You got to have Faith! Faith!

This topic has been a subject of study, debate and analysis since antiquity. My interest is NOT to examine if there is a positive merit to faith and religion. That is a vast and very contentious subject and can be deferred to another day. My specific interest is to understand whether Faith exposes the limits of Scientific Inquiry and if there is in fact an opportunity for coexistence in the scientific forum.

We are all painfully aware of the numerous struggles scientists had to go through, during the Middle Ages to be able to overcome religious dogmas and present conclusions about the universe that shattered religious world views. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an interesting article about Sir Issac Newton called The Perimeter of Ignorance.

Sir Issac Newton discovers, gravitation, optics, light spectrum, the laws of motion and on a “dare” invents Differential and Integral Calculus just so that he could explain the nature of planetary orbits. However, Newton cannot explain how adding objects to this gravitational law still keeps the solar system stable.

He is able to explain Moon and Earth, Sun and Earth all the two body gravitational models. However he is not able to account how the system is still stable with multiple bodies (Earth and Sun pulling but also Saturn pulling Earth, Mars pulling Earth and so on).
So Newton invokes Faith since he has reached his limit.  From Neil Degrasse Tyson’s article, “A century later, the French Astrologer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronts Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declares it a scientific challenge and solves the issue using Perturbation Theory

Dr. Tyson provides a few more interesting examples of illustrious scientists who reach their limits and invoke faith only to have someone solve the issue later.

Let’s review the recent past where there have been a few specific cases where famous scientists such as Dr. Francis Collins (who let the decoding of the Human Genome Project) has been vocal about his faith, having written books and articles on this faith. By the way he is also the chair of the National Institute of Health. For a detailed analysis of Dr. Collins’ positions, Sam Harris’ article makes for good reading.

Harris asks a very germane question: Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).




What we have understood about ourselves and the universe around us in the last 100 years has been more than the previous 50,000 years combined. Science has debunked, defeated and demonstrated so many cherished myths, superstitions and beliefs which is all due to the “scientific inquiry”. Science continues to attack the “God of the Gaps” theory.

That isn’t to say there is no room for spirituality and faith. There has been numerous cases of sages and saints who have experienced great revelations via meditation, self inflection and contemplation. People use faith to cope with adversity, tragedy and loss.

That is however very very different from when posed with a limit of sceintific inquiry the answer is to outsource the explaination to a divine creator.

There is an alarming groundswell in this country where faith is now starting to be used to question the scientific process. This is going to have long term repercussions in our ability to continue to be a world leader in innovation.

Here is an example: If there is an argument on the quality of evidence regarding Evolution that is a worthy debate to have. If one comes to the stage with a book written a few thousand years ago about a world view from even far back it is not even worth having a conversation. It is like howling at the moon.

I am hoping that we will be able to improve the discourse where a sense of inquiry and reason guides our evaluation and not a reliance on bronze age literature and practices.

The Right to Arm Bears

Jon Stewart had a segment on his show this detailing why the Republicans were blocking the confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy for the post of Surgeon General.- Daily Show – America Stands it’s Ground. The source of the issue came from the NRA and Senator Rand Paul who started a campaign against the confirmation of Dr. Murthy.

The crux of this is NRA’s apprehension that Dr. Murthy’s outspoken views on “sensible” gun control which in fact are not that radical and in line with what most Americans want, from a reform perspective. So then why IS the NRA worried about this specific nomination to the point that their campaigning has caused the White House to put a halt on the nomination till the elections are completed?

The answer as “control”. The NRA has been very successful in advancing the “fear” propaganda. Guns are safe,  there are a myriad of unseen terrors lurking that can get us and being armed is the best recourse for our personal safety. In addition they have been very successful suppressing data on gun violence.

The Second Amendment provides the right to bear arms and this has been debated ad nauseum regarding the historical relevance of the Amendment. If our forefathers had the “fore”sight that a person, 225 years later would be able to go on the web and buy an AR-15 maybe they would have done a double take on the “right to bear arms” amendment. I get that you need guns to hunt but c’mon semi automatic and sophisticated handguns? These are the same nut jobs that need to buy a Hummer – since the terrain from the gated community to the super market is like Fallujah.

Almost every other advanced country have either no gun ownership or some form of restricted gun ownership and that has had obvious positive impacts on gun related violence. So why is this hard for our country to grasp? What is the fetish with gun ownership that lets our brains go through a cognitive dissonance every time we see a mass shooting in the news? It is always the same three points:

a) It is protected by the constitution – Fine. No argument there.

b) Guns don’t kill, People do – really? that is a viable argument? So if the gunman in the Newtown, CT killings had a bunch of knives (and killer ninja stars) he would be able to kill those poor innocent children at the speed, that he did?

c) I am a law abiding gun owner and I should have the freedom to own the guns I want – That is circular logic. If it has been proven via data and polling that there are certain types of guns (if regulated) will greatly reduce the number of violent gun crimes, isn’t a little bit of sensible regulation good?

Source: http://ksmleadership.com/gun-control/

So what is the solution. It is not attacking the NRA as the boogieman. The NRA is a non profit organization and lobbyist. It is protected by the First Amendment and should be commended for their effectiveness in driving the gun ownership agenda in this country with a maniacal focus.

The obvious answer then becomes our elected representatives doesn’t it?. Here is Obama’s proposed Gun Control measures that were put together post the Connecticut Mass Shootings.Universal Background checks and Assault Weapon Bans are really items that the Congress can do to positively influence gun crime. But that is not happening anytime soon.

And that brings us back to our circle jerk. As Jon Stewart states in his segment, Dr. Murthy is standing for the nomination of Surgeon General – best he can do is put warning labels on bullets!

Lobbyists will lobby that is what they do. There must be a greater conviction amongst our elected officials to be pragmatic, rational and logical. Else we are doomed. We can’t let the rhetoric crackpots influence elected officials.

You know the folks that traverse this arc on a minute by minute basis – Freedom->Guns->Greatest Country->Liberty->God (I know I am missing a few more from the Fringe Bingo Card).

Would taking the “obvious” baseball bat and hitting our elected officials on the head, result in them:

– Appointing or Not Appointing Dr. Murthy based on his experience and qualifications for the position – not because of his views on gun control?
– Passing sensible gun control regulations like background checks and assault weapon ban?

I don’t know…time will tell. Common sense is not so common these days!

Miraculously Speaking

We have a person at work that throws around the word ‘miracle’ rather copiously. This week after a particularly snowy day she walked into work and went “The morning commute was so bad, it is miracle that I made it to work on time”. This got me thinking about how people view miracles and what influence it plays in our lives and belief systems.

There was this joke that was very popular when I was growing up. It went something like this:

A guy goes to a priest in a church and asks the priest, “Father! how do you define a miracle?”. The priest takes a minute to reflect on the question and then a smile crosses his face. He tells the guy to close his eyes and proceeds to give him a really hard slap across his face. To the surprised (and mildly sobbing) guy the priest goes,” Son, did it hurt when I slapped you?”. The guy, looking up in incredulity goes, “YES”. To which the priest replies calmly, ” Well! it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t hurt!”.

Whether you call minor coincidences, random positive events or unexplained events as miracles, the fact remains that belief in miracles is very very popular. The need to divest your rational thought to an experience in faith is very high in this country.

The table above shows three quarters of the population have really strong beliefs in miracles. One wonders is there is a correlation between the above numbers and the drop in U.S.’s math & science rankings in the world.

In India, a country that is a perfect cocktail of God men, spiritual practices, rituals/pseudosciences, belief in miracles is also very high.There is the God man who materializes objects, or the idol that bleeds milk  (or some random liquid) or the guy who claims he can ward away evil spirits with a talisman. In all the cases the sequence follows the same three step process:

Step Description
The Set Up “I have a friend who told me about this” Or ” I was driving and heard about this and decided to check it out” Or ” We heard about this Baba and wanted to check him/her out”
The Description “My Friend described this thing that was amazing”, ” I saw with my own eyes the milk was flowing”; ” I saw with my own eyes when he materialized the object”; “He had this really bad ailment and he was magically cured when he got the blessings”
The Outsourcing This is where reason/logic gets outsourced. This goes like this, ” I am a sane and scientific person, how can u explain what I saw/experienced” OR ” There have been many scientists that have looked into this and they cannot come up with an explanation” OR ” How do you explain the person had a tumor and one week after meeting with this Baba it went away”

My own views on miracles can be summed up in the figure below:

There has been a lot of progress made in the field of debunking these miracles, although with some collateral damage. Indian rationalist – Sanal Edamauku had to flee the country after the Indian courts invoked an arcane Blasphemy Law to prosecute him when he disproved miracle claims of a statue of Jesus bleeding holy water. Other rationalists have been working hard to debunk these miracles in the hope of waning the public from being duped by these charlatan God men.

Miracles when combined with religious exploitation makes for a potent and lethal combination. You are literally at the corner of Susceptibility and Indoctrination. I would have loved to close with a dissertation from David Hume on Miracles and contrasted that with the current day belief in miracles statistics.

Republibertocrat?

Was having a discussion with a work colleague last week. He asked me what my thoughts were on Putin and his anti gay rhetoric. My colleague is a staunch Republican and conservative. I take care to state both, since I am very aware that not all conservatives are Republicans. So it came as a bit of a shock to him when I said I thought Putin got it wrong on this (and a myriad of other things). And his next question for me was “I thought you were republican (and conservative) are you not?”.  Did not know how to answer that, especially since I think a bare chested Putin is ‘overcompensating’.

 

I thought I had a good understanding on the differences between the party platforms and their underlying philosophies. But just in case they updated something that I may have missed, I figured I would hit the ol’ search engine to refresh my bearings.
My first stop was the trustworthy site Diffen.com (comparison) and I did a quick test typing in the comparisons between Democrat vs Republican vs Libertarian. And I was depressed by the results. I didn’t fit into the classic platform descriptions and attributes.
  • Since I am in favor of a flat tax and believe in free market: I am a Republican
  • Since I am pro choice and support gay marriage: I am a Democrat
  • Believe in individual rights when it comes to tolerance of other people’s property, advancement based on individual ability: I am libertarian
and to make matters worse….

 

 

Source: http://www.teluguone.com/comedy/content/political-jokes-655-6999.html
  • Since I don’t believe in taxpayer funding of religious charities: I am little bit Republican
  • Don’t believe in government regulated economy: you guessed it …not a Democrat
  • Since I actually believe in science and that climate change is not a hoax created by Al Gore and the Nobel committee: I cannot be a Republican

Therein lies the rub. The minute I say I am a Republican or Democrat  (liberal or conservative) a standard set of attributes and positions are automagically assigned to me. What ever happened to taking an issue letting it roll around the old noodle and come up with a position based on what seems right to you. Why the need for the template?

Image Source: http://thedailycannibal.com/2011/11/02/poster-boys/

So I end up being a  Republibertocrat  (or in simplified campaign terms  – the Undecided voter!). I generally lean liberal on social issues and ‘somewhat’ conservative on fiscal issues. Obviously come election time I am like the photo above-  an ‘elephant’s ass’!

Wouldn’t it be cool to customize your own vote? Hear me out, don’t laugh yet….
Here is a potential scenario – What if there were three candidates for the presidency and I was able to allocate my one vote (in parts) to the candidates and I could decide the split based on my stance on the various issues during that election year?
 …..OK maybe you can go ahead and start laughing.
Ah well..this republibertocrat/undecided/independent/liberterioconservative voter can dream!

 

You down with OPP – One Percent People?

No I don’t mean reference to the Naughty by Nature song but rather the One Percenters that have been making the news for the past few years that was the basis of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
I go to the grocery store about every week – Costco, the local Mariano’s or ethnic grocery stores and I consider myself as frugal or at least approaching frugality (with the few occasional indulgences). It is impossible to fathom how a family of four are able to get by with what is considered as “average” salary in the US.

I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher last week and he had a segment on the 1%ers and how the time to have a discussion on “Maximum Wage” in addition to “Minimum Wage”, has come. He quoted Warren Buffet – “I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million because apparently there is a lot of people who don’t know how to do it”. Also referenced was the Oxfam Report in his New Rules segment –the 85 richest people, 85, own more (wealth) than the bottom three and half billion put together, which is half the planet”.

Personally I support capitalism, as it is one of the best engines for innovations and growth . Yes you need the wealth creators to sustain/grow innovation and job growth. But there is a level of perversity that comes with the Oxfam statistic that is French Revolutionesque. Maher is also quick to pay accolades to the current crop of socially responsible billionaires who have pledged all or most of their net worth to charitable causes (The Giving Pledge).

Social Security Administration’s 2012 report shows a sobering statistic. The key summary is as follows – The “raw” average wage, computed as net compensation divided by the number of wage earners, is $6,529,097,960,690.75 divided by 153,632,290, or $42,498.21. Based on data in the table , about 67.1 percent of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the $42,498.21 raw average wage. By definition, 50 percent of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the median wage, which is estimated to be $27,519.10 for 2012. (Reference – http://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2012) . Also, over the past 40 years, wealth gains for the top 1% completely dwarf the gains for the remaining 99%.

The problem of income equality is real both in the US and globally and needs to be addressed. All indications point to this issue being a campaign point in the upcoming mid term elections and also in the 2016 Presidenial elections. What are some of the options? – controls in executive compensation, Tax reforms, not more but “optimal regulations’ are all being kicked around.

Obviously, I am not an economist, policy wonk or part of the 1% club. At the end of the day there is the real issue when you see people struggling to get by every day. You talk to people at work who have no savings cushion, borrowed – in debt to the hilt or folks who have lost their jobs and are struggling- the working poor and out of work poor!

So here is my question. While this whole debate continues and solutions are being looked at can we”increase” the use of our tax money we are spending to help ameliorate our poor?

Here is a thought — Cut defense spending and reallocate it. I know I know this has been bandied about for a while and this year’s defense budget from Hagel is a good start. But c’mon do we need to spend this much money on our defense (and the answer can’t be we need to protect the freedoms of the world).
What about the freedoms of our citizen who deserve a decent standard of living? Don’t get me wrong this is not a progressive rambling, I am in fact conservative on a lot of issues.
The chart below shows that the US spends as much in defense as the next 15 countries COMBINED!

Source: http://armscontrolcenter.org/issues/securityspending/articles/2012_topline_global_defense_spending/

And here is the allocation of of our entire US budget across various categories:

As Maher points out in his one of his previous shows –“we 
are in the Empire Building business”. We don’t leave anywhere we go”. Our threats in the 21st century are not the traditional wars we have fought in the past, rather disparate groups and organizations with stateless affiliations. We don’t need to build F-35s and Tanks or weapons that will never be used (even the Military is crying that they don’t want anymore!). Will we become less safe if we spend (say) the total defense budget of the next 6 or 7 countries combined instead of 15? I don’t know the answer but it is frustrating when we can send money to support meaningless wars when we can spend it on programs that can make an impact stateside.

So while we figure out how to improve upward mobility and reduce the income disparity can we at least make a small and immediate impact in improving the lives of our citizens?

Maybe the first step in being the “world’s police and beacon of freedom” is to take care of our own first? Now that may be a novel thought!



Blurred Lines – From Superstition to Pseudoscience

Growing up in India we had usual plethora of Gods stacked up in the “God corner”. In addition, there were the other usual suspects – a sealed pot of water from the Ganges, various dried herbs and a ton of other knick knacks – collections from various temple visits. Superstitious beliefs were intricately interwoven into the fabric of life and culture. They ranged from the harmless to the macabre. Reflecting back now it is interesting to see how these beliefs consumed you and became part of everyday life.

Prayer had to be done facing a specific direction. Idols were supposed to face a specific direction. Never understood this. Seems counter intuitive given the proposition that God is omnipresent.
Then there were auspicious days and auspicious times. Don’t leave on a trip unless it was an auspicious day (or time). Don’t embark on a new business venture unless it was an auspicious day. Parties and religious functions usually were followed by complex rituals to get rid of the “evil eye” or the “jealous eye”. If someone fell sick after relatives visited then “aha” it was the evil eye at work.A good portion of these superstitions are harmless and is an extension of OCD like behavior. Knock on wood, keep your fingers crossed, don’t pass the salt by hand etc. all things that grew from culture and folklore and are usually harmless. In this Web Md article – Psychology of Superstition, sense of security and confidence are some of the key benefits from having harmless superstitions and rituals.

The real problem starts when this morphs to pseudo sciences and belief in dangerous rituals.

Astrology is pervasive in our society. A frivolous indulgence in the daily horoscope column to check if Mars will be messing with the S&P index is one thing. Relying on astrology for every decision in your life takes it to a different level altogether.
www.cartoonstock.com 
Career Changes, Marriage, Love, Financial Decisions, Property ownership, business ventures, education etc…..the list is very long. This culminates in the head of the Indian Space Research Organization seeking blessings from a temple visit to ensure auspicious start to India’s space launch to Mars.
The assassination of Narendra Dhabolkar an Indian Rationalist who drafted the Anti Superstition Bill was horrific and tragic. It resulted in passing the bill by two Indian states to criminalize practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, and magic remedies to cure diseases. Although this is a good start there is a lot more that needs be done to address many more superstitious beliefs like Vastu Sastra (Feng Shui), fortune telling, traditional medicine men etc.
This brings me to our recent stateside buzz with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debating Ken Ham president and founder of Answers in Genesis-U.S., and the “creator” of the Creation Museum. I was saddenend by the announcement of the debate. I am an ardent fan of Bill Nye and his contributions to inculcate a curiosity in science and reason into the public discourse. However as Dan Arel wrote on the Richard Dawkins website “Scientists should not debate creationists. Period.”  “Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to,” Dawkins said in 2006. “For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.” (link to WaPo Article).(Source:www.fsteiger.com )
Some things can’t be a debate anymore and pseudo science cannot be taught in school curriculum. It is depressing to read this map of public schools in the US that are teaching creationism as a viable option to evolution. This is like teaching Astrology alongside Astronomy as a science (oh wait! the Indian University Grants Commission is offering funding to create departments in Vedic Astrology).  Unless there is more awareness and advocacy (at the risk of hyperbole), we may end up with something like this:

Of God men/women (part 1)

As you may have already read in the news Commander Selvam is “accused” of separating money from his flock (link). It is important to note that he is innocent till proven guilty. However this does bring up an interesting set of questions regarding “god men/women” and their ability to influence people by exploiting their fears to amass large sums of wealth.

If you have not heard of Commander Selvam he is a self anointed Godman (About) who promises various cures and remedies with a combination of religion and pseudoscience, and has been instrumental in the construction of various Hindu temples in North America.

Up until his recent fall from fame he was a very popular figure amongst the Indian American community and his magazine ‘Karma’ was a free pickup staple in all Indian grocery stores. The website (Link) makes for amazing and hilarious reading.

Some examples are :

  1. a) In the Fees and Dhakshina section there is this gem –“Atharva Vedic Rituals Dakshina  fees varies from US$501.00 to US$10 Million depends on the rituals, time involved, priests involved and the various specialized Vedic items to be used etc.., The atharva Vedic Rituals cannot be canceled for any reason, once agreed to start, We have 100% no return policy. No guarantee for any results or outcome of any rituals”

Makes one wonder what Vedic Ritual costs US$10Million and a 100% “no return” policy! (Cut to Homer Simpson praying to God with a plate of cookies ” Dear God if you ‘don’t’ want me to eat these cookies give me NO sign”).

  1. b)The organization runs a ‘temple M&A’ operation that is surrealistic. This is from their website – “Also, if you know any temple which needs financial support to manage the Hindu temple in any part of the Universe, we are ready to adopt”the temple and we will make sure that the temple will survive for generations. 

c)Among the various nuggets of wisdom he has imparted over the year:

– Types of women that men should avoid (Link)

– This beauty titled ” Mantras for Delayed Marriage” (Link)

In any case, there are too many to name and list, you can find the entire offering here Link.

Now that the Feds have indicted Mr. Selvam on 32 counts of swindling his congregation, credit card companies and the IRS, one wonders what is going through the throngs of “devotees” that have invested their faith, time and money with this Godman.

I have always wondered the reason for the Godman fascination. Full disclosure – I grew up attending one of these popular “missions” in India and was on a healthy diet of astrology for a long time till I reached my own personal catharsis. I can understand the value in imbuing principles from philosophers and thinkers but there is definitely a huge fall (off the proverbial logic) cliff when one ascribes to using Godmen to ward off evil spirits, resolve marriage disputes and as Dr. Selvam colorfully articulates –  “Any and All kinds of problems created by any Human and or by deadly evils”

Today God men/women are pervasive in every culture and country. Be it the Indian Guru that is pedaling pseudo science by mixing parts of scripture, yoga and medicine or the Pastor that purports he can heal the evil spirits of Satan’s minions that is the cause for homosexuality. The common themes always revolve around money, power and ability to influence, but most important of all is money.

This Washington Post Article explores the rise of Indian Godmen and their accrual of wealth and power. However this is no different from the Jerry Falwells or Ted Haggards of this country. Same MO.

So here is my list of “Signs you are intricately involved with a God man/woman or group”

  1. a) You are required to attend religious sessions of ANY frequency (daily, weekly, monthly). (Entropy should be your friend here).
  2. b) There is a direct or indirect implication of monetary contribution of any kind.(dead giveaway – Your God person is getting richer by the day and you are not).
  3. c) You are absolutely convinced that he/she materialized objects right in front of you (or some other “miracle” that defied the laws of physics (also google- “image of Jesus on the tortilla chip”).
  4. d) You readily on board vague pseudo scientific concepts into your worldview ex. hugging a God person will bring you good luck, “getting a good view of the god person in a crowd’ is a sign of good times etc.
  5. e) You are very easily able to succumb to the cognitive dissonance that as long as there is evidence of “charity and social good” being implemented all other shortcomings/departure from law are fine.
  6. f) Finally…you lead by faith in places where you should have led by reason.

One can aspire to be free from the burden of fear, superstition and God men/women. Only then as Mr. Selvam eloquently depicted on his website – we will all be…………………………