There’s Always an Alternative

June 11, 2007

If your standards are low enough.

I just spent a good hour looking at the website of Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice, largely because I came across a website talking about how great the ‘evidence’ is for a controlled demolition. After reading some of their ‘evidence’–which largely consists of a drip of pseudoscience here and a heavy coat of logically-indefensible theorizing there–and find myself slightly more educated about their arguments, and overwhelmingly unconvinced.

The most interesting thing for me is the similarity between the 9/11 Truth movement and Creationism/ Intelligent Design. Both of these are based on the idea that the status quo simply cannot be correct, largely because of personal incredulity. There’s no way I could have evolved from monkeys… There’s no way there’s a natural mechanism that would create X… There’s no way that those planes and/or fires could have brought down those buildings… And what they end up with an alternative theory that is less plausible than the mainstream one which is supported by evidence. This also seems to be similar to other forms of pseudoscience, like that of HIV-denialists.

Here’s an interesting example from the 9/11 site:

The word theory when used in the derisive sense of ‘conspiracy theory’ connotes detailed speculation unfounded in fact. However, a theory can stand apart from a detailed scenario explaning the means and methods behind observed events. For example, a theory of the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers can be proved simply by disproving its converse — that the Towers’ collapses were spontaneous. (emphasis added)

That last sentence is the interesting part. Of course, it’s bad logic, and bad theorizing. One should look for the more parsimonious theory–that which fits better with the available evidence. Even if one were able to disprove specific evidence for the official theories (which, judging by the evidence presented on the website, certainly hasn’t been done, but is assumed to have been done), that wouldn’t mean the alternative theory is more plausible. It’s reminiscent of the Wedge Strategy of the Intelligent Design movement:

The objective (of the wedge strategy) is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’

Simply convince people that the main theory is either untrue or unpalatable, and then they’ll no other choice but to embrace the alternative conveniently offered at the moment of doubt. Moral for the day: If you see this strategy elsewhere, be wary.


If You Don’t Like to Think About AIDS, Don’t Read This.

June 10, 2007

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece recently entitled “Save the Darfur Puppy.” I think he was going for getting a reaction with the title, and it worked, at least with me. You’ve probably notice that the media loves stories about endangered species–always cute, cuddly ones, never rodents–because people are moved by these stories. On the other hand, a crisis like the genocide in Darfur is unlikely to get airplay commensurate with its magnitude. And likewise with AIDS, which despite being of tragic scale–two or three flaming World Trade Centers full of people dying every day–rarely hits the news, in part because it’s the same old, depressing story, every day.

So, when I saw that Truthdig had an interview called “Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa,” I gravitated light-wards. The piece is an interview of Stephanie Nolen, the author of a new book called “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” which tells one narrative of a (real, actual, living and breathing) human being with HIV in Africa for every one million of the estimated 28 million living with the virus. I certainly plan on reading this book, but here’s what really caught my eye–this picture:

And its caption:

Bongos, an 8-year-old HIV-positive boy, waits in a hallway at the Sparrow Rainbow Village medical clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, in November 2005.

This really hits home, because I volunteered at Sparrow back in 2005. They do incredible work, and my few weeks there were extremely moving. Sparrow is an orphanage and adult hospice–a “village”–where those with HIV are cared for. The corridor in the background is the central part of Sparrow’s administrative center, which connects some of the hospital rooms (for the sickest patients), a kitchen, administrative offices, and even a makeshift morgue. Because most of the patients there receive some level of antiretroviral treatment Sparrow is really, sadly, one of the best places to be in Johannesburg if you’re a kid with HIV.

Here are some compelling quotes from Nolen’s interview on Truthdig:

You show people a picture of one sad-looking puppy and everyone runs for their wallet, and you tell them that 30,000 children die a day of diseases that can be prevented for less than a buck and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t know what it is, what that says about us as a species, but I certainly know from a long time reporting about HIV in Africa that it’s true.

On narrating an issue where the statistics are numbing:

Their lives could not look more different in some ways than the lives of an American or a Canadian. But when you sit down in the little counselor’s booth in Malawi or Lusaka and they say to you, “You have AIDS, you’re going to die,” that doesn’t feel different than it would if you were in America. And it’s getting people to realize that those people had all—sure, they’re Africans—but they had all those same expectations around their lives. They want to graduate from high school, they want to start a little business, they want to, you know, persuade that really cute girl they’ve been eyeing for a long time to go out with them. It isn’t any different. You’ve really got to go, go really micro to make people understand that story, to get them past the numbers.

On finding stories of progress:

You know, I think we get very often this perception of it being a grim story where not very much changes…We also don’t hear that huge progress has been made in responding. There were, for example, when I started reporting on this full-time, there were fewer than 100,000 people on treatments and today there are 1.5 million in Africa. And everybody said, “You can’t do it, there’s no way you can treat in Africa.” Well, that’s a 13-fold increase in four years, and those people have better survival rates on treatment than most Americans on treatment do. So lots of victories.

On money and broken promises and the real roadblock to widespread treatment programs (trained health care professionals):

And there’s a lot more money available than there was….They need about $6.8 billion to meet those proposals, and they have, you know, like, $1.85 in change. Constantly, countries promise money and don’t deliver or don’t promise anything like what’s needed to respond. So we need money. I think, even more than money, these days we’re realizing that there are some more intractable problems that are going to need more creative solutions. So you can use that money to fly in boxes and boxes of pills. You can’t fly in nurses, doctors, pharmacists. I mean, you can fly in a few, but not enough to meet the needs of a whole, continent-wide healthcare program, right?

On the underlying economic inequalities that drive the epidemic:

You know, I meet lots of young women who’ve been given information about HIV but who are selling sex down at truck stops because their parents have died, they’re raising their siblings and that’s the only option that they have. So, you know, they say, “Fine, we’ve been told about HIV in the safe-sex textbooks, but HIV might kill me in five years or 10 years and we’re all going to starve to death next week if I don’t do this.” So, you can address some of the obvious things around prevention, but unless you change the factors that drive people into risky behavior, then you haven’t achieved very much.

And, a bit further afield, but still in Africa, on Darfur and the war in Uganda:

And, you know, it’s also interesting to talk about Darfur because, yeah, there are probably 300, 350,000 dead there and a lot of people displaced, but it is in fact a far smaller conflict than the war in northern Uganda which has been going on for 21 years. You have four times as many people displaced in northern Uganda. You have four times as many people dead. Well, when did we last hear about that one, right? I mean, Darfur is suddenly sexy because George Clooney goes there and, meanwhile, the war in northern Uganda that relies almost entirely on child soldiers … you don’t hear about that one.

On Bush’s PEPFAR program (providing treatment for AIDS in Africa):

Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of call-in radio lately where people call up and are yelling about the Bush administration letting people die, and here they are, spending all these billions of dollars in Iraq. Why don’t they do something in Africa? So I say to people, “Well, guess what? Actually the $15-billion, five-year program to intervene for AIDS in Africa, that the Bush administration dreamed up, has been the single greatest response to the pandemic ever.” And then there’s kind of silence on the end of the phone, you know?

And its problems:

…They’re saying a group that’s going to get U.S. funds to distribute condoms or put AIDS programs in schools or care for sick people, has to sign a piece of paper condemning sex work. And that’s like crazy moral language that just has no place in a place where people are selling sex to eat.

I like Stephanie Nolen. And I like Truthdig.

(If you’d like to learn more about or donate to Sparrow, please do so!)


Cruel yet Eloquent

June 6, 2007

The Onion has a piece called Hey, Wasn’t There Some Sort Of National Tragedy A Few Months Back?

Sometimes biting satire is the best way of making us think about ourselves–as individuals or a country. This story’s about memory, forgetfulness, lack of resolve, and the banality of “never forget.” Maybe if things like this stuck in our heads more often, we’d actually have reasonable gun laws.

But woe unto me for wishing that we come up with rationally conceived legislation instead of deriving our laws from blindly-followed, ne’er-questioned Rights.


The Debate (II)

June 4, 2007

Awesome question on Pakistan. Hurray for random history professors in the audience.

Many of these hypothetical situations are ridiculous. Kucinich handled the question about assassinations well. I don’t his answer is very politically wise, but it’s the best thing to say.

Hillary really tries to turn everything back to being Bush’s fault. This certainly plays well to the liberal base, but it doesn’t always make sense.

Biden is really extraordinary on foreign policy. On Sudan: “They have forfeited their sovereignty by committing genocide.” Amen brother. He and Richardson are talking sense on Darfur, and on Africa.

There’s a lot of hand raising going on. Wolf Blitzer is a blithering idiot. And Hillary called him on it.

Chris Dodd: Boycotting the ’08 Olympics in Beijing if China doesn’t get tough with Sudan is “going too far.” Bullshit.

Biden is too angry to be a good politician, but he gets things right.

Obama rocks on talking about American moral legitimacy as a world leader.


The Debate

June 4, 2007

Kucinich has the best solution for health care. Bravo. Any ‘solution’ to America’s health care problems that feed the insurance companies will continue being terribly inefficient, and citizens will blame it all on the Democrats. Universal health care doesn’t have to be a bloated, hodge-podge design we create as go along.

Why does Hillary always sound like she’s shouting?

It’s unfortunate Obama doesn’t sound quite as articulate in the debates as he does in his books. I still like him the most, and have the most confidence in his personal integrity (largely based on his community organizing work).

I’m amazed at how many different ways there are to dodge questions.

I’ll be even more amazed if any of the debaters will admit that pulling out of Iraq will likely lead to much more violence. That’s a fact of life, and one we must come to grips with (I still think we need to move out–we’re just prolonging the inevitable). There are some realities that are simply unmentionable for a politician.

They need to turn of Wolf Blitzer’s mic when he’s not asking questions. That’s just not professional.


McCain’s Agnosticism Kills

March 20, 2007

apmccain.jpg

I now officially loathe John McCain. When asked simple questions about whether condoms protect users from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, McCain simply “didn’t know.” In other words, he’s so afraid of offending his “moral conservative” base that he professes to be agnostic about the most basic of scientific facts, and ends up supporting policies that kill.

A transcript borrowed from The Caucus blog:

Reporter: “Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?”

McCain: “…Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don’t know if I would use taxpayers’ money for it.”

Reporter: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”

McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Reporter: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?

McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Reporter: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Reporter: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

Mr. Senator, this is absurd. I’m nauseous. Actually, this reminds me of the President of Gambia. He had a vision from his ancestors telling him about a magical cure for HIV. And because of his ignorance, people are going to die.

And it reminds me of Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa. In 2000, while under pressure from activists to begin providing life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment for HIV using public funds, Mbeki found the easy way out. He publicly questioned whether HIV causes AIDS, and suggested people should opt for good nutrition alone, with no other treatment. Mbeki’s dithering was eventually overcome, but the delay in providing public treatment for HIV in South Africa cost lots of lives, and those lives aren’t just statistics. In 2004 I watched several kids die of HIV in Johannesburg–kids who might have been on treatment by then if Mbeki hadn’t publicly encouraged ignorance and backpedaling.

And with McCain, it’s worse. Really, who do you expect to be more scientifically informed, and more likely to use financial resources to promote condoms, a former revolutionary and current president of a country in Africa? Or a United States Senator, who is a leading politician in a country with massive resources?

And how did McCain respond? He laughed. He hedged. He refused to acknowledge that condoms in any way prevent the spread of HIV or STDs. He probably would deny they prevent pregnancy as well!

This is no laughing matter. McCain will get some negative publicity, but his conservative base will say “look, he’s really anti-condom, so we like him,” imagining that not sending condoms to Africa is actually going to make people celibate and turn them to God.

May McCain be cursed with a stingy bout of gonorrhea and ongoing neural degradation (if he can afford it, since he’s obviously already lacking) from syphilis.


Bush Reinvents “Progress”

March 20, 2007

CNN has a piece on the 4-year anniversary of the war.

There are some real darling quotes in there. Like this:

“There’s been good progress.”

Am I missing something?

“If American forces were to step back from Baghdad, before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country,” Bush said. “In time this violence could engulf the region.”

This is true. But is Bush offering a legitimate option for creating a lasting peace? It seems not.

But, in case all the sectarian violence has you feeling gloomy, we’re going to have a hanging pretty soon. Should be a good one.


Andy Griffith Hates America

January 20, 2007

(This from Elrod’s blog– it was so good I just had to repost it.) It’s short, just 1 minute long.

Of course, over at the Futurist it’s argued that those who oppose the Patriot Act actually want the terrorists to win: “Active opposition to both our overseas activities and the domestic Patriot Act is a good indicator that the person holding these opinions actually does not want America to win the War on Terror. How can someone oppose all these things, and still be on America’s side?”

But the Futurist is wrong- the Patriot Act has garnered opposition from both the left and the right, i.e., not just those of us who “hate America. “


The Epitomal Transhumanist

January 19, 2007

This video of Ray Kurzweil (about 23 minutes long) is an excerpt from an annual seminar called TED Talks (for Technology, Entertainment and Design) that features leaders from a variety of fields. While most of the talks seem to focus on society or technology, the perspectives are quite broad: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Daniel Dennett, Bono, and Richard Dawkins have all graced its stage in recent years.

Ray Kurzweil is a prominent transhumanist, and has one of the most optimistic views of technology possible. One of his more recent books is The Singularity is Near, which describes his view that not only is the eventual surpassing of humanity by artificial intelligence inevitable, it is also nearer than we think. In Kurzweil’s view this process will include the merging of our own personal consciousness with the advanced capabilities of computers to eventually be able to process more quickly, analyze more astutely, retrieve data more accurately, and so on. In Kurzweil’s view, what truly distinguishes homo sapiens is not our current biological status, history, or accomplishments, but our impetus to transcend our limitations. Technology merely offers us a new vehicle for our transcendence.

Regardless of whether you embrace his views wholeheartedly (they seem a bit optimistic even for me) or you feel a shiver of terror or silent mockery slipping down your Luddite spine, Kurzweil’s thought should be examined because of his influence. He’s a successful inventor and author, and a prominent figure among futurists and transhumanists. Here’s a summary of sorts of Kurzweil’s TED talk:

Can we predict the future? While certain specifics of technological progress are very hard to predict, overall trends are predictable, and they’re also exponential. Growth in one technology enables and promotes growth in another technology. 50 years to adopt telephones, 8 years to adopt cell phones. TV took decades, but new technologies- like the internet- have taken off much faster.

Kurzweil then makes an analogy to biological evolution. The evolution of genetic material (DNA/RNA) took billions of years, but once certain genes were in place (or the common “tool-kit,” as evo-devo would put it) more rapid (~10 million years) change, like the Cambrian “explosion” (a term that is disliked in many circles) can occur. But as the first technology-creating species, our culture has allowed us to “evolve” on a level that is exponential in comparison to biological evolution (which is one reason we have a hard time understanding evolutionary time scales).

It took tens of thousands of years to develop agriculture, then thousands to move to more centralized forms of government (those two are arguably related, but the direction of causality is disputed), civilization led to quicker technological development, etc. The last 500 years of technological growth were incredible, but the last century has been even more impressive- bringing us widely available automobiles, radios, TVs, airplanes, medical technology, computers, Internet, not to mention space flight and an incredible plethora of new weapons systems with which to butcher each other.

This emphasis on technological development as an exponential process is a major theme of Kurzweil’s work. But, he points out, people always begin doubting when exponential growth for future technology is predicted. This growth is a result of

“worldwide chaotic behavior.. You would think it would be a very erratic process, yet you have a very smooth outcome… Just as we can’t predict what one molecule in a gas will do- it’s hopeless to predict a single molecule- yet we can predict the properties of the whole gas using thermodynamics very accurately. It’s the same thing here- we can’t predict any particular product, but the result of this whole worldwide chaotic, unpredictable activity of competition in the evolutionary process of technology is very predictable, and we can predict these trends very far into the future.”

Kurzweil also talks about the suboptimal nature of much human biology (so much for perfect design). For example, our metabolism, which leads us to hold onto every calorie, is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days and is something that we might like to modify to prevent obesity in developed nations. And another problem, which seems to be Kurzweil’s main fascination: “Long life spans (as in more than 30) weren’t selected for.”

While some of his examples are sketchier than others, the idea of an engineered erythrocyte (red blood cell) that could increase oxygen capacity greatly is particular interesting. In my view, Kurzweil has a tendency to exaggerate about some possibilities, but then again, exponential growth will always appear as an exaggeration to those in a linear-growth mindset.

I think more important than any individual predictions about technological progress that Kurzweil makes (like reverse-engineering the brain by 2020), his main point stands: the progress of technology throughout history has been accelerating. The main question tends to be whether we’ll be able to harness these technologies to make life more certain, more pleasurable, more equitable, more eco-friendly, and more connected (and therefore more meaningful on some level) or to just wipe each other off the planet.