Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, January 20, 2014

Climate Change - Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Global WarmingI recently had a conversation with an acquaintance regarding climate change. He was a denialist, and one of his arguments, while a familiar tactic, was a new one to me on the specifics - that 2013 had seen a dramatic increase in Arctic sea ice extent, indicating that the global warming trend had reversed. After doing a bit of Googling, I found similar claims in some of the standard denialist sources. For example, a recent article in The Telegraph by Hayley Dixon carried the headline, Global warming? No, actually we're cooling, claim scientists. The synopsis right under the headline read:

A cold Arctic summer has led to a record increase in the ice cap, leading experts to predict a period of global cooling.

The opening two paragraphs of the actual article are quoted below.

There has been a 29 per cent increase in the amount of ocean covered with ice compared to this time last year, the equivalent of 533,000 square miles.

In a rebound from 2012's record low, an unbroken ice sheet more than half the size of Europe already stretches from the Canadian islands to Russia's northern shores, days before the annual re-freeze is even set to begin.

To be charitable, the numbers being claimed seem to be relatively accurate. The problem lies in the interpretation.

My first reaction to hearing the claim from my acquaintance was to go looking for the data to see for myself what was going on. I found a good source for sea ice data, National Snow & Ice Data Center. After clicking through a few links, I found this data set in particular, Sea Ice Index (direct ftp link). It provided monthly mean extent and area data, so I downloaded that, put it into Excel, and plotted it. Below is the result of that work, a graph showing monthly averages by year.

Sea Ice Extent

Plotting it out like that really shows the misleading nature of the claim that arctic sea ice has recovered. There's a clear long term trend of decreasing ice extent. 2012 was an abnormally low year, and 2013 was an abnormally high year, but neither year was far off from that trend.

Here's another way of plotting the data. This is a simplistic average, summing the monthly averages and dividing by 12, but still shows the general trend.

Sea Ice Extent

Another way this is misleading is by expressing it as a percentage. Because of the long term trend, the minimums are getting lower and lower. The lower the minimums are, the higher percentage increase you'll get from any increase. A few years from now, if one year is only 1 million kmĀ², and the next was 2 million, I'm sure the denialists would shout that it was a 100% increase. Once we have an ice free summer, any amount of ice the next summer would be an infinite improvement percentage wise, but not much solace if the absolute coverage was still low.

In the course of my googling this, I came across a good article on SkepticalScience dealing with the claim in more depth than I have here, Arctic sea ice "recovers" to its 6th-lowest extent in millennia. I highly recommend you go read the entire article, but I couldn't resist stealing one of their animated images, illustrating how denialists view sea ice decline.

SkepticalScience.com Sea Ice Graph

If you want to see another example of the denialist propaganda, here's an article from the Mail Online, And now it's global COOLING! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year. It contains similar claims to the Telegraph article quoted above.

It amazes me that intelligent, well educated individuals can fall for these types of propaganda, but the sad truth is that our world is warming, and we're already starting to face some of the effects of that change. Unless we do something about it soon, the future for us and our children will be much more painful and expensive than it needed to be.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough

ScroogeI've written about the Salvation Army before, in the appropriately named entry, The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?. Now, I have reservations about that organization, and I've personally decided to donate to other, more deserving groups, but as I wrote in that entry, "I do think the Salvation Army does much more good than harm. So, if the only way you would donate would be to drop your change into one of their kettles, then don't hold back! Most of your money will go to helping people, and it's better than doing nothing at all." I certainly wouldn't advocate hostility towards the group, but here's an example of a Christian who was none too happy with one of the bell ringers, Salvation Army bell ringer says 'Happy Holidays' led to assault. Yes, you read the headline correctly. The bell ringer was wishing people 'happy holidays', and was assaulted because of it. Here's how she put it.

"The lady looked at me," said Vindiola. "I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, 'Do you believe in God?' And she says, 'You're supposed to say Merry Christmas,' and that's when she hit me."

How petty and small minded can you get? Here's a person volunteering their own time to collect money for a Christian organization helping the poor, and another person is angered to the point of violence over their choice of wording in well wishing? It's absurd. And it's not even like saying 'happy holidays' is always (or even usually) a deliberate downplay of Christmas. I remember when it used to be the standard greeting on Christmas cards in lieu of wishing 'Merry Christmas and a happy New Year' simply because it was shorter. Or do these people hate New Year's so much that only Christmas should be mentioned in holiday greetings?

Granted, some people do say 'happy holidays' deliberately to avoid only Christmas wishes, because there are other holidays that people celebrate around this time of year. But that's meant to be more inclusive to those other people, not as some sort of hostility towards Christians. What type of person does it take to get upset at somebody extending good will towards a larger group of people?

It's kind of ugly, but here's a good chart I came across showing the proper response to different holiday greetings depending on the particular affiliation of the people involved.

Holiday wishes flow chart

If you can't read it, the appropriate response in every case is:

"Thank you! You too!"

...because honestly, if you can't see past the words of the wish to its good intent, then it's not the holiday well-wisher who's broken, it's you.

So, happy holidays to everyone out there who's celebrating some sort of holiday right around now. And if you're not celebrating anything, then just have a nice day.

Image Source: Imgur

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

God vs. Supervillains

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've written along these lines before, but here's a slightly different version that's been rattling around in my head.

Imagine a supervillain bent on taking over the world, building a secret society of supporters to help him achieve his ends. He's very charismatic and likeable in person, and very generous in rewarding his supporters. But he's absolutely brutal with his enemies. Once he gets his hands on them, he'll torture them mercilessly, putting them through unimaginable pain, using methods that keep them alive and prolong the pain as long as possible. He's trying to build up his base of supporters as large as he can, so one of the tasks of existing supporters is to find new people to join their secret society. And of course, they focus on the rewards part, but once the potential converts learn of the society, there's also the threat of torture. In a sense, it's kind of like the mob - as long as you're not involved at all, you can steer clear of the whole thing. But once you get caught up in it personally, you have to either go along with them, or face some type of punishment. But unlike the mob, this is a megalomaniacal supervillain, so if he gets his way, eventually there will be no possibility of avoiding his influence. Once he gets enough supporters, he'll be ruler of the whole world, and then he'll be able to put all his resources to bear on finding and torturing his enemies.

Now in real life, this would be a difficult situation to deal with. On the one hand, you'd like to imagine yourself being a hero, and standing up against the villain. But on the other hand, as long as he's not punishing you, you may just keep your head down and do the minimum he asks of you. Just look at the drug cartels in Mexico right now. If a cartel demanded use of your house for a drug smuggling operation, would you stand up to them and face being tortured and killed, or would you just go along, knowing you were cooperating with an evil force, but saving your own hide, and probably your family's as well. And when you throw in the bribes and rewards, it gets even more tempting.

Now, instead of a supervillain bent on taking over the world, imagine a god already in control of the universe, who merely keeps his presence a bit of a secret on this world in an effort to find his most faithful supporters. Otherwise, the situation's mostly the same. Suck up to him and do as he wishes and you'll be rewarded. Oppose him and you'll be punished. Only unlike the mortal supervillain, this god has the ability to make the punishment last for eternity.

Now, I know that most Christians believe God is good, and the source of love and morality and all that. But look at the methods. They're not the methods of heroes, but rather of supervillains. Eternal torture as the punishment for any finite action, and particularly for not giving blind obedience, is evil. I'm just glad that God isn't real, or I'd be faced with the decision of going along with it all to save my own hide, or opposing it but damning myself to eternal torment. Imagining the God of the Bible to be real is a pretty bleak scenario.


I know, I know. Not all Christians believe God is like this. Even if the vast majority of Christians believe accepting Christ is one of the requirements of avoiding Hell, more liberal Christians believe that God will reward good people and only punish bad people, and the more liberal yet don't believe in eternal punishment, or don't even believe in a literal Hell. If God were like those more liberal Christians imagined, then it wouldn't be such a bleak scenario. But that's not the God of the Bible, nor the God believed in by the majority of Americans. I'm still in the Old Testament in my task of re-reading the entire Bible, but the God presented there is not particularly lenient. He demands obedience, and punishes people harshly if they fail to give it to him.

Edited 2015-04-22 to fix some typos in the post script.

Monday, December 9, 2013

War on Christmas 2013

Santa in the CrosshairsChristmas is only two weeks away, so it's time to ramp up my efforts in the War on Christmas. To tell the truth, the whole idea of the war is a bit silly, considering all the ways Christmas has been dealt with in this country's past, from the Puritans outlawing it, to some cities treating it "like a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras" (see first link below). I've written a few blog entries on Christmas over the years, so I'll just provide links to those below. The first three are especially good for actually being informative.

My previous War on Christmas posts:

But I really do like Christmas. We've already put up the tree, decorated the front yard, and gotten most of the decorations up in the house, and we'll visit with family, excange presents, and celebrate on Christmas Day. We do pretty much all the normal traditions other than go to church. So, ignoring the 'war', here are a couple more Christmas posts.

My positive Christmas posts:

And as has become my annual tradition for this site, here is Tim Minchin singing his secular Christmas carol, White Wine In the Sun. And just in case you missed the link above, if you buy the song from iTunes this month, the proceeds will go to the National Autistic Society.


Related Links to Other Sites (the first is serious, the rest are humorous):

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Review - Tribulation Force

Tribulation Force is the second book in the hugely successful Christian End Times series, Left Behind, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Many of my impressions of Tribulation Force are the same as my impressions of the first book, Left Behind, so you can read my previous entries on that book, Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind and More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book, along with the brief review from my 2011 book wrap-up.

Let me start off this review by saying that I was entertained by this book, enough that I'll probably continue reading the series (though not straight through without breaks for other books). And let me also preface this review by admitting that when I first saw the Left Behind movie while I was still a Christian, it seemed reasonably plausible, if not particularly likely to occur any time soon. It wasn't until I abandoned Christianity, read the actual book, and discovered Slacktivist's Left Behind reviews that I realized just how implausible the story is (thanks for making me feel so gullible, Slacktivist).

Even if you believe in Christianity, and even if it's one of the varieties that believes in the Rapture and subsequent apocalypse, the events as depicted in these books are wildly implausible (note that the Slacktivist himself is an evangelical Christian). The first book, Left Behind, begins with the Rapture - every True Christian being taken to heaven, along with every single child younger than their early teens, no matter who their parents. The opening chapters of the first book described all the chaos that ensued from that event - cars crashing head on into other cars after the drivers miraculously vanished, airports littered with wrecked airliners that brave passengers had tried their best to land after losing the flight crew, expecting parents grieving the loss of their soon to be born children. But all of the mayhem this supposedly caused is practically non-existent in later chapters of the first book and the entirety of the second book. Other than a few passing references to increased crime or missing children, the characters in Tribulation Force are living in a world remarkably similar to the existing world.

And as if the Rapture weren't strange enough, everybody still alive got to witness Israel divinely protected from an all-out Russian attack, and then the fire-breathing prophets in Tribulation Force that can't be killed by thugs or armies. But despite these obviously miraculous events, people by and large continue to dismiss the (apparently new) Christians who believe in the End Times as nothing more than religious fanatics. Unless God were intentionally hardening everyone's hearts, this is not the reaction that would happen in reality. Americans in particular are already prone to religious explanations, and practically everyone knows something about the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. Can you really imagine the events from this series occuring without everyone jumping to the conclusion that people like La Haye and Jenkins had been right all along. I think this is a reflection of how the authors see the world now - that their particular brand of Christianity must be so obvious that there can't be any good reason for non-believers to actually not believe.

In Slacktivist's reviews, he'll occasionally write alternate versions of passages, illustrating how the events could have been depicted in the hands of different authors, and it makes you realize just how much better these books could have been. Two of my favorites of these alternate passages are in his entries, TF: Reaching for the cookie sack and T.F.: A new car.

The first of those pages linked to above dealt with a small scene where Buck and Chloe bought a cookie at the airport, from a stereotypical "bored teenager wait[ing] for their order." Rather than simply go with the stereotype, especially in a post-Rapture world where everyone's lives must have been turned upside down, Slacktivist imagined a back story for the teenager, and it was far more interesting and touching than anything LaHaye and Jenkins have come up with so far.

The second of the pages linked to above criticized the following sentence from the book, "Buck Williams had spent the day buying a car -- something he hadn't needed in Manhattan -- and hunting for an apartment." In the book, that's the extent of the description of Buck buying the car. There was no mention of where he went, how many dealerships he had to go to, how much he spent, how the dealer himself was dealing with the recent Rapture. Heck, there was absolutely no mention of what type of car Buck bought, whether it was a compact import, an exotic sports car, or a gas guzzling all American SUV. And the few times later in the book when Buck mentioned to other characters that he'd bought a car, they didn't respond realistically. Just imagine that one of your friends came up to you and said, "I just bought a new car.' What would your first reaction be? I would guess it would be something along the lines of, "Oh really, what kind?" But none of the characters ever asked Buck what type of new car he just bought, so that by the end of the book, the only thing we know about Buck's car is that it's "a car". Now, that may not be the most pertinent detail in the series, but a car can tell you a lot about a person's personality, especially in books and movies when certain types of cars are stereotypically given to certain characters (e.g Dinner for Schmucks, Porsches For Jerks - I wonder if Buck bought a 911). And this is really just symptomatic of the lack of detail (and unrealistic dialogue) throughout the whole series thus far.

I will post a sort of warning, however, if you intend to read this book and Slacktivist's reviews. Read the book first. While Slacktivist's entries are entertaining and often spot on, the constant negative comments against the book will bias you against it from the get go, and make it harder to suspend your disbelief to enjoy the books. And Slacktivist sometimes goes a bit too far, in my opinion, interpreting the book especially harshly when a more charitable interpretation might be more fitting.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of these books if you want to read them for enjoyment is the fact that the two main characters aren't particular likeable. The books are told from the viewpoints of Buck Williams and Rayford Steele, but even reading the story through their eyes and reading their thoughts, they come off as arrogant, inconsiderate jerks. In the first book, I'd chalked it up to them not having been True Christians, and expecting their personalities to change for the better once they converted. But in Tribulation Force, they're born again Christians for the entire book, and they're still jerks. I know heroes aren't supposed to be Mary Sues/Gary Stus. They need to have some flaws to make them believable, but the author needs to be careful to not make the flaws so numerous that the hero is no longer a 'hero'. Like I wrote previously, you don't so much root for the main characters in this book, as just read to see what's going to happen.

There's really only a handful of symphathetic characters - Chloe Steele (Rayford's college age daughter who becomes the love interest for 30 something Buck), Hattie Durham (the flight attendant that Rayford had been leading on before the Rapture), and Chaim Rosenzweig (a chemist who developed a practically magical formula making the deserts of Israel into fertile farmland). Hattie and Chaim were duped into becoming part of the inner circle of the Anti-Christ, before they had a chance to receive divine protection by becoming born again Christians like the book's 'heroes'. Yet throughout the two books so far, the 'heroes' have done nothing to attempt to save their friends. Chloes started off the series as a college girl, the group's token skeptic. But in Tribulation Force, she's slowly morphing into a stereotypical silly girl. In one of the most painful aspects of the book to read, the authors commit the standard tropes of Not What It Looks Like and the Idiot Ball, when Chloe sees a secretary for Buck's company drop by his apartment to drop off some of his things (again with the arrogant heroes - who still makes secretaries run personal errands?). Chloe talks to the woman, and the woman talks about her fiance in just such a way that Chloe can misunderstand it to think that the woman is talking of Buck. But rather than ask Buck a simple question to clear up what's going on, the author's drag on this misunderstanding for nearly half the book, along with a similarly painful episode involving mysterious flowers from a secret admirer.

While reading the book, I used my iPhone to snap pictures of particularly cringe worthy scenes throughout the book. I'd intended to use those photos to highlight those scenes in a detailed review of the book, but there are so many (I took nearly 60 photos) that it would make this review unnecessarily long. Perhaps one day I'll post the detailed review including critiques of all those passages, but I doubt I'd add much more than what Slacktivist has already done. Instead, I'll just quote one passage, since it actually ties in with the book of the Bible I'm reading right now for my Friday Bible Blogging series, the book of Job. This is from towards the end of the book, after Rayford re-marries (in a character thrown into the plot after an "Eighteen months later" jump).

Despite their concern for Bruce, Rayford felt a little more whole. He had a four-person family again, albeit a new wife and a new son.

Because family members can be so easily replaced. I still feel the loss of my grandparents, and it's been well over a decade since I lost the last of them. And it doesn't matter how many new people I've met since their deaths. They were individual people who cannot be replaced. The above passage is almost dehumanizing, thinking of a wife as just a position to be filled.

Since my impressions of Tribulation Force are so similar to those I had for Left Behind, I'll end this review by adapting what I'd already written in my brief review of Left Behind. Tribulation Force wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. The series so far isn't, as Slacktivist said, "The Worst Books Ever Written." At the very least, it gives you some insight into the mindset of premillenial dispensationalists. If you can get past the corny dialog, unlikeable heroes, and lack of detail, and then suspend your disbelief about the implausible scenarios, you can enjoy the books. Like I wrote above, I liked Tribulation Force well enough that I'll probably try to finish out the series.

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