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Friday, May 28, 2010

Arguing About Religion on Another Site

Well, I don't have any blog entries this week. I've been spending too much time reading and commenting on other sites. In particular, I've been following the comment thread of this article, The New War Between Science and Religion, from The Chronicle of Higher Education. If there's anybody out there just dying to read something I've written this week, I'll copy my comments here (and some of the relevant comments of others). Since this doesn't really count as an original blog entry, I'm going to put all of it below the fold.

new_theologian wrote:

Well, I think I showed up at the party after the lights came back on. Anybody still here, or is it just me and the beer-soaked carpet?

Anyway, I have to say that science should just be honest about the data that needs to be explained, and to realize that science does not, in fact, have the means to explain it all right now. It is an argument ad ignorantiam either way--to say that there is no proof in favor of God or to say that there is no proof against him. Actually, though, there are powerful arguments as to the metaphysical assertion that there exists a conscious root of existence itself, even if we cannot get from there to the God of the Bible without actual revelation--a point no one who believes in revelation would ever contest. The point is that if there are things that science cannot, at the moment, explain, then one must either make a leap of "faith" in science to be certain that science will explain them some day, even though, at the moment, we do not have the data to demonstrate the truth of that assertion, or else we must hold out the possibility that the data now lacking will never be found. That's what scientific reason requires. The alternative is not scientific bus scientistic.

So what is the evidence that science has yet to explain?

1) There is something rather than nothing.

2) Human beings have the ability, at times, to resist death--to hold on until some moment they have been waiting for. (This is a well-documented fact to which anyone who has ministered to the dying would readily attest.)

3) People do occasionally spontaneously recover from disease and even deformity, or occasionally acquire abilities of which they should be physiologically incapable.

4) Sometimes Catholics who are exhumed from the earth decades after burial are found not to have decomposed, even though their coffins are reduced to earth and the fabric of their clothing is completely decayed--without their having been embalmed.

5) Sometimes bones of Catholic saints ooze oils, regardless of where the bones are interred (St. Nicholas of Myra, for example, whose bones have been moved a number of times since his burial in the fourth century), without reducing in mass, even though the oil being expressed far exceeds the mass of the bones themselves.

6) People have "near death" experiences, in which, upon occasion, they witness their doctors' actions upon their bodies and can provide an account of that action inclusive of details concerning which it would not be possible in any currently understood way, for them to have attained. Again, this is a well-documented fact.

These are only dome of the points that currently present challenges for a pure materialism, but the "new atheists" are really quite unwilling to acknowledge them. Granted, if science does explain them, then that certainly ups the ante on the contest, but until that point, it is simply unreasonable to suggest that those who believe in divine intervention are unreasonable. Can't we see that?

I wrote:


I'm kind of late to the party, too, but hopefully you've stuck around long enough to respond to my questions of your points. I'm an atheist, but if any of the world's religions is true, then this topic is pretty important. It would mean I have an immortal soul who's eternal fate is at stake. That's not an issue to be taken lightly. But the problem with many religions is that you can't hedge your bets. You can't go to a synagogue one day, a mosque the next, a Christian church the next, and a Hindu temple the next, and still expect the respective gods to look upon you with favor. You have to put all your eggs in one basket, so you better be really sure you've picked the right basket. To quote Homer Simpson, "Suppose we've chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we're just making him madder and madder." Considering the potential stakes, it's worth being skeptical of claims to make sure that they stand up to rigor. If you can provide good answers to my questions, particularly the apparently impossible as opposed to just improbable, then I would seriously reconsider my atheism.

"1) There is something rather than nothing."

That question has always given me goosebumps, but religion never answered it for me. Where did the god(s) come from in the first place? So it's true that science doesn't have an answer for this, and I doubt it ever will, but I don't know of any other field of human inquiry that has a satisfactory answer, either.

"2) Human beings have the ability, at times, to resist death--to hold on until some moment they have been waiting for. (This is a well-documented fact to which anyone who has ministered to the dying would readily attest.)"

Are you sure it's well documented and not just confirmation bias? I recall a study that looked into this, and didn't find any statistical significance that people actually do hold on (Google 'donn young death study' - without quotes - to see the study). Also, even if true, how would this be evidence of anything other than a physiological process?

"3) People do occasionally spontaneously recover from disease and even deformity, or occasionally acquire abilities of which they should be physiologically incapable."

I'll give you the first - spontaneously recovering from disease. That's not really 'miraculous' or surprising. Few diseases have 100% mortality rates, and some people just get lucky enough to be the ones who survive. For the second two, could you provide some concrete examples? Any type of major deformity being cured (such as regrowing a limb) would certainly be strong evidence for the supernatural, as would acquiring a seemingly impossible ability.

"4) Sometimes Catholics who are exhumed from the earth decades after burial are found not to have decomposed, even though their coffins are reduced to earth and the fabric of their clothing is completely decayed--without their having been embalmed."

Could you please give concrete examples of this, as well? (Though to be honest, mummies are going to be among the least convincing forms of evidence for the supernatural, since we already know that mummies form naturally.)

"5) Sometimes bones of Catholic saints ooze oils, regardless of where the bones are interred (St. Nicholas of Myra, for example, whose bones have been moved a number of times since his burial in the fourth century), without reducing in mass, even though the oil being expressed far exceeds the mass of the bones themselves."

I hadn't heard this about St. Nick's bones before, and five minutes of googling didn't reveal much more than the story you've already told. Can you provide some info on evidence confirming this - taking measurements of bone mass, weighing the oil, outside observers verifying that the oil is indeed coming from the bones and isn't a hoax, etc.

"6) People have "near death" experiences, in which, upon occasion, they witness their doctors' actions upon their bodies and can provide an account of that action inclusive of details concerning which it would not be possible in any currently understood way, for them to have attained. Again, this is a well-documented fact."

Could you provide a source to what you think is the best documented of these? I'll express my concerns up front. We know our memories aren't perfect, and that people are open to suggestions. If post event interviews are conducted with leading questions, people can create false memories. Also, I'd be interested in how the patients initially related what they knew about what went on in the OR, how much they got right, and how much they got wrong. We know how so called psychics use cold reading techniques to create the impression that they know more than they actually do. When people want to believe, they'll pay more attention to the hits than the misses. I'd want to be sure that something similar wasn't going on in these near death experiences.

new_theologian wrote:

ztkl40a #89,

I have to say that I find it refreshing that you are actually willing to have a conversation rather than just hurling ad hominems like most people. You are asking reasonable questions, and, given my current time constraints, I will not be able to deal with them all. I have to teach a class this evening and I've got something cooking on the stove, have to pack an overnight bag, etc. But let me make a few preliminary remarks.

Re 1) That there is something rather than nothing leads to arguments concerning the causes of things, and the question of an infinite reduction. The classical argument--and this is a philosophical point, rather than a properly theological one--is that an infinite reduction is impossible. Why? Because, if each intermediate cause is itself an effect, then by postulating an infinite regression of causes, we would be saying that there is no first cause. But since all other causes are themselves effects, then if there is not first cause, there is no first effect, since an effect requires a cause. This would mean that there would now be nothing in existence, which is clearly false.

Now, the conclusion is not immediately that there exists a "God" in the way that we normally think of God, but that there must be some cause that is itself eternally existent--not caused by anything else, but, in fact, the root of all other being.

How does this, or can this, lead to conclusion that "God exists"? When we say, "God," we normally mean a supernatural source of contingent being which is more than a mere metaphysical principle, but which is, instead, somehow conscious. The argument to the existence of God is really the recognition that, insofar as consciousness can be understood as a positive mode of existence, then it is an effect of prior causes, which would mean that, as an effect, it would require a cause capable of producing that effect--one with that perfection, or something still more excellent. The argument would thus run as follows: All effects must be contained, preeminently, in their causes. All causes are effects of a first, uncaused cause. Thus, all effects must be contained, preeminently in the first, uncaused cause. Consciousness is an effect. Thus, Consciousness must be contained preminently in the first, uncaused cause.

If that is so, then we know that the metaphysical root of all existence is conscious in some sense, and thus, that there is a God.

To get from this point to the God of the Bible, of course, is not possible on the grounds of philosophical reasoning alone, because philosophical reasoning is really incapable of arriving at the conclusion that this God actually thinks about and cares about human beings. That has to be revealed in much the same way that we cannot know whether another human being loves us without that fact somehow being disclosed, intentionally, by the other.

Re 2) I teach at a place where we train an awful lot of nurses, and I have known an awful lot of priests. Huge numbers of them report that patients will die immediately after being visited by a special loved one for whom they have been waiting, or upon an anniversary's arrival, or upon reception of the sacraments. It's uncanny. Again, per se impossible? No, but it seems at least to suggest that the human being has some sort of internal ability to resist dissolution, such that it is not unreasonable to think that there is a dimension to human existence that transcends the merely material.

Re 3) He do have hagiographical assertions of people being raised from the dead, and there is a story about St. John Damascene having his hand restored to him after it was severed by the iconoclasts. But you probably wouldn't accept those assertions, since we do not have any contemporary records to verify them. It is the case, though, that the Catholic Church does not canonize people without documentation of miracles. The Church defines miracles pretty strictly. A "first order miracle" is an event which is impossible in nature" (at least as far as we understand natural possibilities). I would have to look this up, but I recall that a canonization in the twentieth century involved a person who acquired the ability to hear, but did not possess any bones in the inner ear. I can't verify that it this point. But I can say that, at least anecdotally, I know a woman whose molar pregnancy was undetectable after she was anointed with the expectation that her condition was too far advanced to be cured. She has since gone on to have several more children, and is alive today. I know this woman personally. Of course, this is a medical event, and spontaneous remission is not per se impossible. But you have to admit, it is not unreasonable to assign a divine cause to it.

Re 4) St. John Vianney, and St. Bernadette of Lourdes are totally incorrupt, and can be viewed today, though they have both been dead for well over 100 years. The first Bishop of Nashville was found incorrupt in the 1970's when the proto-cathedral there was being renovated, and his tomb had to be disturbed. His body is not on display but there are photographs. He was completely incorrupt. This actually happens a lot. In other cases, parts of the body, like the heart (St. Catherine of Sienna) are found incorrupt, even though the rest of the body has decomposed. We are not talking about mummies, but a total lack of decomposition. They are still recognizable as the day they died in some cases.

Re 5) I don't think actual tests have ever been done on St. Nicholas, but they have been extracting viles of oil from his tomb and distributing it to the faithful for a very, very long time. Reports of the oil are universal among all who ever had custody of the bones. It stands to reason that since he's been dead since the fourth century, and the oil has been skimmed off for, I don't know, centuries?--that the mass of the oil exceeds the mass of the bones. I suppose it would be simple enough to devise a test, but I'm not aware of it having been done.

Re 6) I'd have to study this more closely. I make this assertion upon the testimony of medical researcher whose scholarship I would tend to trust, and whom I met a couple of years ago at a bioethics conference. But, clearly, you're correct in what you say about how we extract the testimony. I can't comment on that.

So, in any event, my point is merely to say that these are bits of data to which some sort of response would have to be given before scientists could claim that they possess the full body of knowable truths, and that there exists nothing beyond the physical cosmos. There are some very weird things going on in this world. That said, I do not know very many people whose faith is actually predicated upon these very strange occurrences, but the fact that they do appear to occur seems at least to demand a little pause before just settling on materialism.

In this next comment of mine, I'd blockquoted new theologian's comments, but the Chronicle of Higher Education blog dropped those blockquote tags. I think it's still easy enough to follow what was being quoted and what was originally written by me. But, since this is my blog and I can do whatever I want, I'll correct it here by putting ["] where they should have been to begin with.

I wrote:

new theologian #90,

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond, but work and family take precedence over discussions in the comments section of an Internet article.

Re 1) I didn't quite follow your refutation of an infinite regression.

["]But since all other causes are themselves effects, then if there is not first cause, there is no first effect, since an effect requires a cause.["]

An infinite regression is, well, infinite. It doesn't even make sense to speak of a first cause or first effect in that sense. There is no first, because there are an infinite number of events predating whatever event you want to choose.

Here's the way I see it. As far as we know, all effects must have causes, and all causes are themselves effects. If those two statements are true, that leaves no choice but an infinite regression. But that is incomprehensible to us, because we can't understand how time could extend infinitely into the past. But if we make an exception, and say that at least one cause wasn't itself an effect, that's also incomprehensible to us, because we don't understand how something can just be without cause.

["]All effects must be contained, preeminently, in their causes.["]

Why? As an example, we know that the DNA to make, say, a golden eagle was not present in our single celled ancestors. The effect of an eagle growing from an embryo was not present a billion years ago in ancient causes.

Another way to look at this - consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. In the same way that a single water molecule is not a storm, and a single nitrogen molecule is not a breeze, the individual molecules in our brains are not consciousness. If you're going to argue that a first cause had to contain consciousness, did it also have to contain storms and breezes?

Speaking of consciousness, for most of my life, as a Christian, I was a dualist. I just couldn't understand how ordinary matter could create qualia. But once I started looking into how our brains work, I realized just how much our brains are controlled by physical processes. Just look at how stroke victims and Alzheimer's victims have changes in personality or loss of memory from physical changes to the brain. Or look at how drugs, from the old fashioned alcohol, to modern prozac, affect our emotions by altering our brain chemistry. If we have souls, you have to question just what role they play. (Google 'ebon musings a ghost in the machine' for more examples.)

["]The argument to the existence of God is really the recognition that, insofar as consciousness can be understood as a positive mode of existence, then it is an effect of prior causes, which would mean that, as an effect, it would require a cause capable of producing that effect--one with that perfection, or something still more excellent.["]

I think the golden eagle example covered this, but to reiterate - causes don't need to have all the qualities of their effects. In a pile of steel and lumber, there is no inherent building. The materials could be used to construct any number of things. It's only once they start to be assembled that they become a building. The effect was not present in the initial causes.

I definitely agree with you that even if all this did point to an uncaused cause having some sort of consciousness, there's no reason to jump from there to any particular religion.

Re 2) My wife is a nurse, and I know quite a few other nurses & doctors. And yes, most of them believe that patients can hold on for some important event. However, when you ask those same doctors and nurses if they get more patients on the night of a full moon, many agree to that, too. But the full moon myth is very easy to debunk by looking at actual hospital admissions records. I think both are examples of confirmation bias. That's one reason why, as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data. Anecdotes may be good places to start research, but then you actually have to do the research. And from what I've seen into research on people postponing death, it doesn't seem to actually occur. Look at it this way, if you have a 1 in 365 chance of dying on a specific date, there's roughly a 2% chance that you'll die on or less than a week after that date. That's two out of every hundred patients. Further, if doctors only look at the people who died close to a particular event, there'll be a roughly 50/50 split of people dying before vs. after the event due to chance alone. This certainly seems ripe for confirmation bias. So, until I see some actual data, not simply anecdotes, confirming that this is a real phenomenon, there's no point in discussing it's implications.

Re 3) You briefly brought up standards of evidence, which I think is a good discussion. People make claims to miracles all the time. For one of the latest, google 'Prahlad Jani esowatch'. He claims to have gone without eating for 70 years, and even spent some time in a hospital being observed by doctors who confirmed his miraculous lifestyle. I'm sure his followers take that as strong proof. Unfortunately, when other researchers looked into it, it appears that he's just a normal person, who was eating normally up until his time in the hospital, and then began suffering from the effects of dehydration and starvation while he was there. The evidence turned out to not be as strong as initially claimed.

Carl Sagan once said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I think that applies to miracles. One person's testimony, or even the testimony of a small group, is not sufficient. Even if not being intentionally fraudulent, people are subject to all types of cognitive biases.

Re 4) I looked up St. Bernadette of Lourdes on Wikipedia. Here's a quote from the entry. It doesn't appear that she was perfectly preserved.

["]The Church exhumed the corpse a second time on 3 April 1919. A doctor who examined the body noted, "The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. ... The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body."["]

A quick search didn't find much for St. John Vianney, but I did see a photo. The bit I saw about those two examples hasn't swayed me from considering them natural mummies. It does make me wonder, though, how many natural mummies are out there. These bodies were exhumed because they were candidates for sainthood. How many other bodies from less saintly people are preserved just as well, but haven't been exhumed?

St. Catherine of Sienna doesn't seem to argue for your case - most of her body did decompose, so she was a rather incomplete mummy.

Re 5) As with the Yogi example I provided up above, I want a little more evidence confirming this miracle than just people claiming it's true. Where are the bones, exactly? Is there any chance the oil is seeping in from somewhere else? Are the people taking the oil trustworthy, and not simply getting the oil from another source? Like I said, I could be convinced if shown enough evidence, but I've heard of enough fraudulent miracles that I'm going to look at the evidence closely.

Re 6) There's nothing else for me to add on this one, until I see some actual documentation.

I know people tend to think of atheists as dour cynics. That's not true. I'm really, really interested in the true nature of the universe. It's what lead me to atheism to begin with. I didn't just one day decide I didn't want to be Christian anymore - I studied quite a bit and figured that atheism was the best explanation for how the universe actually is. But I realize I could be wrong, which is why I'm so interested in evidence for religion.

That was pretty much the end of my discussion with new_theologian, but I did contribute a bit more to the thread.

I wrote:

"Since we are all going to die anyway, do whatever you want, whenever you want. There are no consequences of your actions."

Out of all of Zagros's long postings, I think this statement is the most absurd. Whether there's an afterlife or not, our actions most assuredly have consequences. If I punch somebody, they will feel real pain. If I give my brother in law a loan, he can pay his mortgage and keep living in his house. If I hug my daughter, she will experience a real embrace. If I kiss my wife, she will have the real sensation of my lips against hers. You can argue about the meaningfulness of it all, but you certainly can't say that our actions have no consequences, or that they can't cause real joy or suffering.

stinkcat wrote:

"Whether there's an afterlife or not, our actions most assuredly have consequences. If I punch somebody, they will feel real pain."

Of course, most believers in the afterlife and nonbelievers in the afterlife are sufficiently selfish to discount the pain that we cause others. If I punch my enemy, the joy I feel may very well offset the harm I cause to the enemy. Of course, if I read the bible, I am told to love my enemy and if I am judged to the extent that I do that it can cause me to rethink the calculus, which is a good thing. I will admit, however, I am unaware of atheists going around telling people that they should love their enemies. Perhaps they do and some sort of moral suasion provides the same incentives not to punch the enemy.

I wrote:


If you're unaware of atheists telling people to be good to each other, just google 'secular humanism'. It doesn't take an external moral agent to determine that the golden rule is a good thing, just empathy. (Where empathy came from is a separate question, but I don't find it hard at all to accept that as a social species, natural selection favored empathy, especially for the tens of thousands of years when our ancestors lived in small family groups.)

If you think that a deity makes for a good external moral agent, google the 'Euthypro dilemma'. Maybe you've already heard of it and have a good response to it. If so, I'd be interested to read it.

zagros wrote:


You are the one being absurd with your "refutation" of my comment that if you steal with half an hour to go before the world will definitely come to an end and with the knowledge that you cannot be caught or that anyone will miss the item that this is not a case where the obvious atheistic answer is "Since we are all going to die anyway, do whatever you want, whenever you want. There are no consequences of your actions."

If you bother to look at the context, you will see that my reference isn't what you do on a daily basis. It was a specific moral question wherein the atheist will do what the theist will not do. The fact that even at that late hour there are consequences for theists and there are *no* consequences for atheists suggests that atheists will do the wrong thing while theists will do the right thing.

Granted, theists may do it for the "wrong" reasons but understand this point that my discipline of economics has long made and proven: incentives matter. The incentive that you will be rewarded with heaven for good behavior is a powerful one and the incentive that you will be punished with eternal damnation for bad behavior is also a powerful one. This means, at the margin, the believer will act in a more moral manner than an atheist provided the moral code followed by the two is the same (and remember that my argument was one for "mere belief" in a being that will enforce your moral code, not an argument for any particular moral code of any particular religion.

I'm sorry but I really hate it when people read things out of context and then slander people as a result.

The other fact is that I can take comfort in the knowledge that since people are punished for their misdeeds that I do not have to undertake revenge against them. God will judge and His will shall be done is a reason why I need not strike myself. Thus, the belief that God will do this serves as a comfort to me and that increases my utility. This is a good thing because it (a) causes no one else any harm if God does not exist and (b) it means that justice is served if God does exist.

I wrote:

I guess I did miss the context. The phrase "whenever you want" made me think this was a general statement, not a statement about the impending end of the world, since "whenever" in that scenario would be a pretty short time. Though if I accept your armageddon scenario, now it's a more interesting question. If you know for a fact that the world's going to end, and you know that the shopowner will never notice that you've stolen something, then is it even wrong? The reason I would normally say that stealing is morally wrong is because you're causing somebody harm by taking their property, but in your scenario, stealing doesn't cause anybody any harm. So, what is it that would make somebody more moral by not stealing in that situation? Is blind obedience to rules really morality? For a less abstract scenario, is it okay for people in disaster stricken areas to steal food from an abandoned grocery store to feed their starving children?

I would still say that my original response applies even in your end of the world scenario. Even if what we experience is finite, it's still real. There are still consequences to our actions, even if those consequences are only going to last for the next half hour.

Leaving behind the end of the world scenario, if your argument is that theists will behave more morally than atheists because of the incentives, look up the study titled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" by Gregory S. Paul. I don't think you can take that study so far as to say that atheism leads to a better society, but I think it certainly demonstrates that atheism doesn't lead to worse morality than theism.

If you happen to have read through all of those comments and want to contribute to the discussion (though the thread's died down quite a bit by now), please go to the original comment thread and leave your comments there.

Follow Up: I've reposted the rest of my comments from this comment thread.
Still Arguing
Done Arguing

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Excel 2010 - Fixing a Slow Solver, XP 64

Excel & Windows XP 64I use Excel a lot at work, and I use Solver pretty extensively for some calculations that almost have to be solved iteratively. One of those spreadsheets has grown pretty big, to the point where in Excel 2002 (Excel XP), it was taking around 35 seconds to solve a particular scenario.

When Excel 2007 came out, I thought I'd give it a try, but solver took forever to run. So, I decided to hold off on upgrading.

When Excel 2010 came out, I downloaded the beta version of it to give it a try. Again, solver took forever. The scenario that took 35 seconds to run in 2002 took 8 minutes and 7 seconds to run in 2010 - 13.9 times longer.

Well, this time I did a little more digging, and saw an option that I suspected might be giving it a problem. Under Options -> Advanced -> Formulas -> Enable multi-threaded calculation, I unchecked that checkbox. I ran solver again. Lo and behold it was down to 46 seconds - still slower than in 2002, but at least now it was something I could live with.

I went back and checked on a colleague's computer with Excel 2007, and even though I didn't time it this time around, disabling the multi-threaded calculation made a huge difference.

So, to anyone who's having a problem with Solver being mind numbingly slow, this may help you out.

As another side note for Office 2010, Microsoft apparently decided that they didn't want to support it for XP 64. For the beta version, at least, this isn't a problem. Just run the compatibility wizard (Start -> Run -> hcp://system/compatctr/compatmode.htm), and set the installation program to run under 'Microsoft Windows XP'.

Added 2010-10-01 Well, I've been using the officially released version of Excel 2010, and Solver has been working okay. One more thing to add - after you disable multi-threading in the options, exit out of Excel and start it back up again for the option change to take effect.

Added 2010-10-26 I've been working on a project where I've been having to use Solver quite a bit, and it's more buggy than I originally thought. First of all, there's a second option that needs to be disabled. In Options, under the Advanced tab, in the General category, look for 'Enable multi-threaded processing' (right below the 'Web Options...' button). Uncheck that option.

With those two options unchecked, Excel will run fine for a while. However, it periodically re-enables the 'Enable multi-threaded processing' (not calculating) on its own. Worse, it sometimes seems to re-enable it without showing the check box as checked. So, whenever you're getting ready to start a project for the day, go back and double check that 'Enable multi-threaded processing' is disabled. If it shows to be disabled but Excel still seems to be running slow, enable it, OK out of the options, then go back in and disable it. This is a pain, and very irritating that the program messes with options that I've already set, but at least it's been working for me for the past few weeks.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Free Markets, Government Intervention in Health Care, or Why I'm Not a Libertarian

MoneyI know very few people personally who think a completely free market is a good thing (in fact, I don't think I know any), but there are some of the more extreme libertarian types who think that way. They believe that supply and demand will make everything turn out okay, and that government intervention will just make things worse. How much easier political debates would be if those people were correct.

The problem is that a free market works much the same way as evolution, optimizing companies for current conditions. Sure, the CEOs, boards, presidents, and others running companies may have their long term goals, meaning that business isn't as blind as natural selection, but day to day operations require that businesses are successful in the here and now, competing against other businesses. Response to global warming is a good example of this. A president of a company may have a sincere desire to cut down on his company's carbon emissions. But if the president of a second company doesn't give a damn about carbon emissions, then he can do business at a lower cost, putting the first company at a disadvantage. Even if the president of the first business knows that carbon regulations are coming down the pike, it doesn't do him any good to try to anticipate those regulations if it means losing out in the short term and going out of business.

The other problem is that a free market doesn't necessarily optimize businesses for what we as a society want - it optimizes businesses to out compete other businesses. A good concrete example has to do with health care - developing new antibiotic drugs. Antibiotics are a modern wonder; they've saved countless lives. Unfortunately, bacteria evolve. After enough exposure over enough generations, bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. This problem has been exacerbated by overuse and misuse of antibiotics, but the problem is still probably inevitable.

At first blush, this may seem like a ripe area for pharmaceutical companies. If bacteria evolve resistance to old antibiotics, there ought to be quite a market for new ones. Unfortunately, that's not the case. For one, in order to try to keep bacteria from evolving resistance to these new antibiotics as quickly, doctors are pretty conservative in using them. While the family practitioner may still give out penicillin for every runny nose, the doctor fighting a patient's MRSA infection is going to be very careful with the few remaining antibiotics that might be able to help. So, once the new antibiotic has been developed, there's only a limited return on investment. Even worse for the pharmaceutical companies (and us), bacteria don't stop evolving. Eventually, they'll develop resistance to new antibiotics, as well. So, aside from a limited initial return on investment, the product has a limited life.

Compare this to other drugs that pharmaceutical companies could develop - treatments for high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, impotence, etc. These are medicines that patients take for a lifetime, not just a week or two as with antibiotics. And our bodies don't evolve immunity to these medicines in the same manner that bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance, so a new drug can be used potentially forever. The return on investment for these types of drugs is much higher than for antibiotics.

Now consider further that pharmaceutical companies are working with finite resources. They only earn so much in profits that they can put back into research. And remember that pharmaceutical companies, despite all the good they do, are in business primarily to make money. Presented with the choice of where to spend research money, they're obviously going to favor drugs with the potential to earn them more profit, which means less research on antibiotics.

This isn't mere idle speculation on my part. A new study published in the May 1st issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases documented this very problem. I first heard about the study in a story on NPR, and found another good article here. To quote from that second article:

FDA approvals of new antibiotics declined 56 percent during the past 20 years (1998-2002 versus 1983-1987). Looking to the future, the researchers found only six new antibiotics in the R&D pipeline out of 506 drugs being developed.

And now is where the real political debate comes into play. Obviously, some type of government intervention is needed if we want new life saving antibiotics to be developed. The question is how. Regulations? Tax breaks? Direct investment of public funds? I don't know, but I think it's pretty clear that the free market doesn't always lead to outcomes that are best for society as a whole.

Update 2013-02-18: Looking over this entry again, I realize that I forgot to make the clarification I had in a similar follow-up entry, Another Example of the Free Market Failing Society. So, let me do so now. Do not take this entry to mean that I think the free market is a bad thing. I think there are many ways that the free market provides benefits to the public. But I'm not so naive as to think that it always produces the best outcomes. Some industries or services are best accomplished by being government run (the police force immediately comes to mind). And even private industry requires the proper amount of oversight and regulations. The trick is in determining the proper combination of those things. But we shouldn't argue for the extremes of either libertarianism or communism, because neither of those has a very good track record.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ray Comfort and Moral Accountability

The Atheist's Worst NightmareI usually try to avoid Ray Comfort's blog. It just sucks me in and I end up wasting too much time. But, he was mentioned on Pharyngula the other day, so I headed over to Comfort's blog out of curiosity. The post that day happened to be Mark and Albert's Common Belief, which used Mark Twain and Albert Einstein to describe how atheists, in Comfort's view, are idolaters (never mind that Comfort uses a quote from Einstein at the top of the blog to try to show Einstein as a theist). The part that got me the most was this section.

Man has always gravitated towards making a god in his own image. He does this because he doesn’t want moral accountability.

After reading the entry, I did something I'd never done before. I tried to leave a comment on Comfort's blog. For those unfamiliar, Comfort's blog is moderated, and it does have a commenting policy. Here are the guidelines.

All comments are moderated before being published. When deciding which comments to publish, we use the following guidelines:

1. Any comments we deem abusive or outside the boundaries of Christian civility will not be published.

2. Any comments that don't properly, and respectfully, capitalize the name "Jesus" and/or "God," or use these in a blasphemous manner, will not be published.

3. Any comments that include website links will not be published. (Since we are unable to fully explore every web site, the inclusion of a url may mean we choose not to publish your otherwise wonderful comment. If your web site is important to you, we suggest you include it in your personal profile.)

I can't remember now exactly what my comment was, but it was something to the effect of this.

I don't understand this 'moral accountability' argument from Christians, since Christianity seems to take away this accountability. You can be as horrible of a person as you want to be, as long as you accept Jesus before you die. Just look at Paul of Tarsus. He killed many people, but then after he converted, everything was okay. Christianity is like the ultimate 'get out of jail free' card.

I thought it was reasonable, and I thought I was following the guidelines. I even double checked on my capitalization, but it still didn't get published. Maybe it was the Monopoly simile in the last sentence. Oh well, lesson learned - don't waste time trying to comment on Comfort's blog (when I shouldn't be wasting time reading it in the first place).

As I've said before, Ray Comfort will always hold a special place on this blog. It was one of his CDs that got me motivated enough to actually start this blog, and he was the subject of my first substantive entry (third entry overall, but the first two were basically just announcements that I was starting a blog and how I was going to run it). For anyone interested in my previous entries dealing with Comfort, here they are:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Republican 2010 Congressional District 'Census'

Republican ElephantAs far as party affiliation goes, I'm an independent who usually votes Democratic, but not exclusively. I've never voted a straight Democratic ticket. I always try to look at individual candidates to decide who to vote for. It's just that more often than not, the Democratic candidates match my views more closely than the Republicans (and I'm not about to throw my vote away on a third party candidate). In the last primary, it was actually a Republican race that I was most concerned with, so I voted in the Republican primary. Ever since I've been getting phone calls and junk mail from the Grand Old Party.

One of the bits of junk mail was a '2010 Congressional District Census'. If you want to see the actual cover letter and survey, I've made it available as a pdf here, but I've put the worst parts into the entry below.

Now, I can certainly understand a party wanting to know what its members think about political issues, but the way this survey was worded made it seem that it was more propaganda than a sincere attempt at understanding voters' views.

Let's start off with the name of the survey - '2010 Congressional District Census'. Was there really a reason to call this survey a 'census'? This seems a bit deceptive, playing on the current national census to try to get more people to look at this survey.

There was a cover letter accompanying the survey. The letter made it clear that this wasn't really sincere. One of the paragraphs read:

Because of your high level of political involvement and steadfast commitment to the Republican Party, your personal input on the questions presented in your Census Document is critical to our Party's future.

My 'steadfast commitment to the Republican Party'? Really? I know it's a secret ballot, so they don't know who I vote for in the elections, but I've never donated any money to the party nor volunteered at any Republican events, and this was the first time I've ever voted in a Republican primary. If that's steadfast commitment, I wonder how little affiliation you have to have for them to consider you an outsider.

There was also a bit of hyperbole that I'd expect from a political party.

Your completing and returning this Census today is central to our Party's ability to devise a winning Republican strategy in your area - especially as we take on the Democrats in the fight for the future of our nation. [emphasis mine]

Seems a bit over the top. I also find it a bit odd that they capitalized 'our Party', but not 'our nation'. In fact, the capitalization of 'Party' was consistent throughout the letter, so it wasn't just a typo.

Another section of the cover letter also seemed pretty slanted.

Barack Obama was barely in the White House a month when he dropped all pretense of "hope" and "change" and laid bare his real agenda of massive tax increases, government-run health care, amnesty for illegal aliens, and bigger, more intrusive government.

Okay, I've covered this before, but it bears repeating. Taxes haven't changed much under Obama. For many people, they were actually decreased, and for others, they've only increased slightly. For the most part, they're still lower than they were in the Reagan era.

And did the RNC really pay so little attention to Obama's campaigning that they didn't expect him to go after health care reform? Following up on campaign promises is pretty much the opposite of dropping all pretense.

The cover letter was only three pages long, but three times I was asked to give "a generous contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250 or even $500 in the enclosed postage-paid envelope." (Actually, the wording was slightly different each of the three times, but not by much.) So, it makes me wonder, just how much is the RNC really interested in my views, and how much are they just trying to get me worked up enough that I'll send them a donation?

Once I got to the 'census' itself, the wording definitely made me question their motives.

One question was, "From what media source do you regularly receive your political views?" But the options they gave were a bit limited. For TV, there was one box for 'NBC/CBS/ABC', another for 'CNN/MSNBC', and a third for 'Fox News'. For radio, there was only 'Radio', as if there's less variety on radio than there is on TV. If you're really interested in voter patterns, wouldn't you want to know if voters were listening to NPR vs. Rush Limbaugh?

Another question read, "Which political party do you feel is best able to handle each of the following issues?" It then had a list of issues (war, taxes, etc.) for which you could check off 'Republican', 'Democrat', or 'No Opinion' (what, no Libertarians or Tea Party Patriots?). The last one, though, was 'Protecting Traditional Values'. Now tell me, how is this a political issue? Are they honestly asking if people want the government to pass laws enforcing a strong work ethic, or not letting kids go on dates without chaperones, or outlawing miniskirts? How is it up to a political party to defend 'traditional values' unless you favor an intrusive government that takes away personal freedom? (Oh, I know what they really mean by traditional values, but if you think in plain English and not political speech, it sounds pretty silly.)

This following question was pretty bad.

Do you believe the huge, costly Democrat-passed stimulus bill has been effective in creating jobs or stimulating America's economy?

No hint of bias there, huh? But the question immediately following it was even worse.

Do you thick the record trillion dollar federal deficit the Democrats are creating with their out-of-control spending is going to have disastrous consequences for our nation?

If you're calling it 'out-of-control' right in the question, why are you even bothering to ask? For an actual answer, just look at the deficit spending in WWII that got the U.S. out of the Great Depression (which as a percentage of GDP was higher than the current deficit).

One of the biggest problems I currently have with the Republican party is their anti-science stance. Consider this question from the survey.

Do you believe that global warming is an issue that must be dealt with immediately?

Of course it is. There's really no point in even asking that question. If you're really concerned with solving our nation's problems, a better question might have been, 'Do you think a cap and trade system is an effective method of dealing with global warming without excessive impact on the economy?' Global warming is definitely happening, and we can be pretty sure that humans are causing it. The questions politicians should be asking are how to address it.

Here's another of their misleading questions.

Do you believe the Obama Administration is right in dramatically scaling back our nation's military?

Of course people would be upset if the administration 'dramatically' scaled back the military. But that hasn't happened. Obama proposed shifting funding from certain programs to certain other programs, but the overall military budget has stayed largely the same.

There was also a bit of fear mongering.

Do you trust the Democrats to take all steps necessary to keep our nation secure in this age where terrorists could strike our country at any moment? [emphasis mine]

Was that part that I italicized really necessary?

And then, a question that just doesn't really have a good answer.

Do you favor or oppose the Obama Administration's non-confrontational policies in dealing with radical leaders such as those now in control in Iran, North Korea and other countries?

Because we didn't learn our lesson in Iraq. Is the RNC seriously asking voters if they favor additional wars while we're still involved in Iraq & Afghanistan?

On the back of the survery, there was one more request for money, just in case you missed it the three times in the cover letter.

Enclosed please find my most generous contribution of: _$500 _$250 _$100 _$50 _$25 _Other $_______

So, after reading the whole survey, I think it's pretty clear what the Republican National Commitee was really up to. This isn't the way you pose questions if you want honest answers. This is how you pose questions if you want to play on peoples' emotions.

I have a bit of adivce to the leaders of the RNC*. If you want to win over independent voters like me, quit sending us propaganda meant to drum up your party faithful. Send us clear, rational, evidence based reasons for why we should support your party. When the RNC itself starts sending me letters of dubious accuracy that I'd normally expect in my Inbox after a long chain of forwards, it makes me question even more just what the Republicans stand for.

* This advice may apply equally to the Democrats, but I wouldn't know - they've never sent me any junk mail.

I'm not the first person to notice how biased and misleading this survey is.

Added 2010-05-05 - Looking through the survey, I saw another question that caught my eye.

If you vote in the 2010 elections, are you more likely to vote for the Republican or Democrat candidate?

First of all, 'Democrat' is a noun, not an adjective. When you say 'Democrat candidate' instead of 'Democratic candidate', it makes you sound uneducated. I would rather that the politicians representing me were educated.

I was also struck that they asked if I was more likely to vote for 'the ... candidate'. Is there only one race in 2010? Maybe that one's just a typo.

At least for this question, they gave an option of 'Other' in addition to 'Republican', 'Democrat', and 'Unsure'.

Updated 2010-05-05 - I moved the link to the pdf to the beginning of the entry.

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