)? Science and educational funding is a drop in the bucket of the annual budget, and a smidgen of the defense budget – where I don’t see Congress worrying about efficiency or management, much less recognizing that there is literally no country that could effectively pose a threat to us. If you want to argue that, figure the logistics of forcefully occupying half a continent.

We need to be able to dispose of the senseless rhetoric, and focus on what produces results. And we need to hold our representatives to this as well – which means we actually write to Congress over this issue.

And you might notice that this is more of a solution than Zeeberg’s idiotic rant…

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