Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Slow Steady Shift...Left. (part one)

This is going to be a multiple part post. I'll try to remember to link back to the others in each one. I'll also label each one as "shifting left" so you should be able to search for them. K, here goes.

I think I've been on a steady political shift from right to left on most fronts for an awfully long time. I remember quite clearly that in high school I considered myself a very devout christian. As expected, I supported most right-winged views. I was a death penalty supporter. I looked down on people that lived on welfare. I would very likely have physically assaulted someone that burned a flag in front of me. I felt no pity for criminals. I didn't feel like a moron when I made comments about "bleeding heart liberals." I actually believed, because of what I had been taught by my elders, that teachers, professors, and intellectuals in general happened to be mostly liberal simply because they were somehow brainwashed into believing those things. I'm going to make this a multi-part post. I think I'll separate it into beliefs that have changed from then to now but that's not really what's happened. What's happened would be more accurately described as a change in my thinking process. More below the fold.

So, for part one, I guess I'll write about the change in my thinking process. Let me try to explain the way in which I viewed the world before science became such a big part of my life and why. I, like everyone else, was raised with a number of beliefs that weren't really verified in any way. You just believed things because that's how you were taught things were. Let me start with a childhood example. The Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take your tooth out from under your pillow in exchange for money. As you will agree, there is no reasonable explanation for the Tooth Fairy. Well, money does appear under your pillow if you leave a tooth there. That is evidence at some level. OK, now a little more grown up example. I could throw out examples like jesus being the son of god, or prayer being an effective medicine but I'm going to start with something a bit more basic, a wives' tale.

Here's a common wive's tale that we've all heard and many of you likely believe. If you go outside in the cold, especially with a wet head, you'll get pneumonia. I've chosen this example because I heard it as a child and I still hear it now. Educated adults, people that have graduated high school, some that have graduated college, still believe that being outside in the cold somehow increases our chances of contracting pneumonia (or influenza, or strep-throat, or the common cold). Why?

Here's where the thought process comes in. Many people, myself included until I discovered the tools of science, believe things without skepticism until something smacks them in the face and says, "Hey! Asshole! This is not true! Now wake the fuck up and look around a bit alright mate!? (Yes, sometimes that something is a foul-mouthed Aussie). But seriously, lots of folks (they tend to call themselves conservatives) just hold on to a belief until something proves it wrong. Often this is a fine way to think. You can't question everything in life. You just have to trust the people around you. Parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and leaders are usually people that have shown themselves to be trustworthy. Therefore, we trust the beliefs that they pass on to us. Like I said, often this is just fine. If your mother says, "Don't eat this, it's poison," it's not a bad idea to listen. If she's right, you'll live. If she's wrong, you'll still live. Super. Right?

What about when your mom says the stars all revolve around the earth? It's not physically harmful. But it is damaging. Don't believe me? Try adding to that a belief that humans are 6,000 years old, Noah's flood made the Grand Canyon, and dinosaurs never existed. Now, take that bag full of bullshit and pass a science test with it. Maybe you think that's not all that damaging either. How about a belief that women are not as intelligent as men? It's still around and it's bullshit, just like it always was. That belief persisted because people just believed what their elders taught them even when evidence to the contrary was thrown in their faces.

So here's the real problem with this type of conservative thought process. We lie to ourselves. Instead of confronting a belief when the tools are available to test it, people tend to just stick with it because it's comfortable. If you are too comfortable with your ideas, you're not going to be willing to change them. This seems to result in a dishonest form of intellectual inquiry. Instead of asking honest questions about the world and then looking for evidence, we start with an idea and look for confirmation. This is what fuels the imaginary evolution vs. creation debate. There is no debate, not among scientists. The people that don't understand evolution aren't even trying. All they look for is some little hole in the theory that will allow them to confirm their pre-existing belief in creation.

Now, how has my thought process changed? Since that is supposed to be the point of this rambling, incoherent, pile of a post. Here's where science really comes in. The scientific process requires that to the extent possible one should approach every single problem without bias. Obviously, this is not possible in an absolute sense. However, simply being aware of your bias can really change how you are able to think about a problem. Try it some time. It becomes more and more difficult the more things are ingrained into your life. Ask yourself this question: How does phosphorus affect the trophic state of a lake? If you have no idea what that means, you probably start with very little bias when you begin looking for an answer. I try to approach every question that's important to me in this way. Now, the scientific process comes in again. This is where it gets a little more difficult. The only evidence you're allowed to use is statistically significant evidence. This includes established facts and known processes. What it doesn't include is hunches, feelings, anecdotal evidence, and "faith." Sorry, that's just the way it works. Faith is the belief in something in spite of the evidence, and that's just not allowed in science.

Here is a question that's a little more difficult to approach without bias. Is abortion always immoral? My next post in this series is going to explore this question a little more deeply. I'd love to have some comments. So, if you're reading this, try to approach this question anew. Try to answer it openly and honestly and base your decision on something a little more thoughtful than "the bible says so."

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's The Rumpus Laura Ingalls?

After two days in the Twin Cities I've had more than my share of traffic, Greek food, and culture. Last night, Gaelic Storm. Tonight, Little House on the Prairie.

Anyone who hasn't seen Gaelic Storm is really missing out. Their music is a really impressive blend of Irish folk, pop, and various instruments from around the world (can you say didgeridoo?). We attended "Music at the Zoo" last night at the Minnesota Zoo and it was amazing. I saw these guys a few years ago in Grand Forks and really liked their music. My wife has been wanting to go ever since she first heard them and last night was our chance. They have improved their show, which was already great, by leaps and bounds. These guys really engage the audience.

Little House on the Prairie was good, maybe even very good. But it was not great. It could definitely have been better than it was. The show was too short. Too many details were glossed over. And everyone was just too damned chipper to be struggling homesteaders in the prairie. I was also annoyed by the meaningless customary standing ovation at the end. I'm probably beating up on the show too much. It really was enjoyable. I just expected more from a show that sold out in the first couple of days received such great reviews. A Midsummer Night's Dream blew it away. Overall, out of 10, I give it a 7. My wife, who's obsession with Little House was the driving force that resulted in our attendance, gives it an 8.

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