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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 8 - Torture

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

The article I'm going to look at today wasn't one of the original ones on his homepage when I started this project, but was added later. It's titled Democrats' wasteful torture report.

This is an issue I'd already written about in the entry, Depressing Poll - Majority of Americans Support Torture. I'll try not to repeat myself too much here, but I will repeat the conclusion up front, just to make it clear how I feel about this issue.

...I'm done with this entry. Every time I read through it again to proof-read or see if there's anything else I want to add, I just get angry. This is a horrible, horrible stain on our country's reputation. Everyone involved, from Bush and Cheney on down, ought to be taken to the Hague and tried for human rights abuses. But instead of justice, we live in a country where the majority supports this depravity.

Of course, I'm sure you can guess Carson's opinion on the matter.

However, when we are involved in a war, we should use every resource available to end it quickly and successfully, including the use of covert weapons and techniques that are not meant for public consumption.

Which is exactly why we don't hesitate to use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons...

Second of all, the 'war' on terrorism is not like a conventional war. Terrorists are organized criminals, like the mafia, or gangs. Kill one leader, and another one will rise to take their place. Make an agreement with one branch, and another branch will act on their own. There won't ever be a peace treaty to stop the fighting - no armistice or V-E Day or V-J Day. There's not going to be any quick end. The only solutions are long term, and will require a lot more than just trying to kill all the bad guys.

Looking at the latter part of that quote, if techniques aren't 'meant for public consumption', perhaps there's a reason. When techniques are so horrible that you have to do them in secret, and would be ashamed if they became public, that's probably a very good reason not to do them at all. I know that war requires people to do bad things, but those people should at least be able to defend their actions in public.

It is absolutely foolhardy to believe that everyone is going to abide by the rules of moral war, if there is such a thing. If we allow our enemies to do anything they want to do, including the beheadings of our citizens, but we feel that we must accord them every courtesy and comfort, our days of winning wars will be over.

There's a reason Japanese and Nazi war criminals were tried and executed at the end of WWII. Their actions were so far beyond the pale, even during war time, that they couldn't be excused. Think about that. Even after the fighting was over and peace treaties had been signed, those war criminals had to face up to their crimes (and remember, some of the Japanese were even executed for water-boarding, the same torture technique that some people are now trying to say isn't so bad - Politifact). Are the war criminals in this country going to face up to their crimes if the war on terror ever ends?

And who's allowing terrorists 'to do anything they want to do'? I'm pretty sure that's part of the reason the U.S. is engaged in military action against them. We're already trying to kill them. Isn't that enough? If we sell our souls and sink to their level of depravity, then we've already abandoned the principles this country was founded on. Hell, even ignoring the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Third Amendment protects people from having to quarter troops. If that liberty of the military was considered going too far, how much worse is it to torture people?

Finally, even if we don't torture prisoners, I hardly think military prisons 'accord them every courtesy and comfort'.

We also need to understand that peace is much more likely to be realized if we are in a position of strength and possess a military force that cannot be challenged.

Peace through tyranny. That's the same type of peace that existed in the U.S.S.R. Excuse me if I have a hard time seeing the bastards who tortured people to death as representatives of 'peace'. I'd much rather see peace through diplomacy and cooperation, not threats and fear*.

The high-profile release of this information at a time when we are engaged in war with various terrorist groups demonstrates a profound lack of wisdom, since this information will be undoubtedly used as an effective recruitment tool by our enemies.

And when was this information supposed to be released? Or was it supposed to be kept secret forever? Like I wrote above, the 'war' on terror is not likely to end any time soon, since it's a war on organized crime, not a war against a nation or government. America is not supposed to be a tyranny or dictatorship. The government must answer to the American people. But if the government keeps their actions secret, how can there be accountability?

It already had been documented extensively that three suspects were water boarded and that techniques such as sleep deprivation were used to extract vital information from terrorists. That information played a part in the apprehension or annihilation of many upper-echelon terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

What about the prisoner who was tortured to death and died of exposure? What about prisoners who had food forced up their anus? What about the other victims of water boarding besides the three already known about. This report uncovered torture more extensive than the already horrible acts known about.

Another important finding of the report is that the claims of vital information gained through torture were at best exaggerated, or not even true. Almost all of the important information was gained through traditional, rapport based interrogation techniques. To quote an article from The Nation, Senate Report: CIA Torture Was Brutal and Ineffective:

If there's one sentence to take away from the report, it's this: "the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation." The report found literally not one instance where torture led to a useful piece of information that couldn't have been otherwise obtained by routine interrogation.

Looking at the larger issue of torture in general, and not just the CIA's use of it, here's a good article from the Guardian, Does torture work? To answer the headline in a word - no. And most parts of the government already know this. The article listed a quote from the US Army Training Manual's section on interrogation, "...the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear." The penultimate paragraph of that article made a very good point about the lack of evidence in favor of torture.

In spite of decades of use, and ample opportunity to gather statistics, there just isn't any scientific evidence beyond a few dubious anecdotes to show that torture works. Torture is an extreme method, and before we even reach the ethical and moral debate over its use, the effectiveness of it must be demonstrated to some reasonable degree. The burden of proof lies with the people who seek to torture. Any trials would of course be deeply unethical, but it's not like they don't have plenty of past experience to draw data from.

Despite claims coming from the organizations that committed the torture (and wouldn't you expect them to try to save their own hides at this point), there's no evidence that torture produces reliable intelligence, and plenty of evidence indicating that it goes the other way.

Here's the last quote from Carson I'm going to discuss.

Members of both parties need to take time to figure out who the real enemies are and stop trying to demonize each other.

Anybody who's willing to sacrifice the ideals of this country is, if not necessarily an enemy, certainly not an ally. This isn't a partisan political issue, unless your partisanship allows you to forgive war criminals. I've already commented on this blog once before about my disgust with Obama's use of the double tap drone strike (Cynicism, Part III). I even said that "if I had any belief that presidents would be held accountable, I'd like to see Obama and Bush both taken to the Hague over their actions in the fight against terrorism." Any American who commits war crimes should be held accountable. We lose any semblance of moral high ground if we allow them to get away with it just because they're on our side.


This was perhaps the most difficult entry for me to write in this series, because it was a bit of a struggle not to reduce my writing to strings of four letter words directed at Carson. The fact that the torture took place in the first place and was actually condoned from the highest office in the land is bad enough. That people like Carson make excuses for and justify the torture is disgusting. To use a well known quote from a dark time in our country's past, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: Democrats' Wasteful Torture Report

Continue to Part 9 - Shoddy Scholarship

*I still recognize the importance of a strong military - "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." The world is full of people and groups who would use violence to reach their goals, and there must be a military to stop them. Just imagine what a leader like Putin would do if there was no U.S. military. But military action should be used sparingly, and close to a last resort. However, in an article discussing using torture against enemies of the state and maintaining secret operations with no accountability to the American people, it sounds rather Orwellian to praise a strong military in that context.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 7 - Honesty & Constitutional Literacy

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

The article for today is A Plea For Constitutional Literacy On Constitution Day.

This article had some good points, but Carson turned me off right from the beginning by misrepresenting the interview he brought up in the opening paragraph. Here's what Carson wrote.

Earlier this summer, I managed to perplex, perhaps even offend, a famous TV interviewer when I declared I wanted a federal government that followed the U.S. Constitution. Seemingly aghast, the interviewer went so far as to suggest my position was a "highly charged thing to say."

Imagine that. A journalist who, owing to the Constitution, has the right to report freely and to speak freely, being uncomfortable to hear a fellow American swear allegiance to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' vision of a limited central government.

Carson was referring to this interview with David Gregory on Press Pass, Dr. Ben Carson on PRESS Pass: 'I will never become a politician'. Carson implies that Gregory was "aghast" (which he wasn't - watch the interview) that someone would want to follow the Constitution. Although the wording's slightly ambiguous, Carson seems to be accusing Gregory of being "uncomfortable to hear a fellow American swear allegiance to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' vision of a limited central government." What Gregory actually said was, "There are some people who say that. That's a very highly charged thing to say. Where is the Constitution not placed in the right level today?" Gregory was obviously not shocked at someone wanting to follow the Constitution, just calling attention to Carson's implication that the Constitution is no longer being followed.

And yes, I realize that practically everyone in politics lies or stretches the truth to some degree, so it's not as if Carson's misrepresentation here is especially out of the ordinary for a political figure, but it's still off-putting to catch someone in the lie (especially someone who tries to paint himself as being an outsider to politics who's above the normal politicking).

Just to say something related to Carson's main topic, I think the expression 'Physician, heal thyself', applies here. In a previous entry, A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle, I quoted Carson on the following:

We must also go back and read the Constitution, including the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion. It says nothing about freedom from religion and, in fact, if you go back and look at the context and the lives of those involved in the crafting of our founding documents, it is quite apparent that they strongly believed in allowing their faith to guide their lives.

I wrote a longer rebuttal in that entry, but anybody who can read the Constitution where it says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." and not realize it means freedom from religion imposed by the government isn't making a very strong case for their own constitutional literacy.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: A Plea For Constitutional Literacy On Constitution Day

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Continue to Part 8 - Torture

Added 2015-03-04: I just came across an article detailing another instance of Carson having less than stellar constitutional literacy, Forbes - Ben Carson's Odd Notion Of The Constitution And Same-Sex Marriage. This one describes how Carson thinks Congress has the power to overturn court rulings.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for December 2014 and January 2015

Top 10 ListWell, I fell a little behind in these top 10 lists. February is almost over, and I still haven't posted the lists of the ten most popular pages on this site for December or January. So, I'm correcting that now.

Although there were severy pages that have only made the list one or two times before, the only completely new addition to these list was the blog entry, Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution (a related entry has made the list a few times - Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries).

Overall traffic is similar to what it has been for a while now, perhaps down just a bit.

Anyway, here are the lists for this past December and January.

Top 10 for December 2014

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  3. Book Review - Tribulation Force
  4. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  5. Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 14
  6. Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  7. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  8. Gamera II Human Powered Helicopter Sets New Record
  9. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  10. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries

Top 10 for January 2015

  1. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  3. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  5. Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution
  6. Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore
  7. Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas
  8. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  9. Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution
  10. Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 6 - Equal Opportunity

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

Today's entry examines the article, Overcoming Hardship To Survive & Thrive.

This is probably the article where I was most in agreement with Carson (though still not completely). He makes some good points, and I think the mindset of individuals has to be to take responsibility for themselves and try their hardest to excel. There's not much to disagree with in passages like this*:

There is a long list of factors highly correlated with success regardless of the environment. They include strong supportive families, a sense of personal responsibility, good role models, faith that produces a sense of purpose and values, hard work, confidence, courage, emphasis on education and caring neighbors.

But I think that as a society, we should step back and look at what obstacles might be keeping certain segments of the population from achieving their full potential. It's not enough to tell kids to work hard if there's a good chance their efforts aren't going to be rewarded.

Here's a revealing graph from the Economic Policy Institute's The State of Working America site, where they used eighth grade math scores as a proxy for academic achievement**.

Share of students completing college, by socioeconomic status and eighth-grade test scores

Students who perform well but have a low socioeconomic status only have a 28.8% chance of graduating from college, while students who perform poorly but come from a high socioeconomic status have a 30.3% chance of graduating from college. In other words, poor performing wealthy students have better odds of graduating from college than high performing poor students. The discrepancy's even worse when you see that nearly three quarters of high performing wealthy students will complete college.

So even the low-income students who are doing everything Carson seems to be saying they should do, just don't have the same opportunities as high-income students. If it was all down to initiative, those hard working low income students would be just as well represented in universities as their more well-off counterparts. The fact is, the luck of the draw in being born to parents of a certain income level has huge implications for the opportunities you'll have in life. And with income and wealth inequality both increasing (source - Pew Research - U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now highest since 1928), this disparity is only going to grow, and the problem is only going to be exacerbated by rising tuition costs thanks to cuts to university funding.

Carson mentioned his scholarship program which I realize is an attempt to help with this, and which is certainly commendable, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the problem.

So I agree with Carson that individuals must do everything within their own power to be successful, and their local communities must do all they can to help. But we must also realize that the deck is stacked against them, and that if we want America to truly be a land of opportunity where anybody can be successful through their own efforts, we'll have to institute systematic solutions to try to address those obstacles.

Related Entry:

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: Overcoming Hardship To Survive & Thrive

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Continue to Part 7 - Honesty & Constitutional Literacy

*Of course, I'm still not in total agreement with that excerpt. He just had to slip in that part about faith producing purpose and values. Here's an article highlighting some of the studies showing where the non-religious and secular exhibit the same or better values than the religious, Misinformation and facts about secularism and religion.

**A recent NPR interview with Tom Harkin, Senator Warns Of A Student Loan Bubble, quotes the senator on a more direct statistic than relying on eighth grade math scores. I haven't been able to track down the source of this stat, and given the EPI's graph that I included up above, Harkin's statement seems like it may be exaggerated. However, without knowing how he's defining income or performance, there's no way of knowing for sure. At any rate, here it is for reference.

Right now, if you are a high-income, low performance student, you have an 80 percent chance of going to college. If you are a low-income student, but high-performing with a B or better average, you only have a 20 percent chance of going to college.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Happy Fastnacht Day 2015

Fastnacht day is tomorrow. I'm sure my daughter and I will be up before dawn to make fresh fastnachts for all of our friends. If you're not quite sure what fastnachts are, or are looking for a recipe to use tomorrow, read on. (Since I don't really have much new to say from previous years, the rest of this post is just slightly reworded from last year.)

Our 2017 Fastnachts - A Double Batch

Depending on where you are in the world, you may call tomorrow something else, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. But from where I'm from in Pennsylvania, it's called Fastnacht Day (here's a link to the Wikipedia article). Traditionally, you make potato based donuts, called fastnachts, on the morning of Fastnacht Day, supposedly as a way to empty your larder of all the fatty, sugary foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. My elementary school even used to give out donuts with the lunches on this day. In celebration of Fastnacht Day, and so others can join in, here's my family's recipe for making them:

You're supposed to wake up early to make the fastnachts on Tuesday morning (they're freshest that way), but a few times I've made them the night before, and they're still okay. They keep pretty well in a brown paper lunch bag. I also like to put a little bit of powdered sugar into a ziploc bag, and a mix of granulated sugar and cinnamon into another one, to coat the fastnachts just before eating them.

To see just how popular fastnachts are back up in Pennsylvania, go have a look at this article, Fastnacht reminder -- order yours before Tuesday, with a photo showing some of the 2800 fastnachts that a local church made, or this article, Frying fastnachts for pre-Lenten splurge, about a fire company that made 42,000 of them for a rundraiser. Here's an article from last year, Fastnacht day is here!, with a few more pictures showing different ways of making fastnachts, including a church with a rolling fastnacht cutter to cut dozens at once (we use pint glasses and shot glasses).

I took a few pictures a couple years ago while we were making the fastnachts. The first one below is my daughter rolling out the dough to cut more fastnachts. The second is the first batch frying up in the pan. We've doubled the recipe the past few years, so all the pictures in this entry (including the one up top) are for twice what you'd normally get from my family's recipe. But all of us (my wife, daughter, and I) take them in with us to work/school to share them, so the double batch still goes quickly.

Alex Rolling Out the Fastnacht Dough Frying the Fastnachts

A guy I worked with from Chicago mentioned a similar tradition up there - paczkis, from the Polish immigrants. But instead of a hole in the middle like my family's fastnachts (not all fastnachts have the hole), they have a filling, usually jelly or creme. I guess lots of groups have invented traditions to allow indulgence before a 40 day fast.

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 5 - Global Warming

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, mainly by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

For this entry, I'm actually going to break from the original articles I'd found on RealBencarson.com, and look at his position on global warming. In an interview towards the end of last year, Carson made some troubling statements about global warming. The statements can be found in the Bloomberg article, Ben Carson Not Convinced on Global Warming:

"There's always going to be either cooling or warming going on," the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate said in an interview this weekend in Des Moines, Iowa. "As far as I'm concerned, that's irrelevant. What is relevant is that we have an obligation and a responsibility to protect our environment."

Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, often talks about his medical background and science during his speeches. Pressed on the fact that the bulk of the scientific community believes the Earth is indeed warming, Carson pivoted. "You can ask it several different ways, but my answer is going to be the same," he said. "We may be warming. We may be cooling."

Let me get the obvious out of the way, first. Global warming is real and caused primarily by people. I wrote about this seven years ago in the entry, Global Warming - It's Real, And We're Causing It, and the evidence and scientific consensus have only grown stronger since then (the latest by Phil Plait, No, Adjusting Temperature Measurements Is Not a Scandal, is a good recent discussion). I have another entry from that same year, Political Litmus Test, where I explain why I would never vote for somebody who didn't accept global warming - "to reject anthropogenic global climate change altogether requires ... that someone lacks knowledge of the issue, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology." Add to that the actual danger associated with global warming and the necessity of politicians doing something about it.

I'm glad Carson thinks we have 'an obligation and a responsibility to protect our environment', but you can't do that properly if you ignore the largest threat to the environment in historical times*. Acknowledging that climate change is real means taking vastly different approaches to public policy. Of course, there are obvious examples like coastal habitats - don't conservation efforts in the Everglades seem futile if we do nothing to stop global warming and let them become ocean in a hundred years (see this interactive map on sea level rise - Global Warming Art - Sea Level Rise Explorer)? There's also the acidification of the oceans and effects on corals, not to mention major climatic shifts changing rainfall patterns on land, or the much publicized melting of the polar ice caps and the effects that's having on arctic creatures, etc. Given that global warming is such a huge driver of changes to the climate, it must be an integral part of any comprehensive environmental conservation plan.

Carson has made similar statements about global warming before. Here's a quote from an editorial he wrote early last year, Energy's role in the path to peace:

Whether we are experiencing global warming or a coming ice age, which was predicted in the 1970s, we as responsible human beings must be concerned about our surroundings and what we will pass on to future generations. However, to use climate change as an excuse not to develop our God-given resources makes little sense. Expanding our wealth of energy resources, as well as encouraging the development of new renewable energy sources, would provide an enormous economic lift with obvious benefits, but it also would bolster our role as a formidable player in the struggle for world leadership.

When he says that "to use climate change as an excuse not to develop our God-given resources makes little sense", I don't think I'm reading too much into that by interpreting it to mean that he thinks we should continue to use coal, oil, and other fossil fuels at current rates (because no one's using climate change as an excuse to not develop renewable energy sources). This is, quite simply, a horrible idea. Since global warming is real, using more fossil fuels is going to make the problem worse. It is exactly the reason why we should slow down on 'developing' those particular resources.

If there were no global warming, there would still be concerns over methods of extraction and ways to clean up the exhaust (such as scrubbers), but coal and oil are wonderfully convenient energy sources. And they're still fairly plentiful, with many decades of oil left, and probably at least a century of coal left (source - World Coal Association). Without global warming, we could budget research on renewable energy at a far lower rate, since we'd still have plenty of time before we'd have to transition.

But global warming is a reality, so we as a civilization must try to drastically slow down our use of fossil fuels and develop alternative renewable energy technologies. Well, I say 'must', but it really depends on what consequences you're willing to live with - more extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts, and floods and the deaths they'll cause, rising sea levels and shrinking coastlines including the inundation of major cities and entire islands, disruptions to the food supply, more wildfires, disruptions to fresh water supplies, mass extinction, etc. (more info - Union of Concerned Scientists - Global Warming Impacts). It's not going to be the complete downfall of civilization or the extinction of every living thing on earth, but it's going to be a lot of suffering and expense that could be avoided with some increased funding right now. Personally, I see it as a no-brainer, but if you only care about yourself and don't give a damn about future generations, then I suppose you might want to just continue on with the status quo. I think Carson probably does care about future generations, but you can't address the effects of climate change if you don't first accept the reality of it.

I also can't let slide the statement he made about "a coming ice age, which was predicted in the 1970s". This is at best misleading, at worst a lie. A minority of scientists in the '70s were predicting an ice age, but the majority even then were predicting global warming (Skeptical Science - What were climate scientists predicting in the 1970s?). Only a tenth of the of papers published between 1965 and 1979 predicted cooling, while nearly two thirds predicted global warming, and the consensus has only grown stronger in the 35 years since then.

It's not like this is the issue that's finally pushed me over the edge in not supporting Carson. I wasn't too found of him based on everything else I'd read prior to this. But even if I didn't know all those other things and this was the first I'd heard about him, it would be enough to disqualify him as a viable presidential candidate. Our politicians must start addressing climate change much more aggressively if we want to avoid passing on all the associated suffering to future generations. And the first part of that action is acknowledging the reality of human caused climate change.

Related Entries:

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Continue to Part 6 - Equal Opportunity

*Note that global warming isn't the only current environmental threat. Habitat destruction is another huge one, and why it's frustrating to see some of the proposals to address global warming that worsen the habitat loss problem.

Updated 2015-02-18: Added links to related entries. Slightly reworded one sentence to read better (but not changing the meaning).

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Belated Darwin Day 2015

Darwin's BirthdayYesterday was Darwin Day. I meant to post something yesterday, but it completely slipped my mind. But since I don't have the time to come up with something original today, I'm just going to repeat, almost word for word, the post I made last year.

To quote one of my previous Darwin Day posts, Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start." Today is the 206th anniversary of his birth.

While Darwin is well remembered for his work on evolution, one of my favorite quotes of his from The Voyage of the Beagle had nothing to do with science, but was rather a social commentary on his times.

As it was growing dark we passed under one of the massive, bare, and steep hills of granite which are so common in this country. This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves, who, by cultivating a little ground near the top, contrived to eke out a subsistence. At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

To celebrate Darwin Day, I'm going to provide links to a few of my previous entries. Since I've written too much about evolution to link to every evolution entry, I'm going to limit these links to entries specifically relevant to Darwin or written just for Darwin Day.

Tragic Murder of Three Muslim Students by an Atheist

Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-SalhaA few days ago, three Muslim students were shot and killed in a parking lot in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Washington Post - Three Muslims killed in shooting near UNC; police, family argue over motive​). The victims were Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. All three were Muslim. The gunman, Craig Stephen Hicks, was a 46 year old atheist.

The religious beliefs of all those involved have raised questions over whether or not the shootings were religiously motivated, or whether they were solely a case of someone losing their temper and overreacting over a parking space. While the police are still investigating this, it won't make any difference to the victims or their families. Hicks's actions were despicable.

Various atheist and secular groups have responded to this incident, universally condemning Hicks's actions. Hemant Mehta has an entry on his blog, The Friendly Atheist, Three Muslim Students Were Killed in a Tragic Attack Carried Out by an Atheist, listing excerpts of some of these responses. If you want to go directly to the source for the full responses, here are links to the statements at each organization's own site.

It's worth reading all of the statements, but here are two excerpts from the Secular Student Alliance statement that I think are particularly good.

Everyone at the Secular Student Alliance is appalled by the murders of Deah Bakurat, Yusor Mohammed, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill, North Carolina yesterday. We are further appalled by the trauma and terror caused by these murders and offer our condolences to the victims, their family, and the greater Chapel Hill community. The Secular Student Alliance encourages students to work with each other to understand one another and make the world a better place. These killings work in the exact opposite of that cause.
The Secular Student Alliance promotes pluralism and secularism. We work alongside people of faith, and work to spread the understanding that both people with and without faith have the capacity to do good. Nothing about the lack of a belief in a god supports the murder of innocent people, and we absolutely condemn what has happened. We hope that dialogues can happen, and bridges are built, not burned, in the wake of this.

These deaths were tragic and senseless, and there's no excuse for the horrendous actions committed by Craig Hicks. My heart goes out to the families and friends of Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.

Image Source: USA Today


If you're interested, here's another article on the murders, USA Today - Chapel Hill 'rocked' by killings of 3 Muslim students.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson - Index

Ben CarsonPrompted by a political discussion with a friend, I decided to take a closer look at Ben Carson. My main method was reading articles that Carson himself has written, but I've also looked at a few other articles quoting him. Although it's taken me until midway through the series, I've made this page as an index, providing links to all of the other entries in the series. I've also included links to the previous entries I'd written about Carson.

Series Index

Previous Entries

New Entries

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 4 - Ebola

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

Today, I'm taking a look at his article, How To Keep Ebola Out Of America.

Out of the five articles I read at the start of this project, this is the worst. It is irresponsible fear mongering. Yes, Ebola is a major concern, and is something that needs to be monitored very closely. And Carson made some good points about expanding research and support in Africa. But Carson goes too far in wanting to temporarily exile citizens.

For this reason, I and many others are not comfortable with the idea of bringing infected individuals into our midst when we can readily treat them elsewhere. We can happily receive them back once the infectious danger has passed. When one does a logical benefit-to-risk analysis, it is clear that the worst things that could happen by intentionally bringing this dangerous disease to America are far worse than the best things that could happen.

To claim that U.S. citizens should not be allowed to return to the U.S. for treatment of Ebola is ludicrous. Despite the problems with our health care system discussed in the previous entry of this series, the U.S. still has first class quality of care. And the risk of an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. is miniscule.

Statements like the following are especially irresponsible:

I have no desire to induce panic, but we must realize that some viruses are known to undergo mutations, which make them even more virulent. If the Ebola virus becomes even more pathologic, the ensuing panic and destruction of human life could go far beyond what is currently being acknowledged.

Evolutionary biologists who specialize in this very issue have studied Ebola and determined that it's very unlikely that Ebola will mutate into a "super-pathogen" (N.Y. Times - Scientists Rein In Fears of Ebola, a Virus Whose Mysteries Tend to Invite Speculation). The article paraphrased the biologist, Edward Holmes, on such a possibility.

But it would be a mistake, he warned, to imagine that with a single mutation Ebola might become an airborne pathogen. The change would require many mutations in many genes, and it might be nearly impossible for so many mutations to emerge during a single outbreak. The mutated viruses would survive only if they were superior to the ones spread by bodily fluids.

Holmes was quoted in another portion of the article, making a statement that I very much agree with, and that I think is particularly relevant to articles like this from Carson.

"I've been dismayed by some of the nonsense speculation out there," said Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. "I understand why people get nervous about this, but as scientists we need to be very careful we don't scaremonger."

Carl Zimmer, the writer of that previously linked article, has another good article comparing Ebola with the flu, that helps put into perspective the dangers of this virus (As Ebola Spreads, So Have Several Fallacies). By way of comparison, the flu kills around 36,000 people in the U.S. every year, while this current Ebola outbreak had only three confirmed cases in the U.S. at the time Carson had written his article, and only one more since. I don't mean to trivialize the disease, but people's fear of it is way out of proportion to the risk it poses.

And just imagine if a plan like Carson's were to be implemented - it could have a chilling effect on volunteer efforts in Africa. How many volunteers would opt not to go to Africa to help if they knew their reward would be refusal back into the U.S.? And what would this decrease in volunteers do to treatment efforts in affected areas?

Carson's statements are especially troubling given that he is an M.D., and that many people in the general public won't pick up on the distinction of him being a surgeon vs. an epidemiologist. He should be more careful when speaking outside of his particular medical field.

This was an extremely irresponsible article on Carson's part. It just enhances the disproportionate paranoia in the public over this disease.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: How To Keep Ebola Out Of America

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Continue to Part 5 - Global Warming

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 3 - Healthcare & Romanticizing the Past

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

In this entry, I'm looking at the article, A 'We the People' moment for a 'can-do' nation. To be honest, this article wasn't particularly focused, so it's hard to write a short reply that addresses everything. It ranged from criticizing the Affordable Care Act to criticizing government in general to bringing up Benghazi (of course) to pining for good old fashioned American values. But since the opening paragraphs were about healthcare, that's what I'll mainly focus on. Here's a paragraph that gives the gist of Carson's opinion on the Affordable Care Act.

The "Affordable Care Act," which probably seems less affordable to most Americans as we find out more about it, is the cause of this unnecessary misery. When the employer mandate, which is part of Obamacare, is activated early next year, tens of millions more Americans will face dramatic hikes in the cost of the health care they are currently receiving or will lose it all together. The current administration understood that this would happen, which occasioned the issuing of several executive orders delaying the implementation of the employer mandate until after the November 2014 elections.

There is no doubt that the Affordable Care Act has problems that need to be worked out. However, universal health care is an important factor for improving our nation's health care system (here's something I wrote a few years ago, but is still a good summary of why universal health care is an improvement over the previous system - Universal Health Care). One of the biggest problems with implementation of the ACA is that it wasn't implemented in the intended way. The individual mandate was supposed to be accomplished partly through employer provided healthcare, and partly through expansion of Medicaid*. However, nearly half of the states in the country refused the Medicaid expansion (and it took a Supreme Court battle for them to be able to do so), and now their citizens are paying the price. According to several studies, millions will remain uninsured, and on the order of 7,000 people a year will die that wouldn't have had those states expanded Medicaid (BillMoyers.com - Study Shows the Madness of States Refusing to Expand Medicaid).

What's especially frustrating is the way the Affordable Care Act came about. If you do follow that link to my previous article, you'll see mention of many of the falsehoods, misinformation, and propaganda that came out of the right wing when the ACA was being debated. There wasn't the type of constructive bipartisan debate that could have made the law better. Hopefully now that the law's already on the books, Congress and the Senate can focus on ways to improve it.

Further into Carson's article, he wrote a paragraph that, while not really terribly important to his larger point, typifies the way the right wing romanticizes the past.

Those are the values that allowed a ragtag army during the American Revolution to defeat the most powerful military force on earth. They did not possess a superior fighting force or ingenious strategies, but they did hold strong beliefs, for which they were willing to die, while the British soldiers were just following orders. That same kind of conviction today can lead us to become informed voters and exercise the powers vested in us courageously.

Yes, the founding fathers had strong beliefs. But don't forget the American alliances with France and Spain and the additional support from the Netherlands (Wikipedia). There were also the other wars in the Caribbean and Florida by those countries that divided British efforts, keeping the British from focusing the full of their military strength on the 13 colonies (more info - U.S. History Scene - The American Revolution: A Very European Ordeal). Don't take this the wrong way - I'm very glad that the group that would eventually become the U.S. won the war and was able to found a country committed to Enlightenment ideals, but it's a little naïve to credit America's victory to their convictions while ignoring all the international support.

I suppose that's it for this entry. Like I already wrote, Carson's article was so scattershot that it's hard to pick a single topic to respond to, and I don't really want to turn this into a paragraph for paragraph rebuttal. At any rate, aside from a few platitudes, I can't say that I particularly agree with the overall sentiment of this article, either.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: A 'We the People' Moment For A 'Can-Do' Nation

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Continue to Part 4 - Ebola

*Of course, you can question the wisdom of employer provided health insurance. Personally, I think it's a bit of a weird system. I buy my own auto and life insurance - why is health insurance different? With the current law, it's led to unintended consequences like employers reducing employee hours to get out of providing health insurance, and it opens up cases like the Hobby Lobby affair, where employees are denied basic services because their employer doesn't like those services. But going away from employer provided health insurance would be a huge change, and would likely take many years for things to settle out (for example, how much should people's salaries go up if their employers quit paying for their insurance).

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