Monday, January 15, 2018

Consider counter-evidence to avoid bias

By Mathew Goldstein

Neurologists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of South Carolina (USC) Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science watched the brains of 40 self-declared liberal students in a functional MRI. USC neuroscientists compared whether, and how much, people change their minds on non-political and political issues when provided counter-evidence. During their brain imaging sessions, participants were presented with eight political statements that they had said they believe just as strongly as a set of eight non-political statements. They were then shown five counter claims that challenged each statement.

Participants rated the strength of their belief in the original statement on a scale of 1-7 after reading each counter claim. The scientists then studied their brain scans to determine which areas became most engaged during these challenges.  Participants did not change their beliefs much, if at all, when provided with evidence that countered political statements. But the strength of their beliefs weakened by one or two points when provided with evidence that countered non-political statements.

The study, which concluded last month, found that people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs had more activity in the amygdala (a pair of almond-shaped areas near the center of the brain) and the insular cortex, compared with people who were more willing to change their minds. “The amygdala in particular is known to be especially involved in perceiving threat and anxiety,” said USC Psychologist Kaplan, explaining that “the insular cortex processes feelings from the body, and it is important for detecting the emotional salience of stimuli. That is consistent with the idea that when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds.” He also noted that a system in the brain called the default mode network surged in activity when participants’ political beliefs were challenged. “These areas of the brain have been linked to thinking about who we are, and with the kind of rumination or deep thinking that takes us away from the here and now,” Kaplan said.

People will flexibly react to changes in their environment. If a sidewalk or road is blocked then we have no difficulty understanding that we need to consider finding a different route to our destination. But we are not consistently rationally flexible, particularly with regard to beliefs that we link to our self-identity. Instead of prioritizing best fit with the overall available evidence, we may negatively react to evidence that conflicts with our self-identity linked beliefs similar to the way we negatively react to a threat.

People tend to link their religious beliefs to their self-identity at least as much as they do their political beliefs and they also may link their religious and political beliefs together. This is one reason why we should be careful about how we go about justifying our beliefs. We need to be careful to open-mindedly allow the overall available empirical evidence dictate to us what our beliefs about how the universe functions should be. We are prone to reversing this sequence and telling the universe how it functions as if we are each master of the universe deities. The universe is not about us, so what we think should be true, or what we want to be true, or how we define our self-identity, are irrelevant.

To try to avoid this error, my advice to everyone, regardless of whether you are a metaphysical naturalist or supernaturalist, is to consider what would need to be different about our universe to convince you to change your conclusion. Too often, when I ask this question I get pushback directed against the question itself. Not all atheists are empiricists. People react negatively to the question, claiming that it is wrong to talk about an alternative universe, that it is wrong to consider other possibilities, because that is a place of falsehood. It is said that our universe is naturalistic because supernaturalism is impossible, and to even ask such a question is to accept that supernaturalism is possible and thus is a mistake. It is said that supernaturalism is a non-starter and to even entertain it as a possibility is an unwarranted concession.

My response is this: We cannot trust our intuition, or anything mostly rooted in intuition, like faith or hope, to answer the big questions about how the universe functions because the answers to the big questions are mostly non-intuitive and counter-intuitive. So it is a mistake to rule out anything a-priori or to rely only on logic not anchored in evidenced. It is often inconsistent for some assertion to be simultaneously true and false. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that given that X (naturalism) is true it is probably also the case that the opposite of X (supernaturalism) is impossible. But the impossibility of X being false when it is true is not a proper justification for concluding X is true, we still must justify our conclusion regarding X. To justify the conclusion that it is impossible for X to be false, we paradoxically should consider what is missing that would be required to properly justify a conclusion that X is false.

A-priori ruling out even identifying what qualifies as missing evidence favoring alternative conclusions is bad epistemology. Fairly considering what is needed to justify a conclusion entails also considering what would be needed to justify a contrary conclusion. Our justification for reaching a particular conclusion about how the universe functions is incomplete if we cannot identify missing justifications for concluding otherwise. When a conclusion is consistently supported by an abundance of highly diversified, interconnected, and direct empirical evidence it becomes unlikely that the available evidence will change so drastically as to favor the contrary conclusion, so we need not worry that our beliefs will be unstable if we allow the evidence to dictate. When a conclusion is inconsistently supported by rare, narrow, unconnected, and indirect non-empirical evidence then we should not have a strong commitment to that conclusion. Either way, there is no harm in identifying what evidence is missing that would change our conclusion if it was found.

Academic endeavors like science are publicly funded and some Senators and Representatives are prone to threaten to cut funding if they think scientific outputs interfere with their preferred political ideology. Elected school boards make decisions regarding educational curriculums, and elected governments decide if they fund private schools that set their own curriculums. Theism is a popular and often strongly held belief and educators and scientists fear popular antagonism if science is perceived as being anti-theistic. Theists falsely claim that science has a built in bias favoring naturalism, that science has a built-in self-dependency upon naturalism, and therefore science cannot fairly adjudicate the naturalism versus supernaturalism question. Some educators and scientists, many of whom are themselves theists, actively promote this false claim of bias at least in part because it is convenient as a means for avoiding provoking theists. Yes, modern knowledge favors naturalism. But our process of acquiring knowledge is not the source of this bias, the source of this bias is the nature of our universe.

People who imagine themselves living in a supernatural universe are not going to then respect a belittled empiricism that is deemed to lack the ability to challenge theism (note that most of the same theists would probably enthusiastically cite a scientific consensus that prayer works as a confirmation of God). With the false claim that empiricism has a built in bias for naturalism widely accepted it can be small additional steps to conclude that empiricism is similarly biased in multiple other contexts, that empiricism is not the best way to determine how the universe works, and that religion, wealthy business, popular entertainment, and political leaders are the most reliable sources of information about how the universe functions. Not all theists generalize away empiricism, expertise, and modern knowledge this way. But it appears that enough people generalize like this to cause mischief. Today we have wealthy businessman President Trump, maybe in 2020 it will be wealthy talk show host President Winfrey?

Martin Luther King's Why I Cannot be Silent speech

 Here is a link to Martin Luther King's "Why I Cannot Be Silent" speech, posted on alternet.org.  How is it possible that America has gone from a leader who speaks like this:


We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…" We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

...to one who speaks gibberish like Trump?? 

 

But seriously, it is worth reading this speech to see the way that King uses religion as a basis for his call to action.  Humanists need to find a way to do the same thing, but without the religion bit.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Evolution of Christianity

by Bill Creasy

This article is written with reference to "Frontline: From Jesus to the Christ, the First Christians", written and produced by Marilyn Mellowes, PBS, 2003, in 4 parts.  Most of the references to archaeology come from this documentary.  I haven't included specific references, but if you'd like more details, ask a question in the comments.

The documentary describes the early years of Christianity, from the life of Jesus to the establishment of Christianity as the Roman government religion. This development can be interpreted as being a result of a group evolution process. (See previous posts here and here.)  The process shows how the doctrine and beliefs of Christianity were modified to be more widely acceptable and to make the religion more successful. But the evolution process was probably not consciously designed or intended by Jesus or anyone else in the church organization.

Part I: Might vs. Right
Jesus probably grew up with a mixture of Jewish and Roman culture. He probably grew up in Nazareth, a suburb of a Roman city. Details of his early life are not recorded in the Bible or any other document. But if he was from Nazareth, archaeological studies indicate that he was near a Roman city. As a carpenter, he likely helped build the Roman buildings. Romans were the political rulers of the Mediterranean area.

The Essenes, an apocalyptic sect of Jews, and John the Baptist seemed to ask the obvious question: If Jews were the children of God, why weren't they in charge instead of the Romans? They expected a dramatic event led by a Messiah to make that happen and restore the Jewish political power.

So Christianity began in the situation of the Roman rule and their military and economic power, in contrast to Jewish ideology that said the Jews should have power instead of being a subject people. This subject status included the Romans being in control of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus was a working-class protester against Roman authority who was likely baptized by John. He may well have thought God was on his side and God's power would defeat the Romans. Many of his followers could have thought the same thing. The crucifiction of Jesus would have been a bitter disappointment that God wasn't helping them in the political struggle.

So, in this first conflict between Roman power and Jewish expectations in the Christian history, the Romans won decisively by brute force. They controlled the government, the military, and the justice system. The punishment and death of Jesus may have been an automatic response of the government to a protester.

But it wasn't a battle on equal terms. The Romans had material and social power. But the Jews had a separate ideology that wasn't directly refuted head on. The ideas that Jews were special and should be in power were passed on even if Jesus and other believers were killed.

Part II: Reinterpreting defeat as victory
Paul and the other early Jesus followers kept their Jewish ideas and reinterpreted them, even in spite of the prevailing paganism of the Roman culture. From their scriptures, they decided Jesus could have been the Messiah even though he was tortured and killed, because that is consistent with the Jewish history. Jews had historically been punished by God for becoming corrupt or straying from true beliefs and practices.

But they came up with a brilliant alternative idea.  The idea was that Jesus didn't deserve punishment because he was perfectly good. The painful death that he received wasn't what it appeared to be; it wasn't punishment. He was a demonstration that God cared about imperfect people enough to send a perfect example.

The idea was that Jesus was resurrected. He became a message about a victory over death in spite of sin and punishment.  Jesus, the logic went, in effect had to die to give his lesson. Death from the Romans wasn't really death, so defeat was not really a defeat at all, and the followers of Jesus weren't really losers. They still expected Jesus to return to change the world and restore political power, perhaps with a supernatural demonstration of Jewish favor by God.

This turned the defeat from the Roman government into at least a victory of sorts, although not the one they were expecting. It showed their ideological superiority even in the face of political inferiority. It turned a profoundly pessimistic story into an optimistic one.

This idea was processed through social evolution of the groups of followers. It survived not because it was shown to be factually accurate. It survived because as it was passed from the originators to group to group, people liked it. The idea was appealing and optimistic, while also being consistent with older Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian stories. These stories involved sons of gods and resurrections.

Paul traveled to different parts of the Roman empire to visit synagogues of diaspora Jews. He found interest among Jews and gentiles who also visited the synagogues or Jewish homes. There were so many competing religious ideas in the "marketplace" that the new interpretations by the Jesus followers weren't immediately suppressed as sacrilege. The ideas gained a foothold of new believers.

The various congregations provided a new source of competition. They survive in descriptions in the book of Acts and Paul's Letters. Some tried to be more Jewish, and some more Greek, some urban and some rural. Paul tried to keep them united and in agreement with his interpretation. 

Meanwhile, Jerusalem itself was attacked by the Romans, and the Temple was destroyed, as described by Josephus, the Jewish historian. This may not have created any new ideology. But the aspects of Christianity that survived were from the outer congregations, not from the ones that was destroyed in Jerusalem, which may have been a center of Jewish Jesus followers.

It may be difficult to ever prove, but the destruction of the Temple may have directly caused a more gentile-oriented Christianity from the mixed outer groups. The groups that included gentiles or non-Jews may not have had a evolutionary advantage or a greater appeal than the ideology of the Jewish followers of Jesus as the Messiah. They simply got an advantage from the coincidental elimination of the Jerusalem competition. By opening the new religion to non-Jews, a large population of new converts was available for growth. The gentiles were less interested in restoring political power for Jews over Romans and more interested in the victory over death as the key, fundamental idea.

Part III: Gospels
The Gospels are interpreted as having been written after the Temple was destroyed (because they "predicted" it). They were done after Paul's letters, and thus after the distant, diaspora congregations were established. They reflected the doctrine and interests of those congregations, which included non-Jews and were in some cases openly hostile to Jews.

The Gospels show evolution from earlier works, but there aren't copies of all those early works. Matthew combines the Gospel of Mark with the sayings of Jesus (known as "Q" among scholars even though they don't actually have a copy of it), into a work directed to include Jews. But it isn't the extreme Jewish apocalyptic thinking of the Essenes that call for political conquest. It was written decades after Jesus was killed by the Romans and political power hadn't come. So the work is more theological and spiritual rather than worldly. In the end, Jesus dies, but that is good news because he is resurrected, even though he mostly appears in private meetings.  Then he goes to heaven without overthrowing the Romans.

The Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts are less Jewish and more gentile, and even hostile toward Jews in some ways. The story of these two books ends with Paul arriving in Rome. Perhaps this was meant to indicate that the early Christians expected to influence, control, or at least confront the Roman Empire in its capitol, rather than overthrow it.

Finally, the last Gospel that was included in the canonical New Testament was the Gospel of John, the non-synoptic Gospel that is different from the other three. This gospel has the most spiritual interpretation of Jesus as the "Lamb of God," the sacrifice to redeem the sins of the entire world, not just the Jewish people.  He lived to demonstrate resurrection after death.

These Gospels are effectively the product of cultural evolution for those first several decades. The competition was done through fairly normal criteria, namely the ideas that attracted followers and financial support were the ones that were kept. It isn't possible to go through the Gospels line by line in this article, but some general points should be mentioned.

The four Gospels have slightly different stories that in some cases are difficult to reconcile. But all of them maintain a sense of history and indicate that the story of Jesus happened in the real world in a recent time. This is done by referring to historical people like Herod and Pilate, and real places like Nazareth and Jerusalem. This practice follows the Jewish books, which are also historical accounts. But it is different from Greek or Egyptian myths, which are mostly set in an indefinite place or time. These myths already had resurrection stories but that weren't clear about who benefited.

On the other hand, the Gospels adopt some themes that are common in myths. For example, Jesus was born from a virgin who was impregnated by a god, a common Greek and Egyptian mythical theme. Jesus does miracles and amazes people, again common in Greek myths but rarer for Jewish texts. The mixture of the Jewish and Greek tropes may have made the text look exotic but also more real to those people who were only familiar with one or the other.
Other gospels have been found that weren't included in the canonical Bible. These indicate that there may have been other congregations that gave different interpretations to the Jesus story. They indicate that writing gospels was not an uncommon effort, and they included different perspectives.

Part IV: Christians vs. Romans, part 2
Out of the regional diversity of Christianity came a selection process among themselves for popularity and numbers of believers.  The most-loved Gospels were circulated.  But by becoming more popular, the sects were gaining attention by the Roman rulers.

Many Christians refused to worship the Roman emperors as pagan gods. This kind of worship was considered an obligation of citizenship to show loyalty to the Empire.  Citizens could worship whatever gods they wanted as long as they also did their duty to the emperors.  Early Christians were considered as Jews, which had an exemption from sacrificing to the Roman emperor because they had an old religious book.  Once Christians were recognized to have a separate and recent religion, they were considered as a superstition. Christians began to get death sentences for avoiding pagan rituals. Their alternatives were to disavow their belief in monotheism and make a sacrifice, or be executed. Some chose to become martyrs to show their faith. It wasn't a large number, but their stories were preserved and admired. They helped make Christianity recognized in the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile, Christian sects continued to proliferate and generate new Gospels. Some were heretical, for example the Gnostics who didn't think Christ was a human being, only divine. The Christian leadership selected four Gospels as the orthodox, or "straight thinking", ones. This policy created an intolerance for heretics, the groups who got the story wrong. 

It was a problem for Roman policy, which was tolerant of diverse religions of all kinds as long as the believers also performed their civic duty by worshiping the emperor. The Romans were threatened on the borders and worried that the gods were not favoring them. In the year 250 CE, the Roman government began more systematic attacks on Christians. But by that time, Christians were numerous enough that they couldn't be eradicated.  Eventually, Constantine, the Roman general and later emperor, had a vision that he should honor Christianity, which he thought helped him win battles. 

The patronage of the Roman government made Christianity an established religion.  The Christian leaders became powerful and influential with the government. By supporting particular Christian leaders, Constantine also permitted them to purge the heretical churches that had improper doctrines and supported them by force. The leaders selected the final, approved version of the religion.
Further evolution was seriously suppressed by this political support for a particular version of Christianity. Anyone who tried to make changes was threatened by political force. Although Christianity continued evolving into the Middle Ages, the main formative period finished as new creativity and new directions were suppressed by the end of toleration of variation.

In conclusion, Christianity was developed through a series of competitions. The first encounter between Jesus himself and his personal followers with the Roman Empire was a dismal defeat, by any earthly standard. But the ideas about the Messiah produced a variety of congregations which competed with each other and the nearby pagan groups for support, exchanging ideas and members freely. The groups with the best ideas grew, prospered, and controlled leadership positions. When the Christians again came into major conflict with the Romans, the Christians were able to become the official Roman religion, with some assistance from Constantine. 

The established version of Christianity is an end result of the evolution process. The original plan of Jesus may be lost to the revisions that were made by the various congregations which had their own interests.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

An assisted dying act that merits consideration

By Mathew Goldstein

Maryland has so far been resistant to passing a voluntary assisted end of life law. The state of Victoria in Australia recently enacted a Voluntary Assisted Dying Act law which is more elaborate and detailed than similar state laws in the United States. These laws require that the patient be diagnosed as having a remaining life expectancy of no more than six months, although Victoria's law increases this to twelve months for neurodegenerative diseases. Also, unlike here, Victoria's law has a provision to allow someone other than the patient to sign the patient's written request and to assist with administering the drugs if the patient is unable.

Victoria's law requires doctors to complete training in the end of life options law to be eligible to participate. The law establishes a Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board to help administer the law. The initial physician receiving a verbal patient request can volunteer to be the coordinating physician who makes an assessment that the request complies with the law. The coordinating doctor is sometimes required to obtain the assistance of specialists. The assessment results are given to the Board.  If the coordinating doctor accepts the request then a second assessment begins by another doctor. A third assessment is allowed if the second assessment conflicts with the first assessment.  

If the assessments accept the request then the patient can submit a written request with two certified eyewitnesses together with the coordinating doctor as a third witness. The patient makes a final verbal request to the coordinating doctor and identifies a contact person. The contact person is responsible for returning unused dispensed drugs to the pharmacy. The coordinating doctor certifies the request in writing, notifies the Board, and applies for a permit to prescribe the drugs. The Secretary of the state department of health may refuse to issue the permit if legal noncompliance is suspected.

It may be worthwhile for lawmakers submitting "end of life option" bills in states like Maryland to consider including the additional procedures and safegaurds found in Victoria's law. The additions of a board, formalized written assessments, required specialist evaluation if warranted, a permit, a person designated to return unused drugs, and 12 month availability for neurodegenerative diseases, may convince more lawmakers that the proposal merits adoption. State government employees should consider the forms included in Victoria's law for ideas when writing regulations for implementing their state's end of life options laws.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Big Questions of Philosophy by David K. Johnson

By Mathew Goldstein

David K. Johnson is a professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania who produced a Great Courses series of videos titled The Big Questions of Philosophy that sells for about $70 dollars (less for audio, more for DVD).  Some county government library systems have contracted with a company that sponsors a web site, and also an app, called kanopy.  Kanopy makes many videos available for free to people with library cards.  At least some, if not most, of those videos do not appear to be very good.  But among the many hundreds of free videos on kanopy is the entire set of 36 half hour lectures of the aforementioned course.   

He is probably not as rich, nor as famous, as George Soros whose book features five of his philosophy lectures.  After watching Professor Johnson's first five lectures, and excerpts from a few other lectures, I will take a chance on him and recommend his videos.  This is the philosophy 101 course that should be included with everyone's basic education but not everyone receives.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Petition Boy Scouts to include nontheists

Message from the Secular Coalition for America:

The Boy Scouts of America Charter and ByLaws says: "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." No child should ever feel that they are less good, less worthy, or less capable to lead or "grow into the best kind of citizen" because they do not subscribe to religion. We know that the best kind of citizens are those who respect all people, of all faiths and no faith. The religiously unaffiliated is now the largest "religious group" in the country and our numbers are strongest among young people. We will no longer stay quiet and let organizations like the Boy Scouts tell us and our children that we cannot be moral upstanding citizens without God. With your help and your voice, we will change hearts, minds, and policy. Please help us continue to raise awareness about this issue by signing and then sharing this petition http://p2a.co/UhRsQLF with your friends and family, especially parents who may be considering Boy Scouts of America for their children. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Federal judge declares higher power must be deity

By Mathew Goldstein

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer recently ruled that the House chaplain’s refusal to allow an atheist to deliver the morning prayer complies with the Equal Protection Clause.

The dispute dates to February 2015, when Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, invited one of his constituents, Dan Barker, to deliver the invocation as a Congressional guest. The office of Catholic House Chaplain Patrick Conroy informed Barker that all guest chaplains must be “ordained by a recognized body in the faith in which he/she practices” and must present a copy of their ordination certificate as proof. He also advised that the invocation must address a “higher power.”

Barker had retained his 1975 ordination as a means to officiate at weddings to bypass discriminatory laws that restrict marriage officiants to clergy. Barker submitted his ordination certificate to Conroy’s office. He said he believes there is no higher power than “we, the people of these United States.” Conroy did not respond for almost one year, until January 2016. He then informed Barker he was denying his request to give the invocation because he had publicly announced his atheism.  

Mr. Barker, the co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, consulted a lawyer and sued the Chaplain, and Speaker Paul Ryan, in May 2016. He claimed his exercise of religion rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated. Judge Collyer concluded this argument fails: "Taking as true Mr. Barker’s allegations that atheism is his religion and assuming, but not finding, that RFRA applies to the House, the court finds Mr. Barker has failed adequately to allege a claim under RFRA because he fails to allege a substantial burden". She went on to explain that a substantial burden “exists when government action puts ‘substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.’”  

Government authorities demand that Mr. Barker modify his belief based behavior as a condition for qualifying to participate in a government sponsored activity is a substantial demand. But the "pressure" was insubstantial in the sense that not participating in this activity is relatively easy, much easier than changing beliefs and related behaviors. This reflects the fact that the activity at issue, Congressional sponsored invocation, is itself unnecessary. Congress can perform all of its functions, and lawmakers can voluntarily pray before each session begins, without an opening prayer ritual or a paid chaplain.

Meanwhile, atheists lose an opportunity to gain publicity for themselves by giving any invocations. More significantly, and insidiously, to the extent the laws favor theism there is a resulting diffuse pressure being applied against atheism. Laws endorsing government sponsored theism communicate to the public that there are two tiers of beliefs regarding deity under the laws. There are theists who will leverage any privilege that they think they are granted, and entitled to, under the laws to act against public expressions of atheism or criticisms of theism.

Barker also cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which declared that governments cannot discriminate between different beliefs when selecting who gives government sponsored invocations, to support his legal challenge. Collyer, oddly, declared that the ruling didn’t apply to Barker because the justices did not cite atheists in that particular decision. “To decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer,” the judge said.

Judge Collyer is singling out atheists for the negative purpose of refusing to apply an otherwise generally applicable civil rights protection that the Supreme Court recently reasserted. She is inserting a 'discriminate against atheists' clause into the law. Atheists lack generally applicable civil rights protections unless the Supreme Court explicitly says otherwise, according to Collyer.

Insofar as it is true that government sponsored legislative invocation is, by default, for theists only, as Collyer dubiously claims, it follows that the practice of legislative invocation itself violates the constitution for favoring theism over atheism and discriminating against atheist citizens. But legislative invocation was initiated during the first congress and declaring it unconstitutional would be difficult. Therefore, judges who are committed to the constitution and its civic equality protections should be defining legislative invocation as open to people of all beliefs, include those who believe that there is no deity to speak to. This would be easy to do and, contrary to what Collyer says, would not conflict with Supreme Court rulings.

Congress is a place where people occasionally say something that others who are present and listening disagree with, so what is the problem? An opening Congressional invocation by Dan Barker that does not cite deity is not going to infringe on anyone else's rights. Barker, not surprisingly, said he is disappointed with the ruling, complaining that it allowed the House chaplain’s ”personal biases against the nonreligious” to block him from fully participating in our government. I agree.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The redistricting method of the future

Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission
Office of Governor Larry Hogan

Honorable members of the Redistricting Reform Commission:

Maryland law says: "Each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions." Census tracts average about 4000 people, but in Maryland some census tracts have 24000 people. There are currently 1394 census tracts for about 5.8 million people. A Senate district is currently sized at 123,000 people +/- 4.7%. There are about 30 tracts per Senate district.

These numbers are well suited for mathematical optimization. The general idea is to define the redistricting task as sets of constraints and one or more optimization goals that are precisely defined as equations. Some optimization methods require a single optimization equation. Combining multiple optimization goals that are represented by different units of measurement can be a complication. It is possible to utilize multiple optimization goals that are represented by a common measure, such as a percentage, to avoid this complication.

The more goals there are the greater the risk that different goals will conflict with each other. The tighter the constraints the more likely that there will be no feasible solution. Therefore, it is preferable for the number of different optimization goals to be low or be selected to be non-conflicting and to take precautions that ensure the constraints are realistic.

Contiguity is a constraint. A maximum count of district boundaries crossing significant political subdivisions and natural boundaries are additional constraints. The Redistricting Reform Commission is proposing a maximum +/- 1% population variance which could be implemented as another constraint. Maximum compactness can be the optimization goal, or compactness could be combined with minimum population variance as the optimization goal.

Viable optimization algorithms for redistricting are heuristics that obtain a good result quickly. This is because redistricting optimization is technically a very difficult problem to solve given the vast number of possible solutions. Different software on different computers with different optimization algorithms will produce different results. These different results can be ranked by the optimization goals equation. This presents an opportunity to implement redistricting as a contest. Competitors can be given instructions for how to submit redistricting map proposals. The earliest submitted redistricting map that generated the highest optimization score while meeting all constraints would be automatically adopted. As an incentive the winning proposal could receive a cash award.

Compactness can be measured by boundary shape. Or by the degree to which the district spreads from a central core, called "dispersion". Or by housing patterns, which is sometimes referred to as population compactness. District tendrils are less meaningful in sparsely populated areas but more meaningful where the population is densely packed. The ratio of the proposed district's perimeter and the perimeter of a circle with the same area size is an example of a boundary shape measure of compactness.

Members of the Redistricting Reform Commission should consult with the computer science and mathematics departments at universities and colleges, particular those that offer graduate degrees in Operations Research, for expert advice. Examples of automated computer redistricting, some with free source code, are available on the Internet (http://www.publicmapping.org/, http://bdistricting.com/2010/, http://autoredistrict.org/, https://sourceforge.net/projects/bard/, and https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/redist/index.html). Applicable algorithms include polygonal clustering, graph partitioning, simulated annealing, and tabu search, among others. Spatial contiguity can be formulated in a mixed integer programming framework, so mathematical programming methods may also be viable.

The district boundaries after each census could be very different from the prior boundaries, which can contribute to making elections more competitive. The result of relying on mathematical optimization for redistricting will be gerrymander free and fair by the "justice is blind" standard. There is no need for a redistricting committee. A voting rights committee composed of former judges could be responsible for splitting some Senate districts into two or three Delegate districts to try to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Currently the Delegate districts are three member by default but with 16 one member and 12 two member districts that are not publicly explained. The Governor's Redistricting Reform Commission is recommending one member Delegate districts by default with fewer exceptions. However, one member Delegate districts give each citizen fewer representatives assigned to different committees which weakens citizens' influence over the bills. The committee votes on bills are more important than the floor votes because bills that fail in committee almost always die and bills approved in committee usually also pass when they go to floor vote. The small size of single member Delegate districts risks rendering a +/- 1% population variance constraint along with the other constraints impossible. Also, one member Delegate districts undermines Maryland's ability to demonstrate compliance with the Voting Rights Act because occasionally merging Delegate districts is unlikely to increase minority representation. 

It may be better to retain the current three member Delegate district default and require that all exceptions be justified in writing as promoting increased minority representation in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. Alternatively, mathematical optimization could draw three Delegate districts in each Senate district but with somewhat different constraints and optimization goals then were utilized to draw the Senate districts. In particular, the optimization goal could be revised to prioritize meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and the constraints could be loosened for those Senate districts that have a demographic profile which introduce Voting Rights Act compliance concerns. Dividing each Senate district into three Delegate districts could be a contest for finding the best redistricting map. This would create a two phase redistricting process, Senate districts first, Delegate districts second, that will increase the time needed to complete redistricting.

Federal redistricting standards are somewhat different from the state standards.  Also, Congressional districts effect the national election and thus are no longer only about the state of Maryland. If Maryland stops gerrymandering Congressional districts while Republican states continue to gerrymander then the next federal elections results will be more favorable for Republicans. It is more likely that a General Assembly redistricting reform bill will be enacted if it is not paired with Congressional redistricting. Therefore, it would be better for the Governor's office and lawmakers to place Congressional redistricting reform proposals into a separate bill, or postpone Congressional redistricting reform until after a multi-state reform collaboration effort that crosses the partisan divide is arranged. 

Mathematical optimization is the redistricting method of the future. Reliable enabling technology is available. Maryland has people with the skills needed to implement automated redistricting. I appeal to the Commission and state lawmakers to seriously consider mathematical optimization for redistricting.

Mathew Goldstein