Saturday, September 21, 2019

Impeach Trump

It is important for Congress to impeach Trump, and not for the political reasons of favoring Democrats.  The reason is that Trump is clearly taking pride in breaking or violating any and every norm that has been part of the presidency and the federal government since the time of George Washington.  Perhaps the norm-breaking was inevitable.  Other presidents have also broken norms, and in the process expanded the power of the office of president.  But Trump has taken it to new levels.  He, and his lawyers, are now taking the position that the president is exempt from oversight by Congress for anything.  He is arguing that he can legally shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and nothing will happen to him.

This is simply unacceptable, and it violates the entire principle of separation of powers and checks and balances that is an integral part of the U.S. Constitution. 

It is important for Congress to take this opportunity to specify exactly what actions that Trump is taken that are impeachable offenses.  The impeachable offenses have been poorly defined in the past, mostly because past presidents have done little that rises to the standard.  Pres. Bill Clinton was impeached for one lie under oath.  Other presidents weren't impeached even after actions that may have been far worse, like Pres. Reagan's Iran Contra scandal.  But none of these presidents took the extreme efforts of Trump to get away with anything he can possibly get away with.

Congress also has to take measures to punish witnesses who refuse to testify, or testify falsely.  It is clear that Trump will tell everyone not to testify.  Without actual punishment to these people by Congress, this effort to obstruct justice will clearly continue as long as he can get away with it.

I just sent the following message to several members of Congress.  At this point, it appears unlikely that Trump will be removed from office, because he seems to have the unrestricted support of Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans.  Even so, it is important for the House to investigate Trump's actions and specify which of them, specifically, are impeachable.  This is necessary for the survival of constitutional democracy. 

"Please make every effort to impeach President Trump.  Trump makes every effort to break norms of government.  Congress has a duty to investigate which of his actions are impeachable offenses.  Even if he is not removed from office, it is important to take the opportunity that he presents to specify which of his actions are impeachable.  It is also important to enforce punishment on other members of the Trump Administration who refuse to testify truthfully to Congressional oversight."

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Common weak arguments for teaching evolution

By Mathew Goldstein



Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha and Craig Rezac, a faculty member with the Brainerd High School science department, a public school in Minnesota, recently gave an update on the biology curriculum taught to students. The President of the school district, Sue Kern, then questioned the validity and practical benefits of teaching the theory of evolution to students “Darwin’s theory was done in the mid-1800s and it’s never been proven,” Kern said. “So I’m wondering why we’re still teaching it.”

Craig Rezac replied: “The interesting thing about theories is that we have to find information to disprove it. There hasn’t been any information found to disprove the theory of evolution. As we learn more about DNA, it only solidified it. It’s based on observation. It’s based on fact.” Kern then asked “With regard to Christian students — how do you do that? They’re taught not to agree with that, so.”

“This is science and science deals with facts. It doesn’t deal with belief,” Rezac said. “It doesn’t have to be a dilemma or a concern for someone to choose between Christianity and evolution — that’s not what this is about. You can actually embrace both. It’s my duty as a teacher to teach science and not teach religion. That’s the separation of church and state.” 

I disagree with Ms. Kern. But I also partially disagree with Mr. Rezac. Americans United for Separation of Church and State agrees with Mr . Rezac precisely where I disagree, and there are other secularist and some science focused organizations that make similar arguments. I am concerned that this commonly expressed defense of the validity and benefits of teaching modern knowledge, as exemplified by Mr. Rezac, is substantially flawed and therefore weak.

There is no such thing as a no beliefs science. Conclusions about how the universe works, including the billions of years old evolution of life, are necessarily also beliefs that we humans hold. The assertion that “science doesn’t deal in beliefs” is dubious and therefore is a weak argument. Furthermore, this is not a harmless mistake because it is somewhat anti-intellectual, it disregards the importance of anchoring our beliefs in modern knowledge. For example, the earliest identifiable fossils are microbial mats, called stromatolites, formed in shallow water by cyanobacteria. The earliest stromatolites are found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone located in Western Australia. Knowledge is a rationally compelled belief because it is unambiguously empirically evidenced. The theory of evolution is also unambiguously empirically evidenced.

The second weakness is the argument that “you can embrace both” evolution and particular religious beliefs. Maybe, maybe not. This depends on whether or not there is a mutually exclusive conflict (in my view there is a pervasive, fundamental, conflict). It is inappropriate for public school educators to tell anyone else that any particular belief about how the universe functions that they hold is not Christian and/or is not mutually exclusive with a conclusion reached by biology. Sometimes there is a conflict and blaming those who fail to “embrace both” merely because there are others who do is circular, it is an unresponsive response. Furthermore, on closer examination it turns out that many people who sincerely claim to embrace both are actually compromising, embracing the theory of evolution incompletely, but that is a different topic.

A better response would start by acknowledging that there can be genuine conflicts between what is taught in public schools and the sincerely held beliefs of families in the community. Instead, focus on the role of public schools and epistemology. It is the role of public schools to pass on to children our current state of knowledge according to the consensus of professional academic experts unaltered and uncensored, regardless of whether or not any families disagree with any of the conclusions. These are the conclusions of the experts who rely on a measurable, best fit with the available evidence, track record of success, thus enabling a consensus to be reached. Public schools do not adjudicate between the various other beliefs regarding how the universe functions that were not derived from, or are not supported by, a worldwide consensus of experts.

So the question asked by Ms. Kerns, while understandable given that the board members are elected, is misdirected insofar as it requests that public schools accept the conclusions local families have adopted in addition to, or instead of, the (potentially conflicting) consensus conclusions of the experts. The beliefs of the local families should be irrelevant. Popularity contests are not a viable alternative method of obtaining or disseminating knowledge regarding how the universe function. We are unable to determine the percentage of human protein making genes that are also found in bananas (about 44%, see https://www.popsci.com/humans-genetically-linked-to-bananas/) by a popular vote. When a student answers zero percent because the Bible said humans were created apart from plants and animals and biologists are mistaken whenever they contradict the Bible then that wrong answer should lower their grade. That student may need to find a career outside of biology after graduating public school.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Political cost associated with atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

PsyPost is a psychology and neuroscience news website that reports on the latest “research that has been published in legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals”. A study, Godless by Association: Deficits in Trust Mediate Antiatheist Stigma-by-Association, Andrew S. Franks, Kyle C. Scherr, and Bryan Gibson was recently published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. The researchers found that associations with atheism were linked to decreased support for political candidates among religiously affiliated — but not unaffiliated — participants.

The researchers’ initial study of 101 undergraduates found that religiously affiliated participants viewed hypothetical candidates as less trustworthy when their photo appeared next to words related to atheism. A second study of 157 undergraduates found that religiously affiliated participants showed reduced support for an explicitly Christian candidate who espoused support for atheist rights. A third study of 144 undergraduates, which was conducted 4 weeks prior to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, found that religiously affiliated participants who perceived Barack Obama to be associated with atheism were less likely to support him.

One of the researchers, Andrew Franks, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University comments on the study as follows: “I do not want people to think that this is a reason to avoid being associated with marginalized groups, however,” he added. “Rather, I want people to recognize that bias against groups such as gays, atheists, and racial minorities is so powerful among a substantial portion of the population that it can extend to friends and supporters who are not members of such groups, and I would like that realization to increase the urgency of fighting against these detrimental biases.” I agree with Andrews Franks.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Trump's War on Science

The Union of Concerned Scientists has compiled a list of the Trump Administration's efforts to silence the science that they don't like.  Although they don't involve locking scientists in cages, the kind of treatment that immigrants are getting at the southern border, the fact that they are ignoring science is a bad practice for the long-term benefit of the country.

There are a few particular points that are galling:

USDA announced a decision to relocate two of its research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), from Washington DC to the Kansas City region. Scientists from these agencies have been quitting in large numbers as a result of this reorganization.   With almost no notice, the USDA decided to move major research agencies from the D.C.-area to Kansas City.  Scientists were given only a few months to decide to relocate their families or quit their jobs.  The rationale for the move seems to be largely fabricated.

According to the Huffington Post, "Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, ...speaking to the South Carolina Republican Party, brought up the USDA move and how many workers decided to resign because of it, calling it 'a wonderful way to sort of streamline government.'"  This move may also be illegal, since it isn't authorized by Congressional appropriation.

There is a general effort to suppress information on climate change in several agencies:  

Although these items may look insignificant by themselves, they show a larger pattern.  They all have the name of Trump on them, but clearly Trump had little to do with them personally in any detail.  They indicate that there are plenty of people in the Administration who are willing to take measures to follow Trump's directive to stop talking about climate change and pay little attention to scientific or rational discussions of issues.

This pattern may affect the way the government and the country is run for years into the future.
 

  

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.