Sunday, December 12, 2021

Is SARS-CoV-2 a Wuhan lab modified virus?

 By Mathew Goldstein

The book Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by Alina Chen and Matt Ridley is currently highly rated on Amazon. I am not convinced obtaining a definitive answer to this question is as important as Michael Shermer and Matt Ridley claim in their discussion of the book. Yet it should be of concern that when virology labs collect potential pathogens for study, despite good intentions, there is a risk they will accidentally initiate a pandemic. If you are interested in this topic then Matt Ridley explains clearly, competently, and concisely in this interview why the possibilities that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after it was modified to more easily infect humans, or was spread by people traveling between the lab and the horseshoe bat caves in southern China or Laos to bring samples to the lab for testing, merits being taken seriously: Matt Ridley on the search for the origin of COVID-19.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Consciousness from life’s push against entropy

By Mathew Goldstein

Anil Seth is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. He was recently interviewed by Quanta Magazine. The interview has a link to his very good TED talk regarding what consciousness is about which has been viewed over 12 million times. The interview and the TED talk overlap, but to understand his argument it is better to consume both. The TED talk demonstrates that what we believe impacts what we perceive (and vice versa), with perception described as a useful “controlled hallucination”. He argues that consciousness arises from within life’s essential property of self-regulation in opposition to entropy and that as we identify the set of properties and mechanisms that underlie consciousness the “hard problem” of consciousness will dissolve much like the “hard problem” of life dissolved as the set of properties and mechanisms that underlie life were identified. 

A short, interesting article by him was published on August 2020 by the Institute of Ideas and Arts “Catching sight of your self”. He argues that our sense of self, our sense of free-will, etc. are perceptions like our perception of color. They are all “forms of experience” that “represent really-existing things or processes in ways that are useful to the organism.” He has a web site and a blog

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Are atheists a meaningfully distinct demographic group?

 By Mathew Goldstein

Is there a significant difference between the religiously unaffiliated or between agnostics and atheists? People who are skeptical that we have knowledge about a judgmental deity tend to live their lives much like atheists. Nevertheless, a December 2017 New Age beliefs Pew poll result indicates that there is at least one significant difference between self-described atheists on the one hand and self-described agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated “nones” on the other hand. Self identifying atheists as a religious belief related demographic are unique in their tendency to consistently reject New Age beliefs.

My guess is that atheists tend to be better grounded and more consistent in recognizing the significance of the distinction between properly justified beliefs and fictions than other people, including other “nones”. Being agnostic or unaffiliated suggests having a skeptical outlook, which is good, but skepticism by itself, while it is a requisite component for critical thinking, is not the same as critical thinking. Critical thinking recognizes, seeks out, and firmly adopts as dictates, conclusions which are best fit overall with the available empirical evidence, it is not compatible with a pluralistic, all beliefs have equal standing, perspective. Knowledge and ignorance are meaningfully and substantially different, it is a distinction that underlies competence versus incompetence. Not respecting that distinction can be as insidious as, or even more insidious than, getting the facts wrong

At the same time, individuals can be wrong about many things, including ontological or metaphysical supernaturalism, gods, and New Age beliefs and still do fine overall. There are also the questions of whether the goals of socially and psychological navigating life each day successfully conflicts with the goal of critical thinking about more distant concerns and, insofar as there is a conflict, why the latter should be deemed more important than the former. That is more of a personal issue, so the answer will be different for different people and can depend on the individual context and circumstances. It is unfortunate that we have this tendency to mix these different goals that we too often perceive as being in conflict and sacrifice the integrity of our identification of what is true about how our universe operates goal to our other goals.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Walter Plywaski won atheists’ their right to become citizens

 By Mathew Goldstein

Walter Plywaski died this January, about 66 years after he, with the backing of the ACLU, won his legal challenge against an arrogant denial of U.S. citizenship to any atheist who refused to falsely publicly identify themself as a theist. See a recently published article in The Conversation for an argument why Walter Plywaski’s legal victory is with remembering.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Reconciling activism with evidence based policy making

By Mathew Goldstein

There is an ongoing concern, which appears to be well grounded, that some manifestations of activism are in conflict with important humanistic principles. We can, and should, be advocates for “social justice” without sacrificing the basic principles of “science, reason, and consistent liberal ethics” with a focus on “the human, the universal”. These are constraints. Activism has a tendency to prioritize the pursuit of outcomes over such constraints, particularly when the constraints are perceived as getting in the way of obtaining different outcomes that are needed ASAP. This tension results in anti-scientific orientations and the prioritization of theories that are not well evidenced ahead of empirical evidence. Yet we do need measures of the problems that the activists claim exist and of the effectiveness of the remedies that the activists advocate. The question is: When there is a conflict will we recognize and acknowledge this conflict and will we side with a consistent liberal ethics?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Sabine Hossenfelder blog recommendation

 By Mathew Goldstein

For those interested in the ongoing search for answers to the big questions who are discerning enough to look in the right place (competent science, not religion, not ideologies of any stripe), the BackReAction blog,, is mostly very good. The author, Sabine Hossenfelder, is a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Do not stop wearing a face mask

 By Mathew Goldstein

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recent announcement that Americans who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear face masks, I plan to continue to wear a face mask when I am indoors with others in public accommodation contexts. I am less inclined to visit those businesses that allow people to not wear face masks. The CDC concedes that we should continue to wear face masks at airports and on public transportation, in medical facilities, in jails and prisons, etc. Municipalities should retain policies that require face masks in public accommodation indoor contexts until the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is under better control, post infection treatments and pre-infection prophylactics improve (such as more people vaccinated, better indoor air ventilation and disinfection), we know the duration of vaccine immunity and the long term health impacts of infection, and widespread vaccination is common in countries globally instead of limited primarily to the wealthier countries. Tony Blair was right when he said “virus circulating anywhere is potentially virus moving everywhere”.

The vaccination shortfall is now mostly on the demand side. Due in part to exaggerated, unbalanced, sometimes falsely grounded, yet widely promoted and accepted claims against vaccination, coupled with knowledge acquisition and applied reasoning shortcomings, lack of commitment to communal health, and the like, it is still unclear if we will achieve herd immunity from vaccination anytime soon. The vaccination percentages vary significantly by zip code, for Maryland overall it is now a little over 40% fully vaccinated and 50% partially vaccinated excluding children. The two dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines against Covid-19 infection appear to be very effective against most of the current, known virus variants, the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective (policymakers should consider retroactively adopting a two dose protocol for J&J). Vaccination has not been more effective overall because too many people have not (yet) been vaccinated.

Governments should mandate those vaccinations against contagious diseases that have been proven to be safe and effective while excluding vaccination eligible children from public schools and adults from government employment who lack a medical justification for failing to obtain the vaccinations. Governments should consider establishing vaccination passports and granting teenagers (from age 12) a special privilege to obtain recommended vaccinations without parental permission. The three groups most likely to be vaccine hesitant in the United States are white evangelical Protestants who are 28% hesitant and 26% refusers, Hispanic Protestants who are 42% hesitant and 15% refusers, and Black Protestants who are 32% hesitant and 19% refusers, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll. Without an enforced government vaccination mandate our society will be condemning people randomly to unnecessary sickness, injury, and death. Law is based on the hard-nosed concept that individuals have responsibilities to others that should be enforced to protect the community from behaviors that disrupt the functioning of the community here and now. Willfully not protecting oneself from contagious diseases qualifies as such a disruptive behavior. 

Differences in the degree of exposure to the virus, the virus variant (particularly newer variants that did not exist, or were rare and unknown, when the vaccine was tested) and individual health related conditions may affect how effective a vaccine is. Some people are ineligible for vaccination due to medical conditions or young age. Some people who vaccinate are immunosuppressed so the vaccination is not as effective for them. We often do not know who, among those we share a public accommodation indoor space, is vaccinated and who is not, who is infected and spreading a contagious virus and who is not. The more this virus continues to circulate, the more new virus variants appear, some of which spread and may have differing, and potentially worse overall, negative risk profiles. By continuing to wear a face mask we make it safer for everyone to visit indoor businesses and for some people to avoid self-quarantine. Face masks also protect against particulate pollution (which have significant, negative long term health implications) and other viruses. Vaccination combined with wearing a face mask when adjacent to other people synergistically reduces the spread of contagious diseases. Face masks in congested situations may remain a good practice for years. Meanwhile, try to get some exposure to sun on your skin, maybe 15 minutes, while outdoors alone without a face mask on sunny days.

Monday, April 05, 2021

No bible, no SHMG, at George Washington’s 2nd inauguration

 By Mathew Goldstein

Below is a copy of the March 6, 1793 National Gazette (page 3) article describing the oath of office ceremony for president George Washington. There is no mention of a bible or an appeal to deity at the end of the oath. It appears that this was usually, and maybe always, the case for the oath of office recitations of the early presidents to Tyler (10th president), except for Jackson (7th president) who kissed a bible. George Washington kissed a bible at his first inauguration because that was the only presidential inauguration conducted by a state government according to state law and kissing a bible was mandated by NY state law.

George Washington 2nd oath of office

On Monday last the Senate of the United States convened in the Senate Chamber pursuant to summonses from the President of the United States. The Speaker and Members of the late House of Representatives, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, the Attorney-General, the Judges of the Supreme Court, and other Officers of Government; the foreign Ministers, and a number of private citizens, Ladies and Gentlemen, were also present on the occasion. At twelve o'clock precisely, the President entered the Hall. Mr. Langdon, President pro tempore of the Senate, then rose and said: Sir, one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States is now present, and ready to administer to you the oath required by the Constitution, to be taken by the President of the United States. The President then addressed his Fellow-Citizens in a short, but comprehensive speech. Judge Cushing then read the oath, which the president repeated after him, sentence by sentence, as follows

I, George Washington, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. 

After taking the oath, the President retired, as he had come, without pomp or ceremony: On his departure from the house, the People saluted him with three cheers.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Across the board decline in house of worship membership

 By Mathew Goldstein

Gallup polling ( shows a decline in house of worship membership starting around 2000, a trend that has accelerated somewhat more recently, crossing below 50% for the first time. A decline is found across all age, gender, marital status, education level, geographical region, and race groupings. However, older conservative Protestants are more likely to continue to remain house of worship members than most of the rest of the population.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Laws promoting theism do not enable us to be free

 By Mathew Goldstein

Monika Jablonska is a lawyer and the author of “Wind from Heaven: John Paul II, The Poet Who Became Pope.” This is a response to her article History and Tradition Teaches We Are Free Because of Our Faith in God” that was published in Newsmax.

To be a meaningfully distinct concept from a non-divine alien, or a fictional character, a god needs to be a supernatural being. The question of whether or not we inhabit a universe that operates strictly within the the constraints of naturalism is a question about how the universe operates. The only reliable method to answer such questions is best fit with the available empirical evidence. Our knowledge of how the universe operates increases with time as we accumulate additional empirical evidence. History and tradition are focused on the past. A prioritization of the past promotes a freezing in place our understandings of how the universe operates that have since become obsolete. When combined with a reliance on faith to buttress that historical and traditional conclusion about how the universe operates, such an approach can result in a mind that is not only residing in the past but is also closed to the recent and new. This circular closure is then reinforced by claiming that the particular conclusion about how the universe operates which is rooted in past history and tradition and sustained by faith is essential to highly valued assets such as national success and individual liberty. 

To escape from this mental trap we should instead prioritize what the universe itself communicates to us about how it operates. We should start by recognizing that empirical evidence is what everyone relies on to determine how to survive and prosper on a minute by minute by basis. Throw out other considerations because they obstruct our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. History and tradition have a role in the sense that we are collectively accumulating empirical evidence over time as we experience what succeeds and what fails. Faith has a role here in the sense that we ultimately have limited and incomplete information and must make decisions based on probabilities, not based on certainties. But neither history and tradition, nor faith, should substitute for, or displace, an ongoing and dynamic reliance on a best fit with the overall available empirical evidence method for reaching conclusions about how the universe operates. Our understanding of how the universe operates has grown considerably over the past two hundred years and the changes in our understanding are relevant to addressing the question of whether or not our universe operates supernaturally or naturally. So quoting people from two hundred years ago is an impoverished and unproductive approach to resolving this question.

Obviously, not everyone agrees that ontological naturalism is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion regarding how the universe operates. But arguments that ontological naturalism, regardless of whether or not it is true, must be rejected and be actively discouraged by our laws because it is incompatible with national success or individual liberty are inevitably overreaching. National success depends in part on us and in part on luck, it is not defended by undermining respect for a defensible modern understanding of how the universe operates. And individual liberty is upheld, not sacrificed, by government laws that facilitate open, multi-way, discussion on questions regarding how the universe operates. Individual liberty is not being defended or promoted by arguments that our laws should instead be instructing people that ontological supernaturalism is the correct conclusion.

The Newsmax article conflates the beliefs about divinity of individuals who contributed to the founding of this country with their views on the limits that should apply to the reach of the laws with respect to their interfering with freedom of conscience and expression. Thomas Jefferson in particular appears to have recognized a distinction between what he thought individuals should believe regarding deity on the one hand and what government laws should say regarding deity on the other hand. This is probably why the Declaration of Independence, which does not establish our laws, has a reference to “divine Providence”, while our constitution which establishes our laws does not speak of divine Providence. Our constitution instead calls for no religious test oaths, freedom of religion, and no government establishment of religion. 

During the 1800 campaign for president the Federalists revealed their narrow minded and arrogant intolerance by labeling candidate Thomas Jefferson “a howling atheist” and an “infidel”. As Thomas Jefferson correctly observed “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.“ Thomas Jefferson was not an anti-intellectual as reflected in this quote: “Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason then of blindfolded fear. ... Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.” Not surprisingly some of his best quotes are found in his unfiltered private letters where he was less constrained in order to protect his public image by accommodating popular sentiments.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

AOC promoting mistaken inauguration history

By Mathew Goldstein

UPDATE: The AOC presidential inaugurations web page has been corrected.

The Architect of the Capitol web site describes itself as “Serving Congress and the Supreme Court”. It aspires to “Integrity - We demonstrate our honesty, sincerity and dependability to earn the trust of those we serve.” It also self-exhibits “Professionalism - We adhere to the highest standards of quality and competency for the work that we do.” The AOC “erects the inaugural platform ... and coordinates other activities with the Joint Congressional Committee on the Inaugural Ceremonies ...”

The AOC presidential inaugurations page lists in three columns the date, the president, and notes. The notes say this about Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration: “The only President not sworn in on a Bible." Absent eyewitness testimony to support the claim that each of the prior presidents used a bible during their oath of office, any declaration that Theodore was the first, let alone the only, who did not, as if we know that all presidents before him did use a bible, is falsely misleading. Such a declaration, when stated as a fact, exhibits a lack of integrity and professionalism. Since we have no eyewitness testimony for the presence a bible at George Washington’s second inauguration, nor at the inaugurations of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson (twice), James Madison (twice), and James Monroe (twice), any claim that only one president did not use a bible or that any particular president after George Washington was the first to not use a bible is necessarily mere speculation, regardless of who makes that claim.

Here is my understanding of what it can be said we know: George Washington placed his hand on, and then kissed, a bible at the first presidential inauguration to comply with New York State law because that inauguration was uniquely administered by a state government [Laws of the State of New York: Passed at the Sessions of the Legislature Held in the Years 1777-1801, Volume 1, Ch. 25,]. When he became president the federal executive and judicial branches existed only on paper and the first Congress had not yet passed any bills so the only applicable law was state law. Andrew Jackson kissed a bible. There appears to be no eyewitness evidence that any other president from George Washington’s second inauguration to John Tyler used a bible to swear the oath upon. John Quincy Adams read his oath from a book of law without a bible at his ceremony in 1825 (March 4, 1825 diary entry by John Q. Adams).

Bibles were usually present starting at the 1861 inauguration of Lincoln, except for Theodore Roosevelt who used no book for his first inauguration in 1901. However, there was no bible present during Calvin Coolidge’s impromptu oath of office at his father’s farmhouse in 1923. Although it is widely reported that John F. Kennedy used a bible during his 1961 oath of office, for most of his oath recitation his left hand was actually resting at his side not touching the Bible.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of several presidents whose hand was not on a bible during the oath recitation and who did not kiss a bible. Furthermore, for all we know, George Washington may have been first president to not use a bible and Theodore Roosevelt may have been the fourteenth president to recite the oath of office without a bible (other than Jackson and Polk, all presidents to James Buchanan is thirteen). But you would never know this if you trusted the AOC as an expert source of presidential oath information, which is a shame because they are supposed to be experts. If we cannot rely on experts then who are we supposed to rely on to understand our history? My message to the AOC: Do not assert as historical fact that which is not evidenced and is counter-evidenced. Remove the assertion that all presidents except Theodore Roosevelt took their oath of office on bibles.