grapes give you cancer (and climate change is a serious problem)

97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that humans are causing it.  And this consensus holds even in response to anonymous surveys, which is salient because it indicates that the scientists are not simply self-censoring their true views due to political pressure.  In other words, 97% of the people who actually know what they are talking about believe climate change is a real thing.

Substitute “climate scientists” with oncologists, and make climate change cancer, and how would you feel if 97% of oncologists believed that eating grapes increases your chances for some type of fiercely deadly cancer by 60%?  How often would you continue to eat grapes?  Would you say, “Well, we need more science into whether grapes really do give people cancer?” – and go on eating the same amount of grapes you ate before?  Or would you reduce the amount of grapes you ate, if not stop eating grapes altogether?  More than likely, you’d probably change your behavior (assuming you like living).

Now, within the community of climate scientists, there is a wide range of views as to just how severe we can expect climate change to be.  While some are skeptical that it will be as severe as the consensus predicts, the vast majority believe that the data says we should be concerned.  So, in other words, the vast majority of oncologists are screaming, “probably want to worry about them grapes!”, even though some (but only some!!!) of them are saying, “Although the cancer may not be as bad as our current models are predicting.”

Therefore, since we can’t reverse the effects of human caused global warming, and because there are no other viable planets for our species to relocate to if the high end projections for anthropogenic climate change turn out to be true, it makes sense that only our best and brightest climate minds should be responsible for government agencies charged with managing our policy responses to this human problem.  It also makes sense that we take a conservative approach to how we interpret the data, and assume that the more severe projections are worth worrying about.  Again, because we can’t reverse the effects.

So why is the Trump administration considering a radio talk show host and non-scientist “climate skeptic” (I put that in serious quotes since he likely doesn’t actually know much at all about the actual science part) in charge of a USDA post that oversees research into climate change?  A position, mind you, that is supposed to be headed by an actual scientist?  Perhaps because the Trump administration has demonstrated a profound disregard for expert knowledge, or knowledge in general?

There is a difference, of course, between being an expert skeptic, and being a radio talk show host who believes that climate change is “simply a mechanism for transferring wealth from one group of people to another.”  Keep in mind that, as stated above, 97% of the actual scientists agree that climate change is a real thing.  So the oncologists are saying, “grapes give you cancer”, and Trump is considering the appointment of a radio talk show host and “grapes give you cancer” skeptic in charge of the government division responsible for the research into whether many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands (or even billions) of people’s livelihoods may be at risk by grape eating.  Let me just say that this seems pretty stupid.


backwards progress

Danish man finds himself in hot water for blasphemy.  He is being prosecuted (persecuted?) under an old Danish blasphemy law that was still on the books, but had not been used to prosecute (persecute) someone since 1946.  

Many Danes support the law, though, because they see it as a compromise between two values: freedom of speech and multiculturalism.  Both they hold dear.  But unfortunately, keeping the peace, at least to the Danes, takes precedence over freedom of speech.    

The defendant’s lawyer makes a valid point, ““The Quran contains passages on how Mohammed’s followers must kill the infidel, i.e. the Danes,” he said. “Therefore, it’s an act of self-defense to burn a book that in such a way incites war and violence.”” 

Many apologists will argue that such passages cannot be interpreted except through careful, expert exegesis, because they can otherwise be so easily taken out of context by the layman.  For example, Quran 61:9 says, “He it is who has sent His Messenger (Mohammed) with guidance and the religion of truth (Islam) to make it victorious over all religions even though the infidels may resist.”  This could obviously be interpreted to mean, “Islam is a religion of peace”, or it could also be interpreted to mean, “Islam is a religion that may often manifest in violence.”  It’s all open to interpretation (resist could mean, “consent” or “comply”), so we’d be lost without the experts. 

In like fashion, the burning of a holy book could be interpreted to mean “open hostility towards a people”, or it could also be interpreted as a genuine embrace of freedom over the asphyxiating proscriptions of group dogma.  Who knows?

partisan reasoning

Conservative partisans appear to be doubling down on their conviction that removing Comey was the right thing to do.  Even though just prior to his removal, many were against it or on the fence.  What appears to have happened is a classic case of motivated reasoning, or post-hoc rationalization, whereby one reasons in reverse the justification for their beliefs.  In this case, the reasoning away is the actions of a sitting US president to fire the very man who was investigating his campaign ties to Russia (among other things).  In any other universe, that would be straight up corruption.  

Perhaps what the Trump Train should be doing is considering how they would feel had Obama done something similar.  My only recommendation to my friends on the right wing would be that maybe it’s time to hold your own candidate to the same standards that you would want to see on the other side, lest someday we have a Left Wing Donald Trump.  Obama had his faults.  And I realize that you believe that I am casting stones when Obama, in your eyes, was so blameworthy.  But we have to at some point think critically about matters of degree.  And there simply is no precedent for Donald Trump.

No doubt, many passionately believe that Donald Trump has not been given a fair shake by the media.  But there is no media conspiracy against Donald Trump that he did not help to bring upon himself.  And while it is true that every president, Republican or Democrat, has to contend with a loud, and sometimes hyper critical media that leans center left, the conservative spin that the media is, in Patt Buchanon’s words, the “Opposition Party” is a bit lame. 

Perhaps that would be true in a country where the only media were, for example, Breitbart, but the United States has a free press.  Nobody is forced to read any one particular resource.  I’ve gone weeks without visiting the NY Times.  Maybe it’s time for folks like Buchanon to focus less on the media, and more on their own candidate’s problems:  like an inability to stick with any single version of the truth.

rule of law

Sorry Mr. President.  You don’t get to dictate the terms of an investigation if you are part of what’s being investigated (directly or indirectly).  This is true EVEN IF you feel like the investigation is unfair, and EVEN IF you technically are allowed to fire the man in charge of it.  In our country, rules and norms exist to protect against tyrants who would otherwise run roughshod over the checks and balances of any lesser system, and those rules and norms MUST be adhered to.  

But since our constitution is not perfect and can’t possibly account for every scenario, sometimes the right thing to do, in the spirit of maintaining a free and fair society, is simply to relinquish some of your own power–especially when that power runs headlong into a major conflict of interest and ethics.  You see, Mr President:  there is a difference between what is right and what is legal, or at least you would have learned that had you paid attention in civics class.

inconvenient truths 

The latest in campus outrage and the suppression of controversial speakers has happened again, this time against Heather Mac Donald.  ​

Mac Donald is a conservative writer who uses data and statistics to dismantle many of the claims made by Black Lives Matter, a leftist activist group that uses postmodern race theory, with its Marxist underpinnings, and the politics of personal experience, which they prioritize over objective fact, to argue that the police systematically discriminate against African Americans. 

Like Charles Murray, Mac Donald’s views are inconvenient to a left liberal worldview that the current order of things can only be described as racist and oppressive (versus, more simply, unequal due to many variables that sometimes may include racism and oppression, and sometimes not).  

To this form of social justice activism, believing certain facts about the world is tantamount to racism, even if the facts are true.  Such as that, for example, when adjusted for violent crime rate, blacks are no more likely than whites to be shot and killed by the police (and may even be less likely).  

Jonathan Haidt has recently argued that this form of social justice activism, which seeks to shut down truths they deem unorthodox, is similar to religion in the way that they command what is right, and forbid what is wrong.  But whether he’s correct or not, it’s hard to not be concerned that our young people have gotten so far off course.  

And whatever​ you may think about Mac Donald’s social conservatism and her position that most of the reason for the distress in our African American communities can be blamed on a breakdown of the family (FWIW, I don’t fully agree with her here), it’s hard to argue that espousing such a viewpoint is equivalent to racism.  Especially since Mac Donald, as noted above, has committed herself to making truth claims that are backed by empirical fact, versus subjective knowledge, to support her worldview.  

Anyway, I find all this all so ironic, because those very same people attempting to suppress inconvenient truths are also the ones quick in their smugness to point out the intellectual failure of the right-wing when they attack scientific positions on climate change.

But when a movement equates unorthodox speech with violence against the oppressed, as if words can cause physical harm in the same way as bullets, it’s easy to understand why they are so threatened.  Unfortunately for them and fortunately for the rest of us, our world is better off because people like Mac Donald have been brave enough to commit their lives to questioning the tenet’s of such self-righteous zealots, who are often so blinded by their own fanatical zeal that they are impervious to the real harm they are causing in their denial of reality.  

Let’s hope that this movement against free speech on campus is short lived, and does not get picked up and legitimized by their foes on the right.  Because the day our society loses its ability to question the sacred tenets of dogmatic groups will be the day when I can say with confidence that we are no longer free.

human questions

The science of human nature is often a contentious topic because of the negative, and occasionally vitriolic, reactions it elicits in people.  This is due to the fact that the scientists of human nature are not just dispassionately studying the mating habits of African bonobos, or the altruistic behavior in honeybees of the southeastern United States, or the territorial aggression of the spotted hyena — but, rather, because the researcher is becoming the researched, the inevitable conflicts of interest are bound to occur (for the same general reasons that medical doctors don’t treat their children).

I distinguish between the science of human nature, or an attempt to otherwise understand the biological (or evolutionary) basis for human behavior, and the study of human biology or physiology for, say, medicinal purposes, which is often far less controversial (except when it ties back into the study of human nature).  After all, nobody wants to halt the progress in the search for a cure to cancer, right?

Of course, the same theoretical foundations for understanding why, say, you need to get a flue shot every year as opposed to just once a lifetime (because bacteria and viruses rapidly evolve according to evolutionary principles, leading to antibody resistance), or how mutations in the genome can lead to genetic diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, or why we can test new drugs for humans so effectively in animals, also helps us to understand the behavioral patterns of many non-human animals — like intergroup conflict in chimpanzees.  

And of course those same principles are also why breeders have a job, because they are able to “breed true” the traits they want in dogs, cats, horses and plants using the breeders equation (R [Response to selection] = h^2 [Narrow-sense heritability] * S [Selection differential]).

And since, after all, human minds are but biological components of the human body, for which we have no trouble studying, and because medical doctors are but veterinarians who specialize in people, it logically follows that if it works for the human body (apart from the mind) and for chimps, dogs, cats, horses and plants–it probably also works for the human mind, and human behavior, just the same.

But when it comes to the science of human nature (why we are the way we are), people suddenly become far more timid and less amenable to the findings.  Basic facts and observations about the world that would otherwise be banal in every other context become a threat to our sacred sense of self (where the mind and body are dual systems existing apart from one another).

Never mind the fact that the implications for a more comprehensive understanding of the origins of human behavior are every bit as pressing as curing cancer.  Never mind that by allowing scientists to ask difficult questions we allow ourselves to make breakthroughs that may not have otherwise been thought possible (such as our ability to greatly reduce violence, crime, and other forms of anti-social behavior).  

But even as our difficulty with uncovering the basic truths for the fundamental drivers of human behavior may sometimes bump up against the realities of our self imposed limitations, biases, politics, and pride, it is still worth trying.  Because there are also costs to not trying, and many times, those who believe by limiting our ability to study human nature, they are advancing a more ethical framework for a more ethical world, in fact end up unknowingly causing far more harm than good. 

It is for this reason that I advance the position that our study of human nature should be allowed to progress forward with as few limitations as possible (within an appropriate ethical framework built around it and supported by ethicists and philosophers).  And that scientists should be able to ask difficult questions about that nature, with as little protest as possible.  And that anyone who should protest the study of certain sensitive topics, like the heritability of IQ, would also first consider the ethical implications for not allowing such studies to progress, since there are consequences for not studying as much as there are for studying.

But regardless of what you think, this conversation needs to take place, because we are on the precipice of great advancements in our knowledge and understanding about the biological basis for human behavior (even if we refuse to apply it outside of the laboratory).  Advancements in genetics, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, biology, and other fields, and the resulting scientific consilience that is inevitable will require that we be prepared to face these difficult ethical dilemmas.  And it is my hope that we will chose the path of knowledge over the path of self imposed ignorance, but only time will tell.


Another day, another article about why we can’t assign some blame for negative human behavior to religious teachings that advocate for humans to behave negatively.

Certainly, with enough hand waving and motivated reasoning (along with motivated political science) one can remove from culpability any variable they’d like. While yes, human behavior is complex and functions within a complex system with many inputs and outputs, to say that the teachings of a religious text cannot be used to help explain an aspect of human behavior because “It’s only by looking beyond the texts that we can hope to understand why certain interpretations of them have gained currency among a tiny minority” is itself as shortsighted and ludicrous as saying that the texts are the only explanation for human behavior.

A better explanation is that certain behaviors are more likely to manifest as a result of certain religious teachings more than others. So if a text says “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out… And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone.” Quran (2:191-193) People are more likely to manifest behavior that is in accordance with modern day violent jihad than if the text said more plainly, “never harm the unbelievers except in self defense, and even then only inflict the minimum harm necessary.” More likely doesn’t mean definitely, however. So said behaviors can also lie dormant for periods of time, even though they are within the toolkit of probable behavioral expressions of certain belief systems.

The idea that religion plays a role in human behavior isn’t a simple minded one, it’s a basic fact. The author of this piece argues instead that human behavior is complicated, and that in order to understand it we must take into account the “full complexities of the world” by considering how “politics – including military and non-military intervention by foreign powers – interacts with religion.” But then he does so by arguing that we must then remove religion from culpability, in the very same piece where he himself admits “Aspects of Islamic teaching do indeed justify some kinds of violence. Islam isn’t a pacifist religion.” In other words, the author proves himself unable to cope with the “full complexities of the world” even as he advocates for everyone else to do so.