Sunday, July 28, 2019

Yes to a plaque, no to Rob Boston’s argument for it


By Mathew Goldstein

Rob Boston, Senior Adviser/Editor Church & State for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently published an article entitled If The Bladensburg Cross Is Historic, Then Let’s Hear Its History. He argues that “The addition of plaques that detail the history of the cross and explain that it was originally put up by a private group on private land would go a long way toward mitigating the appearance that the state of Maryland and Prince George’s County have endorsed the Christian faith.”

After reading his article I concluded we should send a letter advocating for such a plaque to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Rob Boston’s article omitted providing text for the plaque, as did the first draft of the letter to the M-NCPOC. We can do better, we will propose text for the plaque in our letter. 

Little pieces of the history appeared in newspaper articles. The Supreme Court of the United States decision contained a longer and more detailed exposition of the history. The American Humanist Association published an article The Mythology of a Cross: A Dozen Bladensburg Claims Debunked (https://thehumanist.com/commentary/the-mythology-of-a-cross-a-dozen-bladensburg-claims-debunked) which also contained information about the history. The history as provided by SCOTUS and AHA were mutually consistent.  Yet they both often conflicted with the history as presented in the newspapers.

What was happening is this: The newspapers, with some exceptions, were covering up, or whitewashing, sometimes with falsehoods or with unsupported assertions of secular motivations, but mostly with a misleading combination of selective focus and omissions, the extent to which the town, county, and state have been favoring Christianity. The American Humanist Association article directly addressed and refuted the misinformation that was being published in the newspapers. A plaque summarizing that history actually reinforces the appearance of government favoritism for Christianity because the Bladensburg Cross memorial was a Bible inspired collaboration between the Town of Bladensburg and the American Legion, almost from day one, that subsequently obtained active support from both the county and state. Below is an accurate summary of that history for a plaque.


A group of Prince George’s County citizens, including parents of some of the soldiers, started raising money in 1918 to construct a giant cross where a plaque had been previously placed to honor 49 soldiers from the county who lost their lives in World War I. The Town of Bladensburg approved the erection of a “mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible” on the town property in 1919. The monument stood unfinished in cruciform when the Town deeded the cross and land to American Legion Post 3 in 1922. This “Peace Cross” monument was dedicated in 1925. The Maryland state legislature authorized and directed the State Roads Commission to acquire the land "by purchase or condemnation” to prevent the “desecration” of this monument by the “proposed erection of a service station on the property” in 1935. A Circuit Court ruled that the State of Maryland was the rightful owner of the property in 1956. The Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission—a bi-county agency funded by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties—acquired this monument from the State Roads Commission for the purposes of “the future repair and maintenance of the monument” in 1960. The American Legion Post also transferred their title to this monument and the land to the M-NCPPC in 1961. The M-NCPPC rededicated this monument as a memorial to honor all US veterans of all wars in 1985. The Supreme Court of the United States rejected an Establishment Clause complaint against government sponsorship of this monument in 2019.

Rob Boston was mistaken, the monument was not “originally put up by a private group on private land”. That was misinformation which was commonly promoted in articles, including articles written by professional journalists. Many of the articles, when they discussed history, focused on the symbolic transfer of the title from the American Legion Post to the M-NCPPC, as if that is when government first took ownership, even though the American Legion no longer had ownership of the monument or land, while disregarded the more relevant events, including the original government ownership of the property and the actual transfers of ownership. An honest and accurate plaque would expose the town, county, and state as endorsers of Christianity instead of mitigating the appearance that they endorsed Christianity. Yet we should still advocate for a plaque. Why? Because the tendency of journalists and others to widely publish information that avoids and misrepresents the relevant history not only undermines enforcement of Establishment Clause in this instance, it more generally undermines the role of citizens in a democracy. Displaying the real history with warts is better than ignorance and consuming biased misrepresentations.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Presidential candidates on establishment of theism

By Mathew Goldstein


Should the government support a separation of church and state by removing references to God on money, federal buildings, and national monuments?

These answers are based mostly on a non-scientific poll of the opinions of self-declared supporters of each candidate. See https://www.isidewith.com/.

Yes: 

Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren.

Yes, but no spending to remove existing references:

Jay Inslee, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Jill Stein.

No: 

Joe Biden, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney, all Republican and Libertarian candidates.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Billions for sea walls in the next 20 years

By Mathew Goldstein

Virginia is No. 4 and Maryland is No. 5 when it comes to states facing massive expenditures to prepare for sea level rise, behind only Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Virginia will need to spend about 31 billion to build 4,928 miles of sea walls between now and 2040 to protect coastal communities from sea level rise. Of that total, 15 billion is for the 1st congressional district and 11 billion for the 2nd congressional district. Virginia Beach is 1.7 billion. The county numbers include 4.9 billion for Accomack, 2.3 billion for Northumberland, 2.2 billion for Mathews, 2.1 billion for Gloucester, 1.7 billion for Northampton, 1.3 billion for Middlesex, and 1.2 billion for Westmoreland. This analysis is based on modest sea-level rise projections that assume some reductions in carbon emissions according to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development’s Center for Climate Integrity (“High Tide Tax: The Price to Protect Coastal Communities from Rising Seas”).

Maryland, whose state budget is $45.2 billion, will need to spend about $27.4 billion to build 2,996 miles of sea walls. Dorchester County will need $6.5 billion for sea walls. Also, Somerset County ($3.1 billion); Worcester County ($2.7 billion); St. Mary’s County ($2.6 billion); Talbot County ($2.4 billion); Anne Arundel County ($1.9 billion); Queen Anne’s County ($1.8 billion); Kent County ($1.5 billion); Wicomico County ($1.3 billion); and Charles County ($1.2 billion). Maryland’s 1st congressional district has the second highest projected need of any congressional district in the country – more than $20.4 billion. For some sparsely populated localities in Maryland the per capita cost of the sea wall is over 1 billion which implies that those towns may be abandoned. See https://www.marylandmatters.org/2019/07/01/report-md-needs-27-4b-to-fight-rising-seas for more information.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Discrete yet continuous, superposition is natural

By Mathew Goldstein

Energy levels are discrete, not continuous. For example, electrons orbit neutron and protons with discrete values of energy. Yet it has been understood for a some time that the transition from one electron orbital energy level to another is not instantaneous (Bohr and Heisenberg thought it was instantaneous, Schrödinger and Einstein disagreed, that dispute was resolved decades ago in favor of the latter). How is it possible to have discontinuous energy levels and simultaneously have a continuous transition between different energy levels? 

There is a one word answer: Superposition. We do not witness superposition as a phenomena in our daily lives, yet superposition is essential and ubiquitous. An electron can have a particular energy level, then be in a continuously changing superposition of two different energy levels until it completes its transition to the other energy level. Superposition enables a continuous transition between states whose values are restricted to jumps between discrete values.

It has recently been demonstrated experimentally that it is possible to detect when a transition between different energy levels is about to occur in advance and then to intervene quickly enough to prevent the transition from completing (see https://quantuminstitute.yale.edu/publications/quantum-theory-peels-away-mystery-measurement). The jump between energy levels is at least partly deterministic, with enough information it can be predicted in advance and reversed. But the information needed to predict the jump is available only for a short time in advance. Over a longer time frame the jump between energy levels remains unpredictable and can only be modeled stochastically (this is arguably because of a lack of information availability, not necessarily because of an underlying indeterminism).

With superposition our universe is a hybrid mix of discrete and continuous phenomena. Is our universe also a mix of supernatural and natural phenomena? Many people have thought so and most people continue to think so. But on closer examination naturalism alone appears to suffice. Our imaginations did not discover superposition, we discovered superposition from empirical evidence. We have no similar evidence that there is any unmet need for anything beyond the natural despite the many opportunities for supernaturalism to have been properly evidenced.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Quincy Institute

What do liberal billionaire George Soros and libertarian billionaire Charles Koch agree on?  They found agreement to fund a new institute called the Quincy Institute.  Its mission is to to make the case against foreign wars.  Their website begins with this quote, and it is named after John Quincy Adams: 

America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” — John Quincy Adams

Their website says,

The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing. Our country’s current circumstances demand it.
Humanists have a lot of sympathy for George Soros and his Open Institute, and for David Koch's (Charles's brother) support for the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Institute.  We also agree that excessive foreign wars are a waste of life and resources.

The U.S. needs more diplomacy, and a better way to keep peace in the world.  The approach of sending troops and drones to kill bad guys is not a solution.  

What this institute should encourage is a better understanding of how human cultures and political organizations evolve.  Rather than expecting fast and easy solution to every problem in the world, we should work on methods to make gradual changes that will lead to better, but not perfect, solutions.  

Americans tend to be too impatient.  They hear a problem in another country, and they want a fast, simple solution.  In some cases, a dictator with democratic sympathy and a reasonable human rights record may be preferable to overthrow of a government to create chaos, after which the chaos has to be organized from nothing.

The important thing is to understand how to make slow but constant improvements.  The U.S. needs to learn how to use its influence and its diplomatic corps to modify unacceptable behavior by other countries.  

That doesn't mean isolationism or refusal to get involved.  It also doesn't involve invasions of foreign countries.  It does involve patience.
   



Sunday, June 09, 2019

Vaccinations should not be optional

By Mathew Goldstein


Education Article §7–403 and Health - General Article §18–403 declare that parents can refuse to immunize their children by claiming a conflict with their religious beliefs. Such exemptions place innocent children who are denied vaccinations at risk of suffering serious, long term, health impairments. Health - General Article §18–403 also allows adults to refuse vaccinations by citing religious beliefs. Anne Arundel Maryland has been ranked 37 among the counties most likely to experience measles outbreaks in 2019 [Measles resurgence in the USA: how international travel compounds vaccine resistance. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(19)30231-2].


Among high-income countries, the United States tops the list of those with the largest numbers of kids who have not received the measles vaccine. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, reports more than 2.5 million U.S. children went unvaccinated against the virus from 2010 to 2017. The high U.S. numbers are explained mostly by parental resistance to vaccines. In the U.S., children with personal belief exemptions are 35 times more likely to contract measles than properly vaccinated children. The more people who are unvaccinated the higher the risk that communicable disease outbreaks will occur and spread, with an additional risk for the disease morphing into a new strain that renders the existing vaccines or treatments less effective. For the most contagious diseases, vaccinating 92-95% of group members confers some protection on unvaccinated members. However, people often move from one “herd” to another. Unimmunized children are not always randomly distributed throughout a state nor are they always surrounded by vaccinated persons.


Infants typically receive their first measles vaccination after age one because antibodies from their mothers inhibit their response to the vaccine before then. When people do not get vaccinated they put at risk infants who are too young to begin getting their shots and those who, for medical reasons, are not vaccinated. They then also pose a risk to properly vaccinated persons whose immunity is compromised without their awareness of it. An analysis of numerous studies and reports finds that unvaccinated or undervaccinated individuals comprised substantial proportions of cases in measles and pertussis outbreaks, and vaccine refusal was associated with an elevated risk for measles and pertussis, including among fully vaccinated individuals, according to a study appearing in the March 15 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Measles silently wipes clean the immune system’s memory of past infections. The resulting “immune amnesia” leaves people vulnerable to other viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia, ear infections and diarrhea for 2-3 years thereby facilitating the spread of other infectious diseases. The measles virus can linger on surfaces or remain in the air for up to two hours, and is more contagious than smallpox or the flu. An infected person can begin spreading the virus four days before getting the rash. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for states to discontinue nonmedical exemptions to immunizations.


Vaccines prevent two million to three million deaths globally each year. The Red Cross estimates that 315 children die each day from measles, one of the most infectious diseases known. A study by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) examined all 37,365 measles cases reported to the ECDC from 1 January 2013 through 31 December 2017. The researchers found 81% of all reported cases were patients who were not vaccinated. 9% were one year old and 10% younger than one year. Six in 1,000 measles patients who were one year old died and seven in 1000 of those under one year old died. A March 10, 2015 poll of the Initiative for Global Markets Economic Experts Panel reveals 95% agreement that “the social benefit of mandating measles vaccines for all Americans (except those with compelling medical reasons) would exceed the social cost” and unanimous agreement that “declining to be vaccinated against contagious diseases such as measles imposes costs on other people, which is a negative externality”.


According to the CDC, almost twice as many children are exempted from vaccination in Maryland for religious beliefs than for medical reasons. States have no legal obligation to grant vaccination exemptions because vaccination is a public safety issue. California, Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia do not allow non-medical vaccination exemptions. Virginia allows non-medical exemptions only for HPV vaccines.


The Supreme Court’s long standing jurisprudence on the duty of the State to the children under its protection can sometimes place the interests of children over the free exercise of their parents. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. The Court's decision articulated the view that the freedom of the individual must sometimes be subordinated to the common welfare and is subject to the police power of the state. In Adams v. Milwaukee, 228 U.S. 572, 581-82 (1913), the Supreme Court reaffirmed Jacobson’s holding that states may delegate the power to order vaccinations to local municipalities for the enforcement of public health regulations. In Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174, 176 (1922), the Supreme Court held that vaccination laws do not discriminate against schoolchildren to the exclusion of others similarly situated, i.e., children not enrolled in school. In Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court concluded that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death”. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that religious exemptions to mandatory vaccination violate equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because the exemptions “require the great body of school children to be vaccinated and at the same time expose them to the hazard of associating in school with children exempted under the religious exemption who had not been immunized as required by the statute.” Brown v. Stone, 378 So.2d 218, 223 (Miss. 1979).


Mandatory immunization qualifies as a "compelling state interest" that is "narrowly tailored" and uses the "least restrictive means" to achieve this purpose. McCarthy v. Boozman, 212 F. Supp. 2d 945, 948 (W.D. Ark. 2002) “The constitutional right to freely practice one’s religion does not provide an exemption for parents seeking to avoid compulsory immunization for their school-aged children.” Sherr v. Northport-East Northport Union Free Sch. Dist., 672 F. Supp. 81, 88 (E.D.N.Y. 1987) “[I]t has been settled law for many years that claims of religious freedom must give way in the face of the compelling interest of society in fighting the spread of contagious diseases through mandatory inoculation programs.” Davis v. State, 294 Md. 370, 379 n.8, 451 A.2d 107, 112 n.8 (Md. 1982) “Maryland’s compulsory immunization program clearly furthers the important governmental objective of eliminating and preventing certain communicable diseases.”


In 2014 there were many areas in California with very low vaccination rates. 70% of children were in counties with less than 95% vaccinated, 36% in counties with less than 90% vaccinated. Some schools had vaccination rates in the low teens. Students without vaccinations were admitted ”conditionally”, most frequently in poorer districts, or given a formal “personal belief exemption”. California eliminated the personal belief exemption and tightened the rules for conditionally admitting students in 2016. In 2016, 97% of children were in kindergartens with at least 95% of students vaccinated, 99.5% were in kindergartens with over 90% vaccinated. There was no overall change in school enrollment even in those schools that experienced the biggest increase in vaccinations. Vaccine rates increased from 92.8 percent in 2015 to 95.1 percent in 2017 following the bill’s passage, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. After a similar outbreak in Michigan, health officials there began requiring individuals to formally consult with their local health departments before opting out of otherwise-mandatory shots and as a result the vaccination rate went up. Although critics call these policies harsh, the outcome from a willful failure to vaccinate is harsher. The risk of brain damage by measles is 10,000 times greater than by vaccination.


One study [Filippo Trentini, Piero Poletti, Alessia Melegaro, Stefano Merler. The introduction of ‘No jab, No school’ policy and the refinement of measles immunisation strategies in high-income countries. BMC Medicine, 2019; 17 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12916-019-1318-5] concluded that the UK, Ireland and the US would strongly benefit from the introduction of compulsory vaccination at school entry in addition to current immunisation programmes. According to computer simulations, this strategy would allow to reach stable herd immunity levels in the next decades to avoid future outbreaks.


Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residential treatment centers in Maryland must respect a patient's wishes to refuse influenza or pneumococcal vaccination. These illnesses can be fatal to the elderly. Accordingly, such institutions should be granted legal authority to administer these vaccinations without first obtaining the consent of the patient.


If we are going to continue to allow non-medical vaccination exemptions then the laws and regulations in Maryland should at least make it more difficult to obtain an exemption. Four other states have passed laws requiring parents to listen to or watch medically accurate information about vaccines before being granted a belief exemption from immunizations for their children. A study by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus titled “Impact of Non-Medical Vaccine Exemption Policies on the Health and Economic Burden of Measles” published in Academic Pediatrics, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.acap.2017.03.001, concluded that states with weaker non-medical exemption policies for vaccinations can reduce the likelihood of a measles outbreak 140 to 190 percent by strengthening them.


Currently, Maryland requires that a parent provide a health history of their child and sign a statement indicating that to the best of the parent's knowledge and belief, their child is in satisfactory health and free from any communicable disease. Maryland could also require a notarized letter elaborating on the reason behind the exemption request, require a signature on a document explaining the public safety risks that can only be obtained from the state health department (not from the Internet), mandate in-person counseling and viewing of a film, require that parents acknowledge their responsibility for keeping their children away from school during outbreaks, require annual renewals of all vaccination exemptions, and impose meaningful penalties on anyone who violates these requirements.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Understanding unbelief study comments

By Mathew Goldstein

Based at Kent University, this research survey across six national settings, Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, UK and the USA, started in 2017 and officially ends this year. It is funded with 3 million dollars from the Templeton Foundation. They recently presented their newly published initial report at a Vatican sponsored conference at Rome’s Gregorian University

The Templeton Foundation and Vatican are active advocates for belief. It is reasonable to assume that at least one of their interests in funding and endorsing research of unbelief is to try to learn how they can more effectively counter unbelief. The term unbelief itself hints at the notion that it is the contrary, rather than merely the negation, of belief as in unbend, undo, unfold, etc. It is for this reason that people who start with belief as the normative position prefer the word unbelief over non-belief. So there are a number of reasons to be suspicious that there is an underlying agenda at work that is biased against the perspectives that they are studying. 

With those caveats, the initial 24 page report titled Atheists and agnostics around the world: Interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States is groundbreaking and you may find it interesting. Their eight “key findings” are described on page 3. These survey results can be useful for dispelling common negative stereotyping. In the U.S., a substantial minority of agnostics and atheists preferred to label themselves as such, non-religious was the favorite alternative, few choose Humanist as their preferred label (this was a choose one among many vote which is too restrictive, allowing participants to vote for all self-labeling that they approve would have been better), 35% of atheists and 10% of agnostics also qualified as philosophical naturalists. I tend to associate atheism with philosophical naturalism, but my view is atypical. 70% of agnostics/atheists versus 33% of people overall recognize that the scientific method is the only reliable method to knowledge. There were a few substantial differences between people from different countries. Many Chinese who qualified as agnostics nevertheless labeled themselves atheists and philosophical naturalism was rare (<10%) among Chinese atheists. This may partially reflect the influence of supernatural religious beliefs without powerful deities. The survey tried to account for this by defining god as “Buddha, Allah, God, or Spiritual phenomena.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The straw man named “scientism”



By Mathew Goldstein

Aaron Neil is employed by Cardus, a self-described “faith-based” think tank. He is the author of an article in Quillette Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard. Mr. Neil starts off by defining “scientism” negatively as “the application of scientific methods to non-scientific subjects” in contrast to the Winegards’ definition of scientism as “the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry”. Mr. Neil then proceeds to do what almost all critics of what they label to be “scientism” do: Changing the topic without engaging or disputing the arguments made by the Winegards.

The Winegards’ argued in their article In Defense of Scientism that we should make an honest effort to rely on empirical evidence, as best we can, for decision making regarding how the universe works and for identifying the best and most effective social policies. Mr. Neil begins his counter-argument by replacing the Winegard’s phrase “all modes of empirical inquiry” with “scientific pursuits”. Mr. Neil then rejects his own false misrepresentation of the Winegards’ definition of scientism on the grounds that it is self-evidently true and thus meaningless. Mr. Neil thus avoids addressing the Winegards’ actual argument by substantially revising it.

Empirical inquiry, unlike professional scientific pursuits, is a pervasive activity. Everyone performs empirical inquiry hundreds, if not many thousands, of times a day without engaging in any professional scientific pursuits. By denying the usefulness of empirical evidence outside of professional scientific pursuits Mr. Neil frees us from the constraint of allowing evidence to dictate our conclusions, which is a bad place to begin what should be a rational argument. Mr. Neil accomplishes all of this by unilaterally and falsely restricting the applicable of empirical methods to professional scientific activities without providing a justification, beginning his argument by declaring the conclusion he claims to be defending. This is a substantial mistake that taints and undermines much of the rest of his argument from the start.

Another mistake that Mr. Neil makes, which is a pervasive mistake among critics of so-called “scientism”, is not acknowledging that the Winegards’ argument regarding trying to find truth is limited to “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” contexts. Instead,  Mr. Neil devotes the many hundreds of words in his article attacking the application of empirical methods to contexts where the Winegards’, and the other people he names as being advocates of scientism, do not advocate applying them while simultaneously trying to deny the applicability of empirical methods in contexts where it is needed by relabeling those contexts “metaphysics”.  

Mr. Neil is blowing smoke that obscures and confuses the topic by changing the context to an ambiguous “metaphysical” realm. If the metaphysical realm never determines “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” then it is irrelevant since the Winegards’ stated that this is the context where their argument applies. On the other hand, if the metaphysical realm does have some (hidden?) role in determining “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” then Mr. Neil still needs to show how we can better make such physical world decisions without relying on the empirical methods that connect our decisions to the physical universe. He shows nothing of the sort. Should we make our decisions based on falsehoods, the dictates of an authoritarian ruler, the alignment of the planets with the constellations in the sky, tossing dice, a metaphysical Zeus? He does not say. His argument fails because it does not even start to succeed. The entire article strikes out by not meaningfully addressing the argument it claims to be refuting.