Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How Messed Up Is This?

I've recently come across the surprising statistic that about 71% of the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa is suffering from malnutrition. Almost all of the other nations in Africa that are marked as having malnutrition are around 35% - still highly tragic numbers, but not near the unbelievable rate in DR Congo[1]. This is where a lot of the skeletal children you see pictures of come from.

But that's not the messed up part. The messed up part is who was behind it...

I decided to read up on the history of DR Congo to see what in the world happened to cause their unique situation. What I found began around 1960, during the height of the cold war. At that time, the Congo was controlled by Belgium, as it had been since 1908. This was a remnant of the history of the colonial empires, whereby almost all of Africa had been sliced up by different European nations (you'll recall that apartheid South Africa was controlled by the British, for example, and that British colonialism was also at the root of the beginnings of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict after they closed up shop and left abruptly). During WWII the United States got the uranium it needed for its nuclear bombs from the Belgian Congo, which was rich in the stuff.

The Belgians gave no political power to the Congolese people. The educated people there eventually started a campaign to end the inequality. Following some riots, the Congolese won legalization for their own political parties in 1959. In May 1960 they elected a President and a Prime Minister, and won independence by the end of June. In 1962, Belgium also granted neighboring Rwanda self-government, which it also controlled - thus leading to intense racial conflict between the native Hutu and Tutsis, after an abusive majority came to power.

Back in Congo, however, two provinces didn't like the situation and struggled to secede. In that disorder, a dispute broke out between the President and the Prime Minister. Now, the Prime Minister had previously appointed a man named Mobutu as chief of staff of the new Congo army. By 1965 Mobutu had garnered enough support within the army to take advantage of the leadership crisis and mount a coup against the democratically elected leaders. The President was overthrown and the Prime Minister assassinated. Mobutu renamed the nation Zaire, erected a one-party dictatorship with himself as Head of State and "father of the nation", and was accused of many human rights abuses and corruptions.

Mobutu conducted this military coup against that democracy with the financial backing of the United States (CIA) and Belgium.

As it was, Mobutu was against communism and leftist ideas. He would therefore allow U.S. companies to export the natural resources of Zaire without worrying about environmental, labor, or other regulations. Belgium would also retain mining rights for copper and diamonds.

Now we skip ahead to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The U.S. decides that Mobutu is no longer a necessary ally and relations cool. Without that backing, Mobutu's opponents inside Zaire begin to step up demands for reform. Mobutu conducted a lot of 'fake reforms' supposedly to be democratic, but were more cosmetic than anything else. Finally in 1997 a rebellion forced Mobutu to flee Zaire, which was renamed back to the DR Congo[2].

Since 1994, DR Congo has been waylaid by ethic strife and civil war, with its society virtually collapsed. There was also the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, which has resulted in a massive inflow of refugees. The current president, Joseph Kabila, in 2006 became the first Congolese President to be democratically elected by universal direct suffrage (meaning, everyone can vote regardless of race, gender, etc). I read he's trying to implement reforms to combat the malnutrition crisis but we'll see. Kabila is also working with the World Bank in an effort to improve the economy. But here's at least one point of view on the World Bank (from Wikipedia)...

"Corporatocracy is also used by John Perkins in his 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man to describe a system of governance controlled by "big corporations, international banks, and government" (Perkins / Plume paperback edition, 94). Harking back to the "military-industrial complex," Perkins claims the corporatocracy is manifested in the following cycle: the World Bank issues loans to developing nations to pay for large-scale development projects; contracts are then doled out to a handful of American engineering firms; as a result, these countries become ensnared in a net of interest payments and debts they cannot repay. American corporations benefit through increased profits, and the U.S. government benefits through securing its political clout and control over developing countries with vast natural resources. According to Perkins, the majority of people in those countries do not benefit since a large portion of their country's budget goes toward servicing the national debt instead of improving living conditions.[3]"

If this is correct, then it could be that the Congo is still the pawn of the U.S., in an even more subtle scheme.

I'm also actually a supporter of capitalism (although not completely Laissez-faire). However I'm not sure that being opposed to mega-corporate rule is inconsistent with that. It could be that such notions as the international mega-corporation are actually contrary to real capitalism.

Three interesting thoughts:

1) Much of the current problems in the world we are paying for today can be traced back, not only to the cold war and ww2, but to 18-19th Century European colonialism.

2) Was the cold war really about the evil Soviet empire that wanted to invade the U.S. and make us all wait in line for toilet paper? Or was it more about stoking that fear for the sake of expanding opportunities for U.S. corporations?

3) Could it be that as far back as the economic buildup after WW2 which catapulted us to superpower status, we've been a de facto Corporatocracy and didn't even realize it?

4) How much of what goes on today with U.S. international policy is about stoking fear for the sake of serving the interest of our corporate oligarchy? 100% maybe?

I'm not one to use the propaganda tactic of making unsubstantiated claims, about things I really already believe for certain, in the form of questions. The above reflect real questions I'm actually wondering about.

[1] United Nations World Food Program Interactive Map [link]
[2] Wikipedia article on DR Congo [link] (other connected articles also used)
[3] Wikipedia article on Corporatocracy [link]

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Zeno lives!

In April of 2006 I made a post called Evil and Ignorance. The picture for it was a statue of Socrates that I colorized and tried to bring to life. It was alright but a rush job. I decided to try again, this time with the founder of Stoicism, Zeno. In the Socrates picture, the weakest points were the sculpted hair (which doesn't look right even if you colorize it) and the eyes. So this time I decided to take the Zeno statue and blend in some similar eyes I found online (from a mug shot of some guy), and got the hair from Daniel Dennett's beard, then blended in patches to make it match the shape and style of Zeno's. After that I painted in the various skin tones, added highlights and shadows, and colorized the clothing and background. I think this version came out better. It might be the closest thing we have to what Zeno may have really looked like - I hope anyway!

Update May 23, 2007: Dr. Keith Seddon of the Stoic Foundation has decided to place my picture the foundation's homepage at www.btinternet.com/~k.h.s/stoic-foundation.htm. He put a neat fading effect between the two images, which can be seen in MS-Explorer. Firefox shows the two back and forth, but without the fade.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Analysis: How News Misleads

CBS Channel 11 in Dallas/Ft. Worth recently aired a segment, "Does God Exist?" in which they announced that mathematical physicist Frank J. Tipler has claimed to prove the existence of God through 'hard nosed physics'. I started this entry with the intent to critique Tipler's claim. However, seeing as how his claims have already been thoroughly critiqued in other sources, I have decided instead to critique, not the claims, but Channel 11's coverage of them - a wonderful example of the serious problems inherent in the way news is so often covered.

First a little background on Tipler's claim in two paragraphs. Tipler claims that God is an artificial intelligence or 'Omega point' - a cosmological singularity. He claims that we will eventually create artificial life forms that will go out and populate the universe, gathering so much information that this super intelligence is inevitable. He also claims that this intelligence will love us and thus resurrect all of us in a simulated environment, first by creating every possible combination of gene codes possible for humans, and then by running simulations of history for every possible outcome. Thus, all of us would be sure to somewhere in this vast simulation (or 'emulation' as he calls it to represent a more philosophically real and detailed version of simulation). He claims this intelligence is the God described in Abrahamic religion and several other belief systems, and more specifically connects it with the Christian scheme of things. This paragraph above somewhat encapsulates the general nature of his claim, although I'm sure I haven't captured every detail perfectly. For more information, you can check out Tipler's own website or works HERE, or read his entry in Wikipedia HERE.

This second paragraph will tell you the next important thing you need to know about Tipler and his claim; and that is where they fall in the overall scheme of science and religion. Has Tipler revolutionized physics and religion, or is he a crackpot on the fringe of society? Are his claims being debated seriously among the intellectual and religious elites of our nation or are they not taken very seriously as a real debate at all? In both cases, it would seem the latter is the case. As the Wikipedia article states, the prominent scientific magazine Nature reviewed Tipler's book and called it a "masterpiece of pseudoscience... the product of a fertile and creative imagination unhampered by the normal constraints of scientific and philosophical discipline." Tipler's work has also been critiqued by Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, Victor J. Stenger, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which you should read HERE. It should be noted that Stenger also moves beyond the realm of science in his book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. However, I think his critique here is representative of the overall scientific consensus on Tipler (and, by the way, where was Channel 11's groundbreaking report on this book?).

Now that you have some background, take a look at the segment CBS Channel 11 aired and come back to read my analysis...

CBS Channel 11: Does God Exist?
(click the link at the end of the sentence "To hear Tipler explain his ideas, click here")

I have written before about how news media can and does often mislead their audience without ever making any false claims in the segment. As you can from viewing the clip, any person who watched this segment could easily come away with the following impressions:

1) Tipler's work represents a new and profound event.
2) Tipler's claims have caused a large controversy within the scientific and/or religious community.
3) Tipler's claims involve the traditional concept of the Christian God.

All of which are, of course, false. Curiously, one thing we don't get from the segment are what Tipler's claims are! Of course a mathematically detailed presentation of them would be unsuitable for general audiences, but we don't even get an overview of the claims in layman's terms. Rather, we are supposed to make due with a hand writing "=> God exists" on a chalkboard while hearing monk chants.

It is quite easy to imagine and suspect that, the next day after this segment aired, thousands of believers returned to their water cooler at work to talk about how 'even science is coming around and understands that God is real' while atheists are stubbornly clinging to outdated science because they missed last night's program.

Let's take a look at the segment in more detail. It opens with:

"Does God exist? That is a question that is a question which, through the ages, has been mostly a philosophical one. That is until recently..."

Here is where the viewer gets the impression that some new breakthrough has been made. This would be a false impression for two reasons: (1) Tipler's claims are not very new in substance and he himself has been making them for some time, and (2) What he presents is imaginative speculation with a bunch of math thrown in to make it sound scientific. Nothing he presents is truly a breakthrough of any kind. Tipler has not left the realm of philosophy in the least (not to mention that he hasn't even left the realm of 'bad philosophy').

The piece goes on to show Tipler saying that he became a committed Christian of 12. This in itself illustrates a pre-determined conclusion before his work even began. No mention is made of the obvious possibility that he is looking for arguments to prove a pre-determined conclusion, something completely contradictory to the scientific approach.

Nearly a third of the way into the segment we are now hearing how Tipler ignores the notion that science and religion are separate - a common position of many philosophers, scientists, and theologians, which has nothing to do with Tipler's specific claims. We have still yet to hear them.

"Tipler calls God the cosmological singularity stemming from ancient theologians' definition of God."

If ancient theologians called God a cosmological singularity, some affirmation of that or references would be nice. It is obvious here that the reporter spoke only with Tipler himself and basically regurgitated what Tipler said in a nicely edited package.

"Tipler uses hard-core science: Einstein's principles of general Relativity and quantum mechanics."

First, there is no "hard-core" science. There is simply science and non-science. Secondly, the fruitcakes and quacks that try to suggest we have psychic powers and that space aliens built the pyramids also "use" relativity and quantum mechanics to 'prove' their claims. The reporter, Maria Arita, simply states these things in a very gullible and credulous manner, encouraging the same in the viewer - as if she were the spokesperson for Tipler's infomercial.

Now for the part where 'balance' supposedly comes in.

"But not everyone agrees..."

"Not everyone" is a far cry from "almost no one" which would have been closer to the truth in terms of the impression it gives.

"Avowed atheist Dr. Tim Gorski of Arlington says the mere question of God in a scientific sense is flawed."

First of all, why do they need to go to an 'avowed atheist' to ask about this? Addressing God scientifically is a flawed notion and not what science is designed for. Any reputable scientist could have confirmed this; theist or atheist. By going to an atheist the reporter (1) brought people's disliking of atheists into the mix, and (2) made it seem like his position was the oddball minority one, instead of the reverse. Then they go to two different denominations of Christians who say that belief in God is about faith.

We are now two thirds of the way into the segment, and still no details about what Tipler's claims are.

"Professor Tipler knows there are skeptics at church. Even some of his colleagues don't believe."

This is another grievous example. "...there are skeptics at church" Yes - how about, "...at church, a huge number of believers say that God is a matter of faith". That might have given a more accurate impression than a simple acknowledgment that "there are skeptics".

The second sentence is even worse: "Even some of his colleagues don't believe." Yes - how about, "...The vast majority of scientists and major scientific publications consider his claims unscientific." Maybe that would generate a more accurate impression in the viewer than "some of his colleagues".

"Still, Tipler says, God is the divine substance outside of space, time, and matter."

Earlier when responding to Dr. Gorski's statement that science doesn't study the supernatural the reporter retorted, "But the notion that God is in the natural appears to be exactly what Tipler is saying" - well which is it? Is God natural or the divine substance outside of space, time, and matter? To whatever degree it is the latter, it is outside of the realm of science because such things are not susceptible to its methods (not without Tipler's unbridled and pseudoscientific imagination that is).

"And theologians appear to have mixed feelings about the idea, but the debate rages on."

Which debate? The debate about the existence of God? If so, that's true - but it is not the impression this closing line gives. Closing the piece in this way gives the impression that the debate over Tipler's claims 'rages on' - as if his notions have caused a real stir.

Thus, most viewers come away with the impression that some major ripple has happened within science and now there is a big controversy that rages on. Unfortunately, a more accurate description would be that one fringe Christian mathematician is making unfounded pseudoscientific claims largely rejected by any serious sources from religion or science - one of a long line of such people.

If you think I mean that they shouldn't have reported this because it is false, then you have missed a very important point - that's not what I'm saying at all. Reporters don't need to judge the truth or falsity of claims like this - and they should report them. But they should not take fringe claims and set them along side the vast majority of accepted claims as though they have achieved some balance. This misrepresents the overall situation. As such, the report has betrayed everything news is supposed to be about - it is supposed to make people more informed about their world. It is not supposed to give them false impressions about the world.

So, the next question should be, why do reporters do things like this?

First, there is a general inclination to favor anything religious or godly in the news. This is because, as a corporation, the news outlet knows that the majority of its viewers are believers. In addition, many of the news reporters and writers are believers and may not even realize the bias.

Secondly, it is important for a reporter to make her story sound as though it is significant and as timely as possible. Thus, it wouldn't be very exciting without making it sound like some important event has taken place rather than a story about 'yet another fringe crackpot'.

Next, we have the old notion that news seeks out the most extreme and unusual of events to report on. In terms of science, this means that the fringe people, the pseudoscientists, the weirdest and most bizarre people, are the ones that are reported on. Rarely would mainstream accepted views be deemed anything worth reporting, unless we're talking about a news show dedicated specifically to science.

Lastly, there is the matter of time crunch and resources. We see this happen a lot more in local news. Often the reporter has to put together a story and doesn't have a whole lot of time to gather interviews, get input, etc. This can mean only talking to one person or source extensively. The result can then be a simple rehash of only one position to a greater extent than is reasonable.

I would suggest that news agencies can still make compelling news without such distortions. If they want to report on fringe elements in science that's fine. These stories can be very interesting. But they should at least report where that fringe claim stands among the whole of the scientific community.

Claims like Tiplers come and go, and there will always be a degree of pseudoscience out there - that's not extraordinary or newsworthy. The newsworthy item in this situation, however, is the unusual and bizarre practices of our news media - a news media that constantly misleads and misinforms the public. Unlike the continuing existence of unscientific fringe claims, that is something that needn't happen, and something can be corrected.

Thanks to my wife, Julie, for providing the links and info on this.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Officially a Minister

Well, I've been rather busy lately with a new job as Marketing Manager of a major non-profit medical organization, beginning the process on a new townhouse (our first), serving as President of my local Humanist group, and many other things.

Among these recent things, I have presided over my first funeral and my first wedding as a Humanist Minister. I suppose that makes it official. The funeral was for the wife of a friend from our Humanist group, and I think we gave her a ceremony she would be happy with. Her husband seemed satisfied with the ceremony and I was honored to be a part of it. The wedding was this past Saturday and was quite an experience. There were many Christian family members there, but everyone was very kind and seemed pleased with the ceremony. I have been very fortunate to have the mentoring and assistance of more experienced Humanist Minister Ross Henry.

After serving as Minister for both of these, I feel this is something I'll be happy doing over time. I don't think I'll try to make a career of it, but it can be something I do on the side.

I was thinking recently that my efforts as a Humanist Contemplative seem to be helped by serving in a ministerial capacity. One thing I'm trying to do with the contemplative program is focus more on the personal, applied, and compassionate side of Humanism. It seems that being a part of these important human events is helping to keep me in touch with that aspect of Humanism - so I think this will be a helpful and enlightening experience.

I've also heard from a like-minded Humanist in the UK recently who enjoyed my take on the Humanist Contemplative and has been kind enough to converse with me about these thoughts. I feel over the past decade or so, we have been seeing a number of really exciting things brewing for naturalistic spirituality. It will be wonderful to be a part of it as things develop in the future.