Pope Music

The new Pope has been on a tear for the past two years. If ever the term “Hope and Change” can aptly be used, it would be for His Holiness. He is fundamentally transforming the Roman Catholic institution’ thinking (not doctrines but attitudes) with some of the most liberal and progressive views. Here are a sample of his recent stances on various issues:

a) Global Warming – Pope Francis has blamed human selfishness for global warming in his long-awaited encyclical calling for action on climate change (Reference – Link )

b) in July 2013,  “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge… it is not right to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” (Reference – Link )

c) On Atheism – Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists (Reference – Link )

d) Abortion – Pope Francis opened a special, temporary, “mercy” window to make it easier for women who have abortions and confess to get back into the full good graces of the church (Reference – Link )

Don’t get me wrong he is NOT a liberal, and the softening of his positions on key issues opens up an opportunity for a conversation regarding change within an institution that has been long criticized as anachronistic. He still has to make significant changes in multiple areas such as improving the response to the pedophilia charges, contraception, female priests to name a few. As Jorge Ramos of Univision put it, ” He has delivered style but not substance (yet)”

That brings me to Free Market Capitalism. Here is a quote from Yr-2013:
[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Over the past two years, on numerous occasions the Pope has been very vocal of the “evils of capitalism” and the “Free Market” comparing “Unbridled Capitalism” as the “Dung of the Devil”

So what does all this mean to our stateside Conservatives. Clearly such positions are in conflict with our country’s conservative pro capital viewpoints. From a fiscal standpoint clearly his positions on Free Market makes our conservatives squirm, but his take on social and environmental issues really has them in an uproar.

As an outside observer of this there is a certain element of schadenfreude in watching this unravel. For years the conservatives felt they had the backing of the Church on key social issues (read – marriage, abortion, contraception etc.). Now here comes a Pope who is no longer interested in having the traditional conversations on social issues but rather would like to bring wealth inequality and climate change to the forefront of the conversation. In other words (quoting a particular right wing talk radio person) he is a “Marxist”.

So here is how a typical conversation goes:
– “Climate change is a fact” there is a broad consensus amongst almost all scientific institutions around the world
– ” How can u say that? there was a scientist in the UK who was “fudging” his research and it has been proven to be a hoax
– “Yes! that was one person and he was discredited BUT there still remains the fact that there is broad consensus”.
– I don’t believe it for the following reasons – a)climate has changed before so this is cyclical; b) it has actually been colder in the past few years; c) increasing CO2 has no effect; d)they said we will pass point of no return but we didn’t”..and so on
– “OK but let me reiterate – consensus is broad; proof is real and even the Pope has called it out as one of the most important issues of our time”
– (quoting Santorum)” “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours,”

Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic and a once long-shot contender for the Republican nomination, told a Philadelphia radio station: “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”

So riddle me this:
– We cannot take direction from the Pope on matters related to science since that should be left to the scientist.
– We cannot take direction from the Pope on matters of wealth and free markets since that should be left to the Economists
– But we should take direction from the Pope on contraception related matters since that cannot be left to the doctors or health care specialists?

The answer cannot be cause it is in the good book?….cause the good book is very specific about charity; greed and wealth. So then where does this hypocrisy originate from?

The answer – it is the “Conservative Bubble”. The beauty of this bubble is it is impenetrable to logic, reason and rational thought. The bubble is fed by a steady diet of talking points from the right wing radio and television outlets. While the so called pundits are getting rich pandering the same weak talking points, the folks who listen to them are struggling to enter or stay in the middle class.

Actual Example (s)

– One of the conservative talk show hosts allege that Boehner’s resignation was timed to coincide with the Pope’s arrival so he can spend the last month of his term executing Obama’s remaining Marxist agenda. All this because Boehner was instrumental in bringing the Pope stateside.

– Sarah Palin trying her best to equate her son’s domestic abuse to Obama’s policies (Link to Story). You just cannot argue with this kind of lunacy.

Maybe the Pope’s visit to the US was a positive harbinger of change to conservative attitudes. Or maybe I should look out the window and see if pigs are flying.

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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.

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.

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: