Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Silver Spring's (MD) Edd Doerr had this letter published in the Feb 13-26 issue of the National Catholic Reporter ---

“Push on climate change”

Pope Francis, Tom Roberts and Brian Roewe (NCR, Jan 2-15) are to be commended for their forward push on climate change. Many of us are hoping that Francis will do the one thing that he and he alone can do about climate change: rescind Paul VI’s 1968  Humanae Vitae encyclical, promulgated in defiance of the vast majority of his own advisers.

Since 1968, there have been 1.5 billion abortions worldwide, 50 million in the US alone. Vacating Humanae Vitae would seriously lower the abortion rate, save women’s lives, and contribute to reducing overpopulation and such concomitants of climate change as resource depletion, environmental degradation, deforestation, soil erosion and nutrient loss, biodiversity shrinkage, rising sea levels (40% of the world population lives in coastal areas), and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Griswold We Trust

By Mathew Goldstein

David B. Parker is a professor of history at Kennesaw State University who specializes in Civil War history.  As any academic historian steeped in the Civil War knows, there are sometimes two conflicting histories, the history found in the historical record and a popular "history" that originates in someone's head the same way as fiction originates, but is nevertheless promoted as factual by individuals or groups with political, commercial, or other such non-academic agendas, and is subsequently repeated over and over again by growing numbers of other people, and as a result becomes accepted by public opinion as being factually true.  This happens in multiple different contexts.  If you think that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are likely fictional characters (unlike the historical warrior Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibnʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim (a.k.a. Muhammad) or the historical con-man Joseph Smith) you may want to keep this insight to yourself lest you be mischaracterized as a foolish atheist ideologue who disregards the generally accepted evidence that all sensible people, including non-religious people and people of other religions, allegedly know demonstrates that these were historical people.

And so it is also with the claims that George Washington appended "so help me god" to his first presidential oath of office and all subsequent presidents did the same.  For many years the Senate Historical Office, speaking as the experts on presidential oath history on behalf of the U.S. Senate, and therefore also on behalf of the United States government, endorsed the first claim as historical fact.  For multiple years, starting shortly after we began our correspondence with them, they also published a "so help me God" video on the Joint Congressional Committee for Inaugural Ceremonies' (JCCIC) website that endorsed the second claim as historical fact.  Years after several of us first corresponded with the Senate Historical Office to point out that neither claim is supported by the historical record, they continued to endorse both "facts" on the website. The Senate Historical Office justified their stance by pointing out that historian Douglas Southall Freeman, who won a (posthumous) Pulitzer Prize for his six-volume biography of Washington published in 1954, claimed GW appended that phrase.  We responded that the eyewitness document cited by Freeman in his biography did not assert that GW appended that phrase.  From then on we got no more responses from the Senate Historical Office to any correspondence we sent them. Even though they eventually conceded their second claim was not justified they continued to assert it on the website.  Frustrated by the years of no response from the Senate Historical Office, one day I visited the Senate Rules Committee office, which owns the JCCIC web site.  I was dismissed by the youthful staff there, somewhat rudely, as if I was a crank.

Yet people did pay attention and began reporting the history correctly, and the JCCIC website eventually also followed. Professor Parker subsequently took an interest in the origin of these two related myths about George Washington's first inauguration and about all presidential oaths.  His conclusions were recently published in Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, volume 15, no. 1 and are available for all to read under the appropriate title "In Griswold We Trust".

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Ideoplogy and Religion Mix at the National Prayer Breakfast

by Gary Berg-Cross

The National Prayer Breakfast often stirs up controversy, although different ones in the secular and religious communities. In the past, for example, we had the context of the  Hobby Lobby Case and we found there was a link to  a somewhat
“secretive group" called "The Family” playng a role of hosting the  National Prayer Breakfast. This was reported on the  MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, by author Jeff Sharlet who publicly accused "The Family" of this role.

This year I was at a discussion group after the Breakfast event and the buzz was about Obama’s “crusader” comment:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

As the Post noted, “Critics pounce(d) after Obama talks Crusades, slavery at prayer breakfast”
There was lots of ideas and symbols wrapped up in the spaces between the words and suggestive connections to other parts of the speech.  An example is that patriotic, hot button issue of American exceptionalism. Well, as noted, the Greeks think their country i special, too). Then there is the contrast with uncomfortable Bush-era practices such as those interrogation practices, euphemistically called “harsh” for years, but in the Obama era more correctly called  torture that goes along with the invasion of Iraq a tragic, hubristic mistake. Perhaps we should pray for forgiveness for these things as well as our prior heavy hand in Central and South American.

Are these things too sensitive and ideological to discuss at a “prayer” meeting or ask forgiveness for?  Do they downplay ISIS evil too much?   Well conservatives like The Family and Baltimore’s Ben Carson believe so. Any number of outraged Republicans voices could be heard such as former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore who said,

“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

Well it  seems to some of us as a good use of the Prayer Breakfast pulpit to talk about the moral side of things and for the Religious-American complex to take an historical,  self-reflective stance. It is a timely context seeing something bad done in the name of Religion to humbly note that Faith, and not just one Faith, can be perverted and its name used to justify revenge killing and harm.  It’s about the need for the prayerful to”stand up against those who try to use faith to justify violence, no matter what religion they practice.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Is the Measles Vaccination Discussion a Teachable Moment?

by Gary Berg-Cross

Fifteen years ago, the CDC was proud to announce victory over measles. More recently there is has been a creeping increase in measles outbreaks attributed in park to the growing number of parents have opted to not to have their children vaccinated. Fear is involved backed by an old claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism. I guess the small success of the flu shot this year also lowers the confidence that they work. And so we have this, according to the CDC, 1 in 12 children born in the United States is not being vaccinated as recommended. That's a huge percent for something the best science seems to say is effective and safe.

The measles vaccine dust up is what Adam Frank called a "teachable moment" for everyone as the anti-vax movement is suddenly thrown into the spotlight. Collectively, we can see the Disneyland outbreak and the various responses for what it could be — a wake up call for informed decisions and rational discussion about science denial and the relation of parental rights (freedom) and responsibility to the public at least.

Below is a portion of what Frank wrote on what he called living in "a strange moment of human history" :

We have this thing called science. Through its fruits (medicines, technology, etc.), many of us live lives fundamentally different from the tens of thousands of generations preceding us. At the same time, through science's unintended consequences, we have also changed the "natural" world in ways likely to pose daunting challenges to our ongoing "project of civilization." But strangest of all, in the midst of these profound changes, one growing response to the tough questions science raises in our lives has been to act as if it didn't exist.

I am, of course, talking about denial. The anti-vax movement, like climate change denialism, rests on the assumption that if you disagree with certain established scientific results you can just ignore them. You call the science lies — or claim the scientists have a political bias."

Indeed people ignore or trump science based on emotional feelings (fight or flight) vague values of freedom and such. So parent's get to chose is proclaimed as an absolute.  It has an ideological-religious fever to it. But on this issue of parent’s choice there is also the question of what is behind the choice and what is a good choice.Recently, NPR's Morning Edition had a 4 minute segment called The Psychology Behind Why Some Kids Go Unvaccinated. We could use some of what was said there as part of this teachable moment.

We can start by asking why do some people believe that these particular vaccinations are dangerous? Can’t they understand the facts?

It turns out that (some) telling parents that are afraid to vaccinate kids the facts makes them less likely to vaccinate them. It’s a general belief phenomena of the emotional brain we can demonstrate and understand to some degree.

Some of it is the near term pain vs. more distant or less obvious gain.  But also Dartmouth research by Brendan Nyhan was cited on the belief dynamics which challenge the teachable moment opportunity for some.

The frame of the research is the idea hat beliefs are shaped by pre-existing views, filtered by motivated reasoning (energized by Worry ) through loyalty to our group allegiance (tribe’s) belief.  For example, take groups and give them facts to show that Obama was born in the US. Some are not persuaded by that facts and believe that Obama was born in Africa. Who? Those who didn't like him to begin with. Not everyone is open to the facts, your ideology filters things and indeed can motivate people to use their thinking in a defensive way.

Once you believe in something strongly with emotions it is hard to debunk. And this theory of child vaccinations leading to autism has that rigidity. It came from a 1998 article in a good Journal, Lancet,

suggesting such a link, but the study was later retracted and has been widely discredited. It was, for example only an 11 kid sample and later couldn't be replicated and then the author was shown to have mad up the data. But it is hard to stop the meme. Especially when it is promoted by tribes with a megaphone.

The Morning Edition talked about the collective action dilemma – We can get a free ride sometimes when others do the hard work like with vaccinations. It means that I don’t have to deal with the risk and this is also called the tragedy of the commons. I’d say it is a general problem we face. Letting everybody act in their own self-interest isn't optimal although some believe that.

How to solve the dilemma?

Some cultures force or apply public-social pressure (e.g. You are a moron–if your child is not vaccinated I won’t invite her over for a play date.)

Social scientists think these (force and shame) are not the best ways. While a little social pressure is good, experts who have studied the psychology of the vaccine doubters say it's counterproductive to be accusatory — or even to try provide a little well-meaning education.

Below is some discussion of this from researchers as part of a different article:

"When you attack somebody's values, they get defensive," said risk communication expert David Ropeik. "It triggers an instinctive defensiveness that certainly doesn't change the mind of the vaccine-hesistant person."

And some of the criticism on cable television, social media and in mainstream newspapers and magazines is starting to look like bullying, Ropeik and other experts said.

"There are millions of people who are ambivalent to some degree. When they hear the people being picked on defend their views, that has the real prospect of turning some of those people against vaccines."

The anti-vaccine movement is nothing new. People have been questioning the safety and efficacy of vaccines for decades, especially once the illnesses the vaccines protect against started to disappear, and the risks of the vaccine began to loom larger when there was no backdrop of death and disease.

But simply telling people their views are stupid, or even not fully informed, will not work, said Dr. Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth University (also cited in the NPR story).

"It could make the problem worse. Imagine what calling people selfish and dumb can do," Nyhan said. "If people call me selfish and dumb, it doesn't make me more open-minded, and I don't know why anyone would think otherwise in this case. I think it's really short-sighted. People enjoy lashing out at anti-vaccine folks, (but) it turns into an 'us versus them' thing."

Nyhan conducted a study last year with Freed that found that when they gave ambivalent parents facts that show vaccines do not cause autism, they were even less likely to vaccinate their kids than they were before.

"They are committed to that point of view. You can provoke a kind of backlash reaction if you are not careful," Nyhan said. "That is why it is important to test the messages that we use and avoid the counterproductive type of messaging seen in the wake of Disney."

Telling people they are wrong will just make them dig in their heels, said Nyhan.

"There is a psychological tendency called disconfirmation bias. Information we don't want to hear, we try very hard to reject it. That is especially true for beliefs that are central to our identity," he said.

Most Americans support vaccination. A survey from the Pew Research Center published last week found that 68 percent of American adults believe that vaccinations of children should be required, while 30 percent say that parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their kids.

But groups such as the National Vaccine Information Center view and position themselves as courageous visionaries who challenge a flawed, mainstream point of view. Libertarian leaders such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., are taking on the issue of vaccination as a question of personal freedom.

Bottom line, how might we get people to vaccinate their kids?

Build relations and trust – acknowledge the fear and discuss it without force or shame.

And, of course, a similar approach may be useful for the secular and intellectual community on other issues.

Note- Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science."