The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

GMO Musings

I am absolutely indifferent towards the labeling of genetically modified plants sold as food or as an ingredient in food.  I have done a whole butt-load of reading, and I have come away with the conclusion that the claims that consuming these foods that is going to endanger my health are generally baseless, and that most of the worrisome health claims are no less biased or misleading than the worst of Monsanto's paid advertising.  And while I don't necessarily care for the business practices of the companies that produce these foods, neither do I particularly care for the business practices of the companies that produce "organic" foods, or non-genetically modified standard crops.  So, if these were labelled as genetically modified, it would do very little to my own buying habits.

And yet, despite my indifference to the concept, I get annoyed whenever I hear people shout about their desire to have these things labelled.  Why?

Well, as little as I care about whether or not these products are labelled, I loathe sloppy thinking and sloganeering, and the anti-GMO movement is rife with, in fact arguably based on, sloppy thinking and sloganeering.

Some of the claims made by GMO opponents, specifically those questioning the potential for unforeseen legal complications arising from the ability to patent a self-replicating organism, may have a good deal of merit.  Even here, many of the horror stories have been exaggerated, but there are nonetheless very real concerns regarding the ownership of genetic stock and the application of patent laws to organisms that could, conceivably, get free of their approved fields. 

Parallel to the legal issues, there are ethical concerns over the ability of a company to patent genetic material.  While I don't necessarily find many of the objections convincing myself, they are nonetheless present and are worthy of consideration.

And, of course, there are more mundane but nonetheless real market concerns regarding the production and ownership of seeds from GMO crops - does the presence of GMO crops that have particularly desirable traits have the potential to warp markets in such a way that more affordable (and likely necessary to avoid a monoculture) seeds will eventually become difficult to obtain, especially for farmers in marginal environments?  There are economists who will argue either way, but we won't really know until the market becomes saturated with these products, which is rapidly occuring.

But rather than focus on these types of issues, most of the active anti-GMO demonstrators go for shock value, exploiting the "ick factor", getting people to shout slogans and stop thinking, and appealing to emotions.  On Facebook recently, I saw two overblown emotional appeals regarding GMOs.  One was a link to a petition to call for the labeling of GMOs - again, a cause to which I am entirely indifferent and to which I really have no objection even if I have no particular desire for it either - where the link bore the photograph of a little girl holding a cardboard sign with the words "I am not a science experiment" emblazoned upon it.

No, kid, you are not a science experiment, and your parents should have been ashamed for making you hold that sign.  What you are is a human, and humans have to eat, and we have a wide variety of foods available to us.  That your parents want to feed you foods that have not been altered using recently developed technology (even if they demonstrate through their protest that the do not actually understand the technology in question) is their own business, and not a big deal as far as I am concerned.  That they decided to use their child as a billboard for a misleading statement regarding their misconceptions about the way that this technology is used in order to short-cut past peoples critical faculties is disgusting.

In the other case, someone I know stated that they would not buy from a particular store because that distributor carried some food and other products in which one of the ingredients was derived from crops that had been created by Monsanto, and they did not want to "give money to a company that is trying to poison us!" I, of course, responded, pointing out that while there are legitimate issues regarding the development of any new technology, including genetic engineering, the fact of the matter is that there is no reason to assume that Monsanto is poisoning anybody, and that, again, this sort of argument is an appeal to emotion, engineered to get us to repeat it without thinking about it. 

Likewise, much of the anti-GMO rhetoric exploits the "ick factor" - the desire to get people to not like something based not on it's actual traits, but based instead on deep-seated prejudices that all of us harbor.  The labeling of genetically-modified plants as "frankenfoods" and the focus on dubious claims regarding the placement of animal (and, I have even heard it claimed, human) genetic material in plants are both examples of this - the reason why the use of such genetic material (assuming the case that someone tells you of is even happening - most of the popular examples you are likely to hear turn out to be false if you do a little research) is bad is never really articulated, it's just icky...much like the comparison to a 19th century gothic horror novel makes little sense but pushes a lot of culturally-rooted buttons.  The appeal to the "ick factor" exploits the same traits that inform both legitimate avoidance of disease, but also inter-personal prejudices and bigotry, and is one that really never results in good when we use it in place of critical thinking.

Then there's the tendency for people to be far more critical of genetic engineering than of technologies that they favor.  For example, in the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (a man for whom I have less and less use every passing day) discusses potatoes as a crop.  He spends a good deal of time examining the claims made by Monsanto for one of their particular potato crops - and it should be said that his criticisms and questions are both reasonable and well-explained.  However, he then looks to one "organic" potato farmer and accepts every damn thing that this potato farmer says, what is quite literally the farmer's sales pitch, at face value without any meaningful critical examination, and when discussing crop yields he even "fails" (I suspect intentionally, based on the rest of the book) to ask such basic questions as whether or not the yields the farmer describes are seasonal or yearly yields - this point is, in fact, left very vague in the text.  So, while he is rightfully critical of one technology, he is fawningly obseqious to the user of another, even though there are many legitimate technical and ethical concerns with organic farming methods.  He concludes the chapter by describing how he planted some Monsanto potatoes, and then threw them away without eating them...but he never actually provides a coherent, well-articulated reason for not eating them, he just sort of implies that they are somehow evil and dangerous without explicitly saying so or providing any justification.

And, so, I find myself woefully unimpressed by the majority of anti-GMO claims.  There are legitimate issues with any technology, genetic engineering included, and these issue need to be discussed.  However, making false, misleading statements and relying on emotional appeal does nothing but muddy the waters and distract from real concerns.  If people stated that they wanted the labeling done because they are concerned about the potential legal issue, or ethical concerns, or even because they just don't like big corporations (in which case, why are they buying food from a place large enough to support labeling to begin with?), then I might actually support it rather than being indifferent to it.  But given that it is part of an on-going tendency towards sloppy thinking, frequent conspiracy-mongering, and constant dishonesty, I find that I can't support it - not because I find the notion of labeling unreasonable, but because I distrust the motivation behind it.

P.S.  I was at a party some years back, when a fairly typical 30-something white affluent urbanite from San Francisco (where the party was held) asked me if I had heard about Michael Pollan.  I explained that I had, and that when I actually went and researched many of the claims ubiquitous in his writing, I routinely found him to be misleading and dishonest, more a propagandist than an educator.  She then went on about how, while he might make mistakes (umm, lady, when it's consistent even after he has been corrected by legitimate authorities, it ain't mistakes, it's intentional lies and distortion), he was a net good.  She then went about trying to explain crop rotation to me - and given as how I am A) educated, B) know a fair bit about how humans dealt with sustenance in the past, and B) grew up and spent my formative years in an agricultural community and not (like her) San Francisco, I found myself having to routinely correct her.  While she accepted the corrections, she nonetheless condescendingly kept going on about how she understood so much more about agriculture than I did while simultaneously proving that she knew next to nothing about the subject.  I had to resist the urge to clobber her with the loaf of tofu that, no joke, was sitting on the counter next to my elbow.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ancient Aliens - the Test!

The History Channel needs its ass kicked

So, you may have heard of the show Ancient Aliens.  It is on the History Channel and is basically the latest iteration of the old bullshit that alleges that the various ancient achievements of humanity couldn't have possibly been accomplished by, well, humans, and therefore it must have been aliens!

You can probably guess my reaction to this proposition.

However, like so much of the rot that's on allegedly educational television, I just sort of ignored it.

Until about a year ago.

I don't know what the hell happened, but around December 2010/January 2011, a frighteningly large number of the people that I know and encounter began to watch this damn show.  Not just watch it, but began to take it at least slightly seriously, as evidenced by the fact that I now have to routinely explain to people why producer/on-screen personality Giorgio Tsoukalos is, perhaps, not the best source for information regarding Earth's past.

On a fairly regular basis, both family members and friends contact me, by phone, or email, or just walk up and start talking to me, wanting to know about the claim that the ancient King Hamburgular of southern Podunkistan was actually a reptoid alien based on the artistic representations of him as a snake found on friezes in his palace.  I then have to explain that the friezes in question actually show King Hamburgalar's zoo, and the reason why the images look like snakes is because they are, rather clearly, images of snakes.  If the person is at my home or visiting my office, I then pull out a book on southern Podunkistan archaeology in order to prove my point.  The person with whom I am speaking will then assert that they never really believed it, but thought it was a fun idea, and wanted to ask.  But, of course, they began the conversation insinuating that they find the claim plausible, even if they didn't completely buy it.

A week later, someone, often the same person (there's a rotating cast of around seven of them) will come to me with the latest lame-brained claim from Giorgio Tsoukalos and the Ancient Aliens swarm.  And the process repeats.

             Giorgio Tsoukalos.  Gaze into the hair of madness!

I can not, for the life of me, figure out why otherwise intelligent people think that this guy has any credibility.  Leaving aside the fact that he has a surname that sounds like a Yiddish slang word for one's posterior, and that he looks like he failed to learn Don King's hair gel secrets, there's the fact that Mr. Tsoukalos never met a specious claim or false "fact" that he didn't like.  This guy has been a fixture on pseudo-science and pseudo-history shows on Discovery and the History Channel for years, and he's never made a damn lick of sense.  He always goes for whatever outrageous claim is made, no matter how clearly stupid it is, and will insist that "anyone who is open-minded" has to accept his claims, while managing to show himself to be so closed-minded that he is ready to ignore the mountains of evidence showing himself to be full of bovine feces.  On my list of trustworthy people, Tsoukalis ranks just above Biblical creationists and just below used car salesmen in plaid jackets. 

Nonetheless, I have enough interactions with people who don't know how to identify someone who's pre-frontal cortex is clearly being devoured by his own hair that I have developed something of a formula for talking to people about this show.  In fact, I think that I can convert that formula into a simple questionnaire, available for anyone to use:

1.  Is the culture depicted as influenced by aliens non-European?* 

2.  At what point in the episode did someone insist that "establishment" archaeologists are "hiding the truth" or "too cowardly to face the evidence?"  How many times was this assertion repeated after the initial statement? 

3.  Did the person making the statement also make statements indicating their ignorance of the fact that an "establishment" archaeologist can get more grant money and positive attention actually for proving a radical theory than by trying to crush it?

3.  Are the aliens said to be humanoid or reptilian?  Are they extremely tall, or quite squat? 

4.  What best describes the shape of the alien spaceship: A) Dinner Plate; B) Cigar; C) Arrowhead; D) Hamburger?

5.  How often did the presenter or "experts" on the show make unverifiable claims?  A) Once per ten minutes; B) Two-to-four times per ten minutes; C) Five or more times per ten minutes; D) No actually verifiable claim was made during the episode - or, all claims made were unverifiable.

6.  Please circle each of the following items that it is claimed in this episode was part of the ancient knowledge that is being covered up by archaeologists: 
    Super Technology   

    Not-so-super technology that nonetheless was too advanced
    for these primitive savages to have had without alien
    The Existence of the Soul   
    The "True extraterrestrial" origins of humanity   
    Astronomical knowledge only recently re-learned by NASA   
    Astronomical knowledge still unknown to NASA  

    Why people ever thought that Jim Carrey was funny

    Super healing (which nonetheless somehow did not raise the average life expectancy
    above the age of 35)

7a.  How many times during the course of the episode did the "experts" compare themselves to (or compare their claims to the theories of) either Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, or Galileo?

7b.  If they compared themselves to Isaac Newton, did they also compare themselves to Isaac Hayes?  If not, why not?

8a.  How many times per episode did somebody state that they would easily give up their "ancient alien" claim if only there were another explanation available?     

8b.  How much video was then given over to that individual going to a library, or even doing a Wikipedia search, to look up other possible, non-alien, explanations?

9.  Did anyone in the episode insist that "establishment" archaeologists refuse to take their claims seriously, and then appear later in the episode stating that they were unwilling to look at the work of the "establishment" archaeologists?**

10. Was quantum physics at any point mentioned as an explanation for anything in the episode?

Now, fill out this questionairre for each episode watched.  Keep the questionairres, and once you have seen ten episodes, begin looking for patterns.  If that doesn't convince you of the level of bullshit that the Ancient Aliens crew likes to produce, you may want to consider upping your medication dosages.

*This is important, as it is typically not white people who are accused of being incapable of developing civilization/technology/non-stick pan coating.  If the alien-influenced culture is European, the claim is still delusional, but at least it's not racist.

**Just pointing this out - if you insist that everyone else look at your work and take it seriously, but you refuse to look at the work of the professional and trained people who have dedicated their lives to this, then you are a tool and a hypotcrite.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Meanwhile, in an Indiana Jones Movie...

A few minutes ago, I was called over to the office of one of the other archaeologists who works for my company.  A woman was sitting in his extra chair while he stood over his desk staring down at three items spread out on it: a large ovoid chunk of sandstone with a crude face carved into it and a groove carved along the backside (as if it were intended to be bound by rope with the face hidden from view), a pestle carved from an unknown stone* with a strange ridge pattern on the handle, and a soapstone carving of a crouching man with his hands clenched at his chest.  My boss took photos (which I don't currently have access to, but I will try to get them), and we both asked her questions.  We couldn't say much about the artifacts, but they did appear to be consistent in design and materials with Aztec sculpture.

Seems that the objects were given to her by an elderly Mexican woman who had once lived on a large estate in Mexico.  However, our visitor's grasp of Spanish coupled with the donor's grasp of English were insufficient to allow a more detailed description of the item's provenance to be gained.

So, we have sent the photos on to a few people we know who are experts in Aztec and Meso-American archaeology, and we will see what comes of this. 

Still, this seems like the sort of thing that belongs in an adventure movie.  A woman (who, naturally, was a redhead dressed all in black) comes by our office asking out opinion about three mysterious artifacts that came to her by way of a convoluted route, and she can't find information on what they are or what, if anything, they mean.  I spend alot of time trying to disabuse people of the notion that my job in any way resembles and Indiana Jones story...and then this happens.

Now we're just waiting for some guy in a trench coat who speaks with a vaguely European accent to come by the office, threateningly asking if we know the whereabouts of these artifacts.

And, of course it has been pointed out to me that this occurred in 2012, no doubt meaning that these items are in some way connected to the impending Mayan apocalypse, despite the fact that they are more likely Aztec.

*As archaeologists are not geologists, this is, it must be said, not an unusual description.  So, when you hear someone talk about a "mysterious artifact of unknown material", remember that the "unknown material" part is usually an admission of the archaeologist's ignorance, and not a convincing statement about the allegedly mysterious nature of the item.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Computers, Encyclopedias, and Status

As a graduate student, I read an article about a small, isolated fishing village in southeast Asia, where changes to the world's economy brought a relative increase in local wealth.  What did many of the fishermen in this village do with their new-found money?  they bought televisions.  This seems straightforward enough to most of us - the village was isolated, and the purchase of a television would allow the villagers to hear about life in the outside world, to become more connected to events outside of their small town. 

Unfortunately, there was no electricity to power the televisions.  Now, the reaction to most people who hear of this is something along the lines of "wow, those foolish third-world fishermen!  Buying televisions that they can't use!  What rubes!"  In fact, I had a similar reaction when I had read that part of the article.  The reason for this reaction, though, is that those of us who live in a wired world where television, radio, and the internet are ubiqituos fail to grasp and aspect of life in this village that I suspect many of our grandparents and great-grandparents might have been in a better position to understand.  That the television wouldn't work without electricity was beside the point.  The televisions were status objects - ownership of them signaled to other villagers that the person with the television had both sufficient funds to purchase a television and that they were, in this way, more like the higher-status people in the more affluent parts of the world.  The purchase of the television wasn't about being able to watch it, it was about being perceived as the sort of person who owns such a thing.  The point wasn't to watch television programs, but rather to gain the status inherent in the ownership of the television.

Viewed in this way, the behavior of the villagers ceases to be a story of naive hicks who don't know nuthin' 'bout this here 'lectricity, and becomes the more accurate story of people living in a community where social status is vitally important and maintained in part through the ownership of goods that signal status.

And lest you think that this is a tendency relegated to villages in southeast Asia, consider the mania that we as a culture have over useless crap and sub-optimal materials that have a particular designer label, political affiliation or meaning, or are associated with a high-status individual or lifestyle (status here not necessarily meaning wealth or socio-economic standing, but rather a lifestyle to which members of a group or sub-culture aspire).  We may not buy televisions for places that are off-the-grid, but we engage in the same sorts of materials.  Even groups that pride themselves on throwing off the shackles of consumer culture engage in it.  Labels such as "organic", "free range", "natural", "spiritual", and "holistic" have often dubious meanings, but are applied to products and services in order to appeal to the desire for in-group status of people of a progressive political bent just as brand names such as "BMW" and "Versace" appeal to the more traditionally status conscious.  At times it's not even a label, as such, but rather an association: hemp as opposed to cotton because of the political associations of a hemp purchase, for example*. And of course the Right-wing crowd, traditionally religious people, the Skeptic movement, etc. all have their own version.  The motivation to purchase many items or services is motivated less than a need for that item or service or even the perceived good of doing so (in many cases, the purchase may even be counter-productive if actually analyzed) than we are by the desire to be seen by others (and even see ourselves) as the "type of person who buys/uses/likes" the thing in question.  As such, we are not so different from the villagers purchasing unusable televisions.

I thought about this today as I read this article on the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica's print edition.  While many people are either praising or demonizing this as a triumph of Wikipedia's "open source" model vs. Britannica's so-called "closed source" approach, the article makes a pretty compelling case that this has far more to do with the use of material goods to build and maintain status (my words, not the authors) than it does with any sort of technical or social aspect of Wikipedia. 

When I was a kid, by which I mean from the time I was born until I graduated from high school, computers were not ubiquitous.  Most people that I knew did not own a computer, as they were seen as being of little practical use for most people up until I was a teenager, and even then the internet didn't become a tool of widespread common use until I was in my twenties.  Thinking back, when I was in high school, those of us with computers in our home were small in number, and our parents usually viewed the computer as an educational investment - though they were often unclear as to how exactly it was supposed to aid in our educations.  However, they wished to be seen as the sorts of people who would invest in their children's education, and as such would buy the trappings of such a thing even if they didn't understand precisely how it was supposed to help us.  By contrast, the encyclopedia had long been seen as an investment in education (though there is research from the publishers themselves that indicates that the books were rarely opened and my own experience is that many people weren't quite clear how, precisely, to use them as reference tools) and as such were common in households without computers, and even most of those with them, provided that the adults of the household wanted to see themselves and be seen by others as the sort of people who invested in the children's education..

In the time since then, computers have become more widespread, and better understood.  Nowadays, it's a rare parent who doesn't have some understanding of how a computer can contribute to their child's education, making the purchase of a computer a widely agreed upon educational investment, meaning that someone wanting to be seen as the sort of person who makes such an investment can buy the tools that actually and clearly achieve this end. 

In the end, the computer may have won because it conveys the status that a set of encyclopedias once did, but simultaneously also is an tool that people know how to use and, importantly, want to use in a way that perhaps they did not want to use an encyclopedia..

*Yes, I know, there are applications for which hemp is ideally suited.  However, it is abundantly clear that many, perhaps the majority of, hemp purchasers buy the products because they are "making a statement", and gaining status within their peer group, rather than for practical reasons.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ignorant Savage Miners!

Some years back, I witnessed a discussion that contained a rather bizarre form of racism, and it's the sort of thing that I have not really been able to get out of my head since.

I was working on a project in the Sierra Nevadas, near the heart of the Gold Rush territory, and amongst the historic features that we were having to evaluate were a set of mining ditches.  Mining ditches, for those unaware, are, just as the name implies, ditches dug into the ground (often on the slopes of hills and mountains) to transport water for the purposes of running sluices and later for using gravity to pressurize water used in hydrologic strip mining.  In the Sierra Nevada, the mountainous terrain meant that many systems contained both ditches that run downhill and along the slopes and flumes that crossed drainages, gaps, and often were affixed to the sides of particularly steep mountains. 

For this project, we held regular meetings with representatives from the Native American organizations that hisotrically lived in the area.  For the most part these meetings were interesting and yielded good results.  But sometimes very odd things came of them.

In on particular meeting, talk turned to the Gold Rush-era sites.  The Native American representatives had typically shown little interest in these sites, but on this day they wanted to discuss them in-depth.  When we got to a discussion of the mining ditches, one of the representatives stated "well, these ditches all follow ones used by the Indians"  When asked why she had made this claim, her response was "well, they have to have.  I mean, those miners didn't have engineers to build the ditches, so they had to follow the routes put there by the Indians!"  She was then asked if she knew of any such ditches being made by the native peoples of the area, and what the ditches were used for, and she responded that she didn't know of anything of the sort, but reiterated that they must have existed because otherwise these miners wouldn't have had anything to follow and they wouldn't have been able to make their ditches.

Historically, the true accomplishments of Native Americans have often been denied by citing the alleged engineering knowledge necessary to build the earthworks of the midwest and southeast, or the pyramids and cities in Central America and South America, or the amazing cliff dwellings of the southwest...and then denying that the Native Americans had any such knowledge.  Then, naturally, claims about various people from all over the world who "clearly colonized the Americas" were floated, each one pointing out that "a savage couldn't have constructed these amazing structures!"  Of course, the native peoples did build these things, and were able to develop the technical know-how necessary to do so.  It was nothing but racism that led people to assume otherwise.

And here I was, with a Native American representative telling me that a group of 19th century miners must have copied ditches from the Native Americans because they lacked the technical knowledge necessary to build them.  This buried the needle on my irony meter, and when I returned home I had to find a repair shop to recalibrate it. 

Some of the mining ditches are spectacular feats of engineering, to be certain.  And most of these truly spectacular ones were, in fact, designed by engineers who were hired by the firms that owned the giant mining companies that characterize later gold mining in the Sierra Nevadas.  Many of the ditches, though, were very simple hand-dug channels that flowed downhill - I could build one, and I am no engineer.  The in-between ones, the ones that were impressive but didn't scale cliffs or require miles and miles of complex scaffolding to keep them aloft?  Well, those ones would require a certain amount of know-how, and yes, a native person could gain that known-how through trial-and-error and through keen observation.  A farmer from, say, the east coast of the United States who has had to deal with moving water for irrigation would come with that know-how based on past experience. 

It is entirely possible that the native peoples of the area did construct some ditches for their own purposes prior to the Gold Rush.  I can think of a few potential uses for such constructs, and they certainly had the degree of technical sophistication necessary to do so.  But the idea that the miners had to occupy native ditches because they were too stupid or ignorant to create their own?  That's just weird.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Conscience Meets Reality, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Other People's Sex Lives

So, the Blunt Amendment (full text here) was voted down two weeks ago.  The Blunt Amendment, for those not in the know, would have altered the requirements placed on employers that provide health insurance to their employees so that they would not be required to have insurance coverage that provided services that the employer or the insurance company finds morally objectionable.  As spelled out in the amendment itself:

FOR HEALTH PLANS.—A health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide the essential health benefits package described in subsection (a) (or preventive health services described in section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act), to fail to be a qualified health plan, or to fail to fulfill any other requirement under this title on the basis that it declines to provide coverage of specific items or services because— (i) providing coverage (or, in the case of a sponsor of a group health plan, paying for coverage) of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan; or (ii) such coverage (in the case of individual coverage) is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the purchaser or beneficiary of the coverage.

Now, the sponsors and supporters of this amendment claim that this wasn't about contraception coverage.  However, the entire mess was spurred by the president requiring contraception to be covered by all employee-offered insurance plans, a rule with which the Catholic Church (which objects to contraception due to some rather dubious readings of the Bible) did not want to comply.  The discussion on the floor kept delving into discussions of contraceptive coverage while the representatives kept insisting that this isn't what it was actually about.  The amendment got the support of evangelical churches that have for the last few years been opposed to contraceptives because...well, on some ill-defined alleged principle that seems to shift with the days.  So, um, yeah, this was about contraceptives.  This time around, but it is part of a larger issue, which I will get to shortly.

Still, regardless of what spurred it, this sounds reasonable on the surface.  If you run an insurance company, or you are an employer who offers insurance, shouldn't you be allowed to only offer those things that comport with your religious or moral views?  The Blunt Amendment is part of an on-going debate in the country regarding the "right to conscience" of individuals and organizations - that is, the ability for individuals and organizations to not provide products and services that are within their job description, but which they find morally repugnant. 

Not requiring people to do things that they find morally repugnant or religiously offensive is, even I will admit, a good principle.  The problem is, that like every good principle, it is a stark black-and-white concept that, unfortunately, has to be applied to the very "shades of grey" real world. 

Let's continue to use the Blunt Amendment as an example.  The amendment failed (though a similar bill is alive and well in the Arizona legislature, and I suspect we'll see it crop up in other state legislatures as well), but it's not the first time that such a things has risen, nor will it be the last, and it is pretty standard as these sorts of things go, so, failed or not, it's a good one to examine.  As worded, the law allows employers or insurers to deny coverage for any service or product that is found to be religiously offensive or morally wrong.  This means that Catholic-owned businesses and institutions would not be required to cover contraceptives.  However, it also means that:

- Jehovah's Witness run organizations and businesses could decline to cover any medical procedure that involves a blood transfusion, even if the transfusion is absolutely necessary to keep someone alive.

- It means that ultra-orthodox Jewish and Muslim owned businesses and institutions can refuse to cover any medical procedure in which a person might be seen by a physician, nurse, or technician of the opposite sex.

- It means that employers who are white supremacists can refuse to cover procedures that they believe will somehow taint the "racial purity" of a person (this can include any number of things, from blood transfusions to organ transplants, to not allowing patients to be seen by medical professionals of other ethnicities).

- It means that employers who believe that sexually transmitted diseases are God's punishment for immoral behavior can refuse to cover the costs of treatment of these diseases (and, likely, based on the rhetoric often employed by such people, this would include those who were infected by rape or by an unfaithful spouse).

- It means that a New-Agey sort of employer can refuse coverage for all standard medical treatment because they object to the nature of the medical industry, requiring their employees to go to exotic and useless snake oil salesmen.

...and the list goes on.  Moreover, this provides a neat loophole for an employer who doesn't want to offer any coverage - if they can concoct a reason why they find medical coverage morally unacceptable, then they can simply not offer it.  This may or may not stand up in court, but if the amendment had passed it would only be a matter of time before someone tried this.

Now, you may be saying "oh, Come on, Armstrong, those aren't going to happen, you're blowing this out of proportion."  Follow the link above and read the entire amendment.  You see the parts where there is clear language protecting the rights of employees or ensuring that the amendment won't be taken to lunatic extremes?  No?  Yeah, that's because those parts of the amendment don't fucking exist.  To be certain, there are other laws that would articulate on these issues, and those might hold sway in court, but it seems absurd to create a situation in which you would have to end up in court just to find out what the limits of an overly-expansive measure are.

That's not to say that the people who wrote, sponsored, and voted for this amendment wouldn't agree that it would be absurd to prohibit someone from seeing a doctor of the opposite sex, getting a blood transfusion, or being able to see a real doctor and not some pyramid-power card reader.  In fact, they would probably be outraged if they heard that a Jehovah's Witness who owned a contracting business was unwilling to allow insurance coverage for emergency blood transfusions for their employees. But, outraged or not, these politicians and the voters who support them would have created the situation in which that was guaranteed to occur.  Why?  Because these people fail to grasp the clear and logical consequences of their actions (well, at least the voters fail to, I'm rather more cynical regarding the politicians who I think are just pandering for votes, consequences be damned).

Although the medical examples have been getting alot of attention lately (specifically focused on contraception and abortion), there is a definite move to get "conscience clauses" applied to a wide range of fields.

Here's the thing: do you believe that Jehovah's Witness employers should be allowed to deny insurance coverage for emergency transfusions?  Do you think that a district attorney should be allowed to not prosecute a homicide suspect because the victim was gay and the attorney's religion is anti-gay?  Do you think that a firefighter should be allowed to not put out a fire at a church because the firefighter honestly believes that religion is evil and should be stomped out?  Do you think that a doctor should be allowed to hide from a patient that she has an ectopic pregnancy (a type of pregnancy that typically can not come to term, and often kills the mother) because the doctor's religion is opposed to abortion even in cases where BOTH the mother and child WILL die if the pregnancy is not aborted (bills supporting this are in many state legislatures, and passed in Arizona)?  Do you think that a Justice of the Peace (which is a County employee and not a member of the clergy) should be allowed to refuse to marry an inter-racial couple because they have a moral objection to miscegenation?  Do you think that the possible situations I list above should all be allowed? If the answer to any one of these questions is "no", then you don't actually believe in the "conscience clauses" as they currently exist, regardless of what you might say.

In fact, if you answered "no" to any of those questions, then you believe, like I do, that people should not be required to do things against their religious or moral stances whenever possible.  That last part, the "whenever possible" is important, because it acknowledges that we live in a world where stark black-and-white stances almost always crack before reality, and where we have to use such views as guides to navigate the world around us without ever loosing site of the fact that strict adherence in all cases is impossible. 

This is an important acknowledgement because it allows us to start actually solving problems, rather than just making them worse by bowing to the stupid demands of deranged extremists.  It allows us to see that the real question is not "should people be required to do things that go against their moral or religious positions" and instead lets us address the REAL question: When and under what circumstances should people be required to do things that go against their moral or religious positions?  Under what circumstances does one's responsibility to others outweigh one's own views?  Anyone with one ounce of sense realizes that we are social animals, and that there will be times when our responsibility to those around us will have to outweigh our own desires, interests, and views regarding morality and religion.

When looked at this way, most of us would probably agree that a Jehovah's Witness's desire to not perform a blood transfusion is trumped by his responsibilities as an emergency room surgeon.  We would recognize that a white supremacist's desire to let an African-American man be beaten is trumped by his responsibilities as a police officer.  We would recognize that a Christian Scientist's religious views regarding disease are trumped by his responsibilities as an insurance provider to provide adequate coverage to the people enrolled in his programs.  If your religious views prevent you from being able to faithfully execute the job, then perhaps you should not go into that line of work.

The question, rather than being a broad one that will be designed to avoid contentious issues (while allowing the sorts of scenarios described above), allowing politicians to push agendas that most of us actually wouldn't like, would get specific.  We would still have contention and argument over contraceptives and abortion, but at least then the people trying to make policy would have to honestly argue for their positions on the merit of those positions, and not make dishonest but broad claims about how this isn't an issue regarding the matter at hand, but is about some vaguely defined thing designed to get people to shut off their critical faculties.

We may also find that these issues become more complex, because reality is complex.  It's one thing for a pharmacist in downtown Los Angeles to refuse to fill out a prescription for contraceptives - it's downtown Los Angeles, there are plenty of pharmacists in easy reach.  The only pharmacist in a rural county in Florida, though?  Does that pharmacist get the same consideration, or do local conditions require different rules?  It's a tough question without an easy answer, but it's the sort of question that we have to face when we look at these sorts of issues honestly.

The people pushing the "conscience clauses" don't even believe in them.  They believe that their beliefs (usually evangelical Christian or Catholic) should be respected, that they should not be required to do things that they dislike.  However, if you bother to listen to them, they make it clear that, even though the policies they favor would render it so, the same should not be extended to Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Christian Scientists, New Age believers, etc.  So, let's call them on their bullshit.  The first step is to not fall for their bullshit, but to see it for what it is.  The second step is to pick up the more specific, but very real, question of what we should be able to require of people with respect to a particular issue.  The question isn't whether or not people should ever be required to act against their beliefs, it's when and under what circumstances should we expect them to be required to.  Every one of us actually agrees that these circumstances exist, whether we will admit to it or not.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Truths, Damn Truths, and Statistics!

It happened again this week.  While arguing about the safety of a medication, I pointed to statistical data regarding the medicine in question's effecacioussness and rates of pronounced side-effects.  The person with whom I was arguing looked at me and said: "you, Mr. Armstrong, need to remember that each of those numbers you're quoting represents a person!  A fact that you seem too ready to forget!"

No, I don't forget that each of those numbers represents a person.  In fact, if I thought of them as just numbers and not people, I wouldn't be bothering to argue.  I am very well aware that each set of numbers represents real, living people.  People living complex lives in a world full of confounding circumstances that influence their behaviors, their beliefs, and their actions.  Each number or set of numbers represents an individual, unique an irreplaceable in numerous ways, and describes in some way their experience with a medication, controlled substance, interaction with a government agency, etc. etc. etc.

I am aware that these numbers represent people.  I am fully, sometimes painfully, aware of this fact.  It is the people who accuse me of forgetting it who don't seem to grasp this fact.

How do I know this?  Simple: the people who accuse me, and others in my position, of forgetting that the statistics represent people are all too ready to throw those numbers, each of which represents the experiences of an individual, away when they are inconvenient.  When the numbers agree with what a person wants to believe, they are usually only too ready to accept and quote them.  When the numbers disagree, well, they are to be forgotten, or better yet, disparaged.  In effect, the experiences of individuals, of real people, that don't conform to the preferred outcome are ignored, insulted, or hand-waved away.  Invariably, the statement isn't rooted in a desire to see individual cases as having value, but in the desire for the beliefs of the person making the accusation to take precedence over hard facts.

Of course, there are issues that aren't answered with numbers.  There are questions that are not empirical in nature.  And certainly, there are those who ignore this and try to apply empiricism where it doesn't belong.  But these people are few in number, and invariably on the fringe.  Likewise, there are those who will mis-use statistical tools to create false equivalences or show dubious correlations, or simply drown their opponent in a sea of data regardless of how relevant the data actually is (but, of course, these people can be stopped by the correct application of math, not the dismissal of it).  Far more common are those who want to pretend that empirical questions are not empirical, who want to pretend that their personal assumptions trump physical realities.  And you will find these people both advocating and opposing various positions.  You will find them on the political right and the political left.  You will find them in every issue, not matter how well settled the data actually is.

It doesn't matter what issue is being discussed: the safety or effectiveness of medicines, the effectiveness of crime-reduction techniques and measures, the effects of one sex-ed program vs.another as regards rates of STDs and pregnancies, the effects of various substances on pregnancy and on young children, the influence (or lack thereof) of religious belief on lawful behavior, the influence of concealed firearms on violent crime, and so on and so forth.  If it's a question that is best answered with quantitative data based on the experiences of a large number of people, you will find people who readily dismiss the statistics, unequivocally the best way to gather such information and see the patterns.  And those who want to dismiss the statistics will almost always say something to the effect of "you, Mr. Empirical-Data, are forgetting that these statistics represent people!"

But, of course, it's the person who wants the data dismissed or downplayed who truly is forgetting that the data represents people.  It's the person who wants to engage in warm-fuzzy talk about how "we are all individuals, not numbers" who is ready to throw away the experiences of huge numbers of real individuals in order to win an argument.  It's the person that tries to claim that statistics are somehow de-humanizing who is only too ready to dismiss the experiences of their fellow humans in order to avoid losing the argument or ceding the point. 

No, I don't forget that the numbers represent people.  But if you go about proclaiming that those with whom you disagree are ignoring the individual in favor of the numbers, then likely it is you who is ignoring that the numbers represent people.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cataloging Booze

I am reviewing a report that describes the excavation of a historic-era site in Los Angeles County.  The reports authors have divided the description of the artifacts found into several categories based on the cataloging typology used by the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.  These categories include Structural Artifacts (items such as nails, parts of beams, electrical bits and bobs that are part of the structure of a building), Domestic Artifacts (objects that are not part of a house's structure, but belong to a household - utensils, furniture parts, medicine bottles, etc.), Activity-Related Artifacts (items from activities not related to structures or the day-to-day functioning of a household, including work tasks as well as entertainment),and Personal Artifacts (including articles of clothing, children's toys, and other items likely to belong to an individual rather than a household).

A sub-category of Personal Artifacts is Personal Indulgences, and a sub category of Personal Indulgences is Alcohol-Related Artifacts.

This seems very, very odd to me.

While the solitary consumption of alcohol is, of course, nothing new, the assumption that artifacts related to alcohol consumption belong in the sub-category of Personal Indulgences and not the category of Domestic Artifacts or Activity-Related Artifacts is rather odd.  Certainly, alcohol has long been a contentious substance, and demonization of it is no more new than solitary consumption of it, but while ambivalence towards alcohol may be an old phenomenon, the particular notion that it is specifically a personal indulgence more than something for household or entertainment use seems to smack somewhat of us projecting our particular flavor of ambivalence onto the people of the past.

Use of alcohol at family meals is not uncommon across the world.  While alcohol consumption by children is often (though not always) limited by social practices, it has historically been quite common in many cultures (including many that have occupied the United States) for wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages to form an important part of daily meals.  Far from being the "demon liquor" of personal vice, this was simply a standard part of household provisions.  And many of these drinking customs continued even well after their practical causes (in those cases where practical causes existed) became irrelevant. 

What's more, anthropologists have long acknowledged the role of alcohol in social gatherings.  Alcohol has long been, and of course continues to be, a significant component of social gatherings and entertaining.  So, it's odd that alcohol paraphernalia, is not included amongst the domestic debris, would not be placed in the same category as entertainment-related artifacts.

And, of course, there's the fact that throughout the 19th and early 20th century, consumable alcohol was often kept as a medical supply (it still is for some purposes, though not as frequently as in the past).  Meaning, once again, that there is a potential domestic use of alcohol in addition to meals and entertaining.

It's worth noting that much of the anti-alcohol propaganda of the late 19th and early 20th century focused on beer halls, saloons, and taverns as places of evil (hence prohibition, which was far more strict regarding drinking establishments than personal ownership and consumption), while much of our current worries about alcohol focus on the solitary alcoholic, the person who drinks alone and can't get through the day without his flask.  I suspect that the placement of alcohol-related artifacts in this catalog system is indicative of our current attitudes.

Friday, March 9, 2012

At Least Oppose the Things That the President Has Actually Done!

As I have noted before, I have grown to hate election years.  What I hate about them is the tendency for politicians and pundits of all political stripes and from all parts of the political spectrum to make false claims, promote nonsense, and generally mislead, lie to, and delude the public in the name of getting votes for "my side."  Worse, it's a showcase for the way in which the public - people who really are smart enough to see through the bullshit - readily buy into all of this rather than critically examine claims made by the politicians that they support.

I hate it.  It's like an on-going demonstration and microcosm of everything that is wrong with the nation.

This time around, the Democrats are in office, and so the Republicans are spending most of their time attacking the president - remember, in 2004 and 2008 it was the other way around.  However, while there is always hyperbole and some degree of nonsense surrounding the opposition views of the sitting president and his party, this year seems to really be going off the rails and abandoning reality.

Now, for the record, I don't particularly care for Obama.  I dislike the fact that the health care reform bill that he pushed requires me, as a citizen, to buy a product from a private company.  I dislike his advocating the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas.  I dislike his continued use of dubious and intrusive intelligence gathering within the U.S.  I dislike the fact that he has not made the office of the president more transparent as promised, but has instead continued with many of the Bush administration's policies obfuscating the executive office's actions and policies.  Unlike most other people I know who voted against McCain, I'm not disillusioned - I never thought that Obama was anything but just another politician, and I am aware that his activities are just continuing the trajectory set for the presidential office as early as the 1960s.  I don't like him, but I am at least aware that he is a standard-issue politician and not some spawn-of-Satan-Jihadi-Communist hell bent on destroying the world.

But, here's the difference between me and most of the other people who don't like him - including what appears to be the bulk of the Republican party - I don't like him because of things that he has actually done.  I am not resorting to pure fantasy to find things to dislike.  I am not comparing him to Hitler or Stalin, he is clearly neither (nor were either of the Bushes, Reagan, Clinton, Carter, or Nixon before him); I am not accusing him of declaring a "war on Christianity" - such notions are absurd when you actually look at his real policy decisions and positions regarding religion (hint: if anything, he edges a little too close to state advocation of religious, and specifically Christian, beliefs); he does not advocate "death panels" (the section of the health care bill that people cite regarding these alleged "death panels" don't require anything too terribly different from the system used by health insurance companies, and in fact might require health care in situations where the current system denies it).  In short, the most common reasons people give for opposing him are not only distortions, they are often complete and utter fabrications.

Rick Perry ran campaign commercials in which he stated that he was opposed to Obama's "war on religion."  What war on religion?  If anything, Obama has been about as lenient towards religious groups as most other recent presidents.  That he is less likely to single evangelical Christianity out for special treatment doesn't mean that he has declared war on it, it means, as Jon Stewart has put it, that evangelical Christians have confused not getting their way with being persecuted (hint: persecution is completley different from not getting your way...oh, and buy a dictionary, and then look up the word "persecution").

Of course, every Republican knows that Obama is a socialist.  Except, as it turns out, socialism looks pretty damn different from Obama's favored and enacted policies.  In fact, if someone calls Obama a socialist, that's a pretty damn clear indication that they don't actually know what the term Socialist means (for those who are confused, follow the link and listen to an actual socialist describe what socialism actually is, and then actually look at the public record of what the President has actually done and advocated - you will see that the two don't match up at all...oh, and, once again, buy a dictionary, but this time look up the word "socialist").  Indeed, the American Socialist Party is getting pretty damn tired of people claiming that Obama's views match theirs in any way, shape, or form.

Recently, I saw numerous people compare his rule requiring Catholic-run institutions to provide contraceptive coverage (excluding the church itself, this only applied to businesses and non-church facilities run by the Catholic Church) to Hitler's regulations requiring Jewish-owned business to pay special taxes and Jewish people to be singled out for abuse.  The mind boggles.  Hitler forced Jewish people to do something different from everyone else, they were singled out for different treatment.  The Catholic-run institutions, on the other hand, were being required to do the same thing that every other institution is required to do - they were not only not being singled out, they were being told that they were required to play by the same rules as everyone else.  It's the polar opposite of what Hitler did.  Now, you may disagree with this rule, and that's your prerogative.  But disagree with what has actually occurred rather than with fabricated bullshit.

Likewise, I keep hearing people describe Obama's election as the crowning achievement of a conspiracy of America-haters to get someone who hates the country as much as they do into office.  If you actually look into Obama's career and life, it becomes clear that, like Bush before him, and Clinton before him, and Bush Sr. before him, and Reagan before him, Obama loves the country.  I dislike his policies, I dislike his continued expansion of the executive office, I wish someone else was president (though I am not delusional enough to think that McCain would have made a big difference in most of the things that concern me), but looking at reality and ignoring stupid, ignorant, imbecilic rhetoric designed purely for manipulative political purposes leaves me with no way to deny that Obama is patriotic, just like the other occupants of the Oval Office before him.  You don't have to like him to accept this reality - hell I dislike Bush Jr., Reagan, Clinton, and Nixon, but I will accept that all of them were patriotic.  The notion that he got elected in order to destroy the country is astoundingly idiotic.  As Christina H. over at explains (in her reason #1 why people will never understand each other):

Most of us don't have to deal with dictators or terrorists every day, but we apply this same cartoon mentality to people in our own country. A lot of people didn't see President Bush as a guy with good intentions and stupid, wrong policies but as a vile being intentionally trying to "destroy America." Similarly, a lot of people opposed to Obama now are positive he can't really believe his policies will help America, but that he is deliberately, for some reason, trying to destroy America and make it inferior to Europe, because I guess he can't wait to be the leader of a second-rate country.

Sure, politicians might not have the purest motives, but nobody wants to fucking tank their own country while they are in charge so that everyone in the whole world can know that they screwed it up. A bad person might be motivated by greed, pride or any other deadly sin, but whatever awful thing they're after, it's supposed to benefit themselves in some way. At least the accusation about Bush starting the Iraq War just to get Halliburton some business made sense from a human nature perspective, even if it's pretty oversimplified and hyperbolic.
It's sad when an internet humor columnist demonstrates a much firmer grasp on reality than half of the nation's voters and pretty much all of the radio personalities commenting on politics.

Here's the thing - every sitting politician, no matter how good and virtuous, has done things worthy of criticism.  A run-of-the-mill politician such as the current president has done many, many things worthy of criticism.  But, if you are going to be critical of the president, be critical of what they actually have done or what the actually advocate doing.  This applies to both Democrats and Republicans, as well as every independent and third-party supporter.

However, right this moment, as demonstrated by the support gained by such reality-challenged people as Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney (as well as the now thankfully gone support once enjoyed by Bachmann, Cain, and Perry), the Republicans are most in need of an infusion of reality.  The Republican party has some very good people and some very good ideas that we all benefit from having in the political sphere, so, Republicans, please don't let the anti-reality bullshit relegate your party to nothing more than the punchline of future historian's jokes.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Credible Hulk

Dr. Walter Simpson Stanley, better known to the world these days as the Credible Hulk, is arguably one of the lesser known super-humans, or "parahumans" to use the current media buzzword, wandering the world today.  Though less known than his "parasibling," Dr. Bruce Banner, Dr. Stanley is nonetheless a remarkable individual in his own right. 

Dr. Stanley, like Dr. Banner, worked for the federal government at a lab in New Mexico.  Unlike Dr. Banner, Dr. Stanley was not given to either pointlessly dangerous stunts, or to grandstanding. 

Also unlike Banner, Stanley was not a jerk.  Though known to the wider world for his exploits both solo and as a member of the super Team, the Avengers, Dr. Banner was best known amongst his scientific colleagues for his mean-spirited practical jokes, and his tendency to lecture others on the importance of his own work, or the superiority of his own morality.  Indeed, after he treated Dr. Stanley's nachos with gamma radiation (in a work place prank that some believe to be the origin of the Credible Hulk's somewhat mediocre powers), Banner then lectured his co-workers about the importance of keeping non-project personnel of off the test range, when it was his own negligence that had led to someone wandering onto it and almost getting dosed with Gamma Rays to begin with.

By contrast, Dr. Stanley was, and remains, known for being hard-working, stable, intelligent, competent, and if one dares to say it, he is known for being credible. 

Like his bigger, bulkier former co-worker, the key to activating the Credible Hulk is anger.  However, the Credible Hulk has a more muted response to anger.  Certainly, he bulks up, but he does not become 15-feet tall, as Dr. Banner is known to brag about himself.  No, the Credible Hulk gains height and weight noticeably, but just enough to make regular-fitting clothing uncomfortable - he has taken to wearing sweat pants, exercise clothes, and even a few articles of particularly butch maternity wear in order to avoid getting sudden-growth rashes from more non-elastic clothing.

The Credible Hulk is certainly stronger than non-hulked Dr. Stanley, but he doesn't go about flinging tanks or breaking through brick walls.  His strength is more along the lines of a bush-league luchadore - not insubstantial, but hardly inhuman.  Indeed, the most damage that the Credible Hulk has ever done due to not known his own strength was causing muscle strain in his wrist and bruising the tip of his left index finger after tapping the Air Canada counter irritably after the aforementioned airline managed to lose his luggage and make him miss his connecting flight to Los Angeles. 

Similarly, while the Credible Hulk has a lower intellect and poorer impulse control than Dr. Stanley, he is not the mindless beast of destruction that Dr. Banner becomes.  Rather, the Credible Hulk operates on about the same level as a frat boy half way through his second beer of the night.  A definite change, but if you didn't know Dr. Stanley, you wouldn't notice.

The most striking change is skin color.  The Credible Hulk has vaguely greenish skin.  Not bright green, or sickly green, but a just-noticeable olive.  His skin tone is less reminiscent of the Jolly Green Giant than of a Star Trek pilot episode Mr. Spock. 

Still, unlike certain other Gamma Ray victims, Dr. Stanley continues to be a productive member of society.  He still goes to work, to the same laboratory at which he has been employed for the last 20 years - though it did take the threat of an ADA lawsuit to get management to allow him to wear his less formal clothing to the workplace - and his co-workers have had to stop playing pranks on him - while amusing at first, the novelty of seeing their boss grow and inch, become swarthy, and bitch at them like a hyperactive drunken juvenile did wear thin and begin to cut into productivity and associated pay bonuses. 

In the end, arguably, it is Dr. Stanley, and not the increasingly less reliable Dr. Banner, who deserves our respect and praise.

Note:  This entry was inspired by one of my youngest sisters.  She was around five years (when I say younger sister, I mean around 20 years younger) old when the Ang Lee Incredible Hulk movie came out, and was quite taken with the character.  She received a pair of Incredible Hulk Smash Hands for Christmas, but being five, she had a hard time saying "incredible" and instead referred to the character as the "Credible Hulk" - which led to one of my sisters who is about the same age as me and I joking about how, unlike his unreliable cousin, the Credible Hulk is a down-to-Earth, believable guy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Old News of Lost Tribes

Many years back, when I was in my early 20s, a friend of mine converted to Mormonism.  At the time, he was, like many new converts to a religion, very enthusiastic and wanted to share with everyone.  For the most part, this was fine - while I disagreed with most of his new-found views, they did appear to be doing him some good (though he would later outgrow them and leave the church), and I wanted to support him in doing something that seemed to be helping him (as you can probably guess, my views on religion in general have changed since then).  However, as I had received some training in archaeology, he often wanted to discuss the Mormon Church's views on North American archaeology with me.

As I have described before, the Mormon church teaches a version of North American prehistory that is completely out-of-touch with the archaeological record.  As a result, I think that conversations with me on the subject were rather frustrating to my friend.  But one thing that he said frequently during these conversations struck me as interesting.  He made the statement that Joseph Smith originated the notion that the Native Americans were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.  When I spoke with friends of his from the church, I heard them confirm this particular claim.  Later, as I spoke with Mormons in Santa Cruz (where I was living at the time) and Santa Barbara (where I attended graduate school), I heard this claim expressed again. 

Now, I have been unable to confirm whether the Mormon Church claims as part of its official doctrine that Smith originated the idea that the peoples of the Americas are from the lost tribes or not (I have found that trying to pin down many specific claims gets pretty slippery pretty quickly), but it seems to be a not-uncommon claim amongst members. 

This is odd, as the claim had been around for centuries before Smith was born.

Spanish clergy and intellectuals, intrigued by the new people encountered by Spanish explorers, often floated hypotheses regarding where these people came from, and a popular notion since the 16th century was that these were the lost tribes.  These ideas were popular enough that by the time that the Spanish government asked for information regarding the Americans in 1813 (17 years before the Book of Mormon was published, and also before Smith claimed to have received visions as well as the alleged golden tablets) several of the priests who wrote the responses referred to the notion that the natives were descended from Israelites, and phrased their answers in such a way that it is clear that this was considered a relatively mainstream view.

In 1825, a few years before the Book of Mormon was published, The View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph) was published, which has many parallels to the Book of Mormon including an obsession with teaching the Americans about their alleged ancestry in Israel. 

Anyway, the point is that this idea that has often been described to me as "groundbreaking" or novel had, in fact, been in circulation for centuries before Joseph Smith began writing, and was in active circulation around the time that he produced the Book of Mormon.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Santorum, Anti-Reality, and Prenatal Testing

So, you may have heard that Rick Santorum recently said on the show Face the Nation that "The bottom line is that a lot of prenatal tests are done to identify deformities in utero and the customary procedure is to encourage abortions," and "One of the things that you don’t know about ObamaCare in one of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing,… Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and, therefore, less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society. That too is part of ObamaCare — another hidden message as to what president Obama thinks of those who are less able than the elites who want to govern our country."


Now, it should be said that he was referring to a sub-set of prenatal tests, not all prenatal tests.  And it should also be said that there does appear to be a higher rate of abortion amongst those who discover early on that the embryo or fetus has genetic problems likely to result in serious disabilities or death of the fetus before it comes to term (in which case the opposition to abortion seems, frankly, absurd).  You can argue about the right-or-wrong of abortion based on this information, but I'm not here to do that.

The thing is, plenty of expectant parents want information that comes from all forms of pre-natal testing in order to understand what they are getting into.  As an expectant parent myself, my fiance and I are discussing which tests we want and which we do not, and those that we do end up getting we will get for the purpose of being able to understand and plan for any special or unusual challenges we may end up facing as parents.  If our child will have a severe disability, isn't it better not just for us, but for those surrounding us (including the other rate-payers on our insurance plans) that we know what we are getting into and therefore plan for raising the child in such a way as to minimize the impacts that our child's needs will make on those around us?  If my child will need special care, and I have lead time to arrange it and possibly minimize the cost of such special care, then everyone, including the child, comes out ahead.  However, Mr. Santorum would prefer to prevent my insurance company from providing such tests because he's afraid that we will abort the fetus if we get bad news.  Certainly, he doesn't talk of outlawing the tests, just making them more difficult to obtain by removing requirements that they be covered, which will impact the families who could most use the information in preparing for caring for their children.

What's more, by detecting potentially serious health problems, such tests can actually save the lives of both children and mothers.  When a serious issue, such as spina bifida, is detected, steps can be taken to protect the developing child.  Checking RH status is the same.  Far from aborting a child, these procedures can save a child who would likely die without them. 

He talks about the "elites who want to govern our country", has often spoken about the left's opposition to families, and yet he wants to reduce the ability of the average person to get information directly relevant to their ability to raise and support their family and control their own lives.  And his supporters seem to have intentionally blinded themselves to the fact that this is completely self-contradictory.  We are at war with Eurasia, we have always been at war with Eurasia...

To make matters more annoying, Santorum's statements are clearly structured in such a way to appeal to a fear of Nazi-era eugenics, completely with baseless claim that those evil lefties are out to "cull the ranks" by getting rid of the disabled.  This is curious, as Mr. Santorum, as well as his political adherents, have a long history of trying to do away with social programs aimed at helping the disabled.  Again, you can argue back-and-forth about whether these programs should or shouldn't exist, but it remains the fact that Mr. Santorum and his party are hardly models for compassion towards the disabled and it is nothing but stark hypocrisy to make statements about the alleged lack of compassion on the other side of the aisle.  As blogger Harold Pollack puts it:

"There is no evidence whatsoever that liberals–let alone President Obama–are less solicitious or caring about the disabled than other Americans. I’ve never heard any liberal health policy wonk promote genetic technologies to “cull the ranks of the disabled” or as part of any cost-cutting plan. That ugly meme is completely made up. By any reasonable measure, the proliferation of genetic diagnostic technologies coincides with great progress in public acceptance and support for people with disabilities."

This is, of course, just another sign of the intellectual dishonesty and inconsistency typical of both major political parties and, truth be told, the vast majority of the minor political parties as well.  While Santorum's family history (his daughter has a genetic disorder) may give him some credibility in the eyes of his supporters when he talks about these issues, the reality is that he is either woefully uninformed and foolish as regards these issues, or else sees yet another place where he can try to get a claw in the social/political psyche of potential voters, consequences be damned.  He is either a fool or a reckless cynic - take your pick.

There is a further problem, though.  Right now, Santorum is talking about only some prenatal tests.  However, as someone who has observed the way that science is processed by the general public for years, I can tell you that it is only a matter of time before all prenatal tests are viewed with suspicion by at least some portion of the public.  The U.S. population, both on the right and the left, is not very good at comprehending complexity in medicine and science.  No matter what issue you look at: global warming, vaccine safety, the use of X-Rays, concerns over endangered species, etc. etc. - all get turned into weird cartoons while the true and complex nature of the issue gets stomped underfoot of political rhetoric.  Now that Santorum has added prenatal testing to the list of technologies about which the Religious Right should be suspicious, I fully expect to see this become, over the next few years, an opposition to a wide range of technologies geared towards helping parents and children.  Normally, I would dismiss this sort of thinking as a fallacious "slippery slope" argument, but I have seen it play out too many times over the last twenty years to not think this is exactly what will happen.

The good news is this: the farther along Santorum gets, the more alien fromt he general public the Republican Party becomes, and the more the Republican Party is likely to really examine itself.  There are many smart, honest Republicans.  There are many good ideas within the Republican Party.  We, as a nation, benefit when these people and ideas are able to be active participants in political debate.  However, over the past few decades, they have been drowned out by an increasingly over-reaching, anti-reality group within the GOP, which has distorted the discussion of politics within the nation.  While the Democrats have done their share of damage and contributed some truly galling rhetoric to the mess, it is the Republicans who have been increasingly pulling away from reality since the 90s.  Already we see discomfort amongst that party with Santorum, and a dawning realization on many of their parts that this man being a significant contender means that something has gone horribly awry.  With luck, this will help catalyze the party to get back to a serious discussion of economics and social policy, and begin to jettison the lunatics who are no longer just the fringe.

You can tell I'm in a good mood this afternoon, because I think this is possible.  Tomorrow morning, before coffee, I'll think we're all doomed.