“I was in the prison, and you visited me…”

Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I attended church alone.  We had a guest pastor in church, as our regular pastor was out of town.  Her name was Pastor Arnette Pint, and she was the first Associate Pastor for Shueyville UMC back in the late-90s.  Since that time, she has gone on to a few positions, but her most recent one is serving a congregation called Women at the Well, that she started at the Mitchellville, IA Women’s Correctional Facility, so she had some very interesting perspectives.

Pastor Arnette described a variety of statistics and anecdotal stories to help illustrate what she does and why it’s important.  First, she told us that this is a relatively new concept, having a church within a prison.  This is different than having churches visit prisons, as you end up getting a variety of groups coming through and not staying – no sense of permanence.  The United Methodist Church in Iowa felt the need to appoint a pastor specifically to this prison, as the system apparently works well in other states where it’s been implemented.  Pastor Arnette relayed a story of the pastor (whose name I can’t find) that started this movement and, effectively, “wrote the book” on doing this sort of thing.  He had been ministering to the men of a prison in South Dakota and he got the sense that they wanted an actual, regular, church service.  Something permanent.  Something they could depend on.  After he started a weekly service, the numbers of attendees grew, and their outlooks after prison improved.

The part of the story that hit me was that, supposedly, one inmate thanked him for starting the service, lamenting the endless parade of churches and groups coming through to preach to them.  The inmate said “We was tired of gettin’ saved.”  It was an interesting point to make, as these churches that were coming to the prison somehow felt as though, because they were prisoners, they must obviously not be Christians.  Because they were in prison, they obviously needed “saving.”

With this framework in mind, Pastor Arnette went through some statistics, saying that 60% of inmate in her prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness, though that number is surely higher.  Most of those diagnoses happened outside the prison system, as the ones that occur once you’re in the system can be difficult to interpret.  There are 600 women in the prison, while 30 years ago, in the same building, there were only 40-something women there.  It’s a crowded place, and there’s one psychologist to manage all of them.  They communicate over the internet with a psychiatrist in order to get any medications approved.  Pastor Arnette also said that, while the statistics aren’t solid on this, she thinks it’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of these women that have been abused in some fashion during their lives, and the majority of them have struggled with addiction at some time.  For many of them, addiction is the reason they are in prison at all.  She said that, while they have counselors at the prison to help the psychologist in their day-to-day routine, these counselors, more often than not, are prison guards that have ranked up high enough to get off the floor.

The United Methodist Church in Iowa also started a program to help provide clothing for women that are leaving prison.  Apparently, the State of Iowa doesn’t provide you with a change of clothes for your bus ride home, so there are women riding from Des Moines to all points of the State in their prison uniform.  Hardly the “right foot” to get started on.  So, the Methodist Church started collecting clothes from women across the state, asking them to donate their lightly-used clothes so that these women have something to start fresh with.  The church provides a set of casual clothes, as well as a set of clothes nice enough for “that first job interview.”  Certainly a nice gesture.

One of her larger points was with regards to the cost of building and operating prisons.  She pointed out that almost $180 million has been approved by the State of Iowa to help refurbish this current prison, as well as build another prison in the state (and that’s just to build, not to operate).  That’s $180+ million to help deal with all these women that have been coming in (remember, 40 women increased to 600 in this one building over 30 years, largely due to influx of methamphetamine and harsher drug laws).  She suggested that, maybe, that $180+ million would have been better spent on helping these women before they got into prison, by providing greater access to abuse and addiction counselors, or to even see a mental health professional.

At a time when state funding for mental health is declining drastically, our spending on new prison facilities is increasing.  “How does this make sense,” she asks.

The last point I’ll leave with you are some interesting statistics on recidivism (as in, the likelihood someone within the prison will come back to the prison one or more times).  The rate in Iowa is 60%, which is comparable to other states.  According to her, in studies that have looked into programs like hers, with churches that are actually based within a prison, the recidivism rate drops to 15% for those individuals.  If those individuals leave the prison and find a church home (as in, one they attend regularly, as opposed to “just visiting”), the rate drops to 2%.

It was an excellent sermon, and an eye-opening testament to what goes on in the prison system.  Thankfully, my family isn’t known for their prison stints, so I can’t say I have any experience with what it’s like to “go through the system.”  I hope I never do, but if anyone I know has to go through it, I hope they have someone like Pastor Arnette and a program like hers to help them see it through.


I have been slowly catching up on podcasts from late last year now that I’m back at work.  I was listening to one yesterday from NPR’s On Point discussing the Wikileaks scandal, but moreover, the world that we now inhabit with regards to leaks, the internet, and overall availability of information.

Toward the end of the segment, the host, Tom Ashbrook, was talking to the former Director of Intelligence, John Negroponte.  He asked Negroponte how we, the United States, would/could deal with a leak like this.  Negroponte answered that they would do their best to prevent it from happening in the first place, placing greater restrictions on the individuals that can access certain information, and then also help re-classify information that should be classified versus that which really doesn’t need to be.  Ashbrook kept pressing him on the matter, asking: “What would you do in the event of a leak?  How would you stop it?”  Negroponte kept going back to “stop it at the source.”  It was getting really annoying to keep hearing the same question over and over, when I kept repeating the answer in my head as often as Ashbrook could ask.

The correct answer?

You do nothing.

There is nothing you can do.  Once the Internet has your information, you’re done.  It’s out there and you can’t stop it.  You can shut down a server or two, but the information propagates to such a degree that you can never fully eradicate any of it.

As happens frequently, this exchange got me thinking about generational differences and their views on the Internet as a whole, specifically to what degree each generation seems to embrace the sharing of information.  [Note: I have talked about this before…]  For those of us that grew up in parallel with the Internet (i.e. it was growing as we were growing), I think the transition was easy.  We learned to live together, gradually sharing some bits of information and withholding others.  We were using the Internet before Google even existed, when all you could do is use Yahoo! to find a website that you had to manually file within their database.  There was no Facebook.  There was no YouTube.  Primarily we were takers of information rather than providers, at least until we became more comfortable contributing to this new ecosystem.

The generation(s) older than me have taken to the Internet at a slower pace (at least in terms of creating new information…), largely because they’re more cautious.  Quite a few folks from those generations are now using e-mail and Facebook, and consequently are now starting to rely on it to a greater degree than ever before.  You can still see the delay in overall adoption in things like smart phones though, where these people are just now starting to get into the mode where they think complete and total connectivity is a necessity.  This is likely because their children and grandchildren are also more accessible, so if they want to contact them, this is how they have to do it.

It’s the younger generation(s) that I’m more curious about.  These people are growing up in a world where the Internet “just exists,” much like air and gravity.  It’s a reality.  It’s something you live with and use.  I guess the difference goes back to information sharing, the older generation never really shared things and stayed more private, my generation gradually let certain things slip and get onto the Internet, and the younger generation never really learned the restraint that should be applied to certain things rather than others.  However, I imagine that these kids are much more attuned into “what should go on the Internet” and “what should not go on the Internet” than I give them credit for.  They’ve seen things happen to their friends when something gets posted that shouldn’t, likely causing them to think twice about their choices.

Personally, I’ve always held the view that whatever I post on the Internet is viewable by The World At Large.  Anything I post on Facebook (and there are quite a few politics-based links I post up there…my views are pretty clear…) can be seen by practically anyone.  Anything on this blog can be seen by absolutely anyone.  Any future job prospects that I have will likely go a quick Google search on my name and this blog will be the first thing that comes up.  They can go back almost 6 years and read all about me, my family and what I’ve been up to.  Am I proud of all of it?  Not necessarily, but I also don’t hide from it.  That information is representative of who I was and who I am today.  If you want a snapshot of Andy Linsenbardt and all he’s about, this is where to find it.  Freely available and open for all to see.

This is also how I view information in general.  Sure, we have an inclination to hide things, but more often than not, we’re trying to hide things that we’re embarrassed about.  I plan on teaching Meg and her siblings someday that the Internet is a very useful tool, but anything you post on it can be viewed at any time.  If you don’t want anyone to see a certain picture of you drinking while you’re underage, don’t put it online.  Someone will find it.  Even if you delete it, it’s saved on a server somewhere that someone can get.  Anything that could potentially embarrass you should stay far away from the Internet.  Really, though, you just shouldn’t actually do things that could potentially embarrass you someday, but that’s another matter…

No matter what generation you come from, “honesty is the best policy” still applies to you.  Everyone is entitled to secrets, but there are some things that may as well be out in the open, freely accessible, so that others know more about how and how to deal with you.  It ends up saving time in the “getting to know you” stage.  You think about better strategies when dealing with others when you know more about them.  Sure, you learn how to take advantage of them as well, but hopefully this kind of openness spreads the naivety pretty thin.

Which brings us back to the Wikileaks deal from last year.  A lot of people were concerned that this information could hurt America’s standing in the world, and hurt our relationships with other nations.  Information that the United States was hiding was perceived as something to be embarrassed about, even if, at first glance, that information was innocuous.  In the end, the complaint that this leak somehow disrupted the fabric of space-time and all is lost is moot: if you really didn’t want that information out, then you should have classified it differently.

However, the larger point is this: perhaps most of that information should have been out in the open anyway.  Much as reading this blog gives the reader some extra insight into me, perhaps a lot of that information provides extra insight into the world we inhabit and the cultures we interact with.

And I don’t see a problem with that.

This whole “War on Christmas” thing…

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

For some reason, this week marked the first time in 2010 that I heard mention of this year’s “War on Christmas,” first in church and then in the “Daily Show” clip embedded above.  At church this past Sunday, it was proclaimed twice (not by the pastor) that we should all remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and that we should all say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.”  In the clip above, Jon Stewart highlights Fox News’ personality Gretchen Carlson as going off on the city of Tulsa, OK for changing the name of their 70-year-old annual “Christmas Parade” to the “Holiday Parade”…back in 2009…

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the frustration.  Christmas is a holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth and, thus, is a Christian holiday.  And this Christian holiday has been hijacked by all these other groups, including the atheists that believe in Santa Claus, or the Jews and their Hanukkah celebration.  We should all stand up against this onslaught and proudly exclaim “Merry Christmas” to everyone, and help ensure that we get a “Merry Christmas” back instead of the more generic “Happy Holidays” (you know, ’cause there’s only one real holiday…so we can’t make it plural). <end sarcasm here>

As the last half of the video above suggests, this trend is hardly new.  If you watch many of the old classic Christmas movies, including “Rudolph,” “A Christmas Carol,” “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” etc., you won’t find much mention of Jesus.  Only “A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes to mind in mentioning it at all, with the iconic recitation of the Christmas story by Linus, but that still only lasts a few minutes compared with the rest of the plot line.  Why, exactly, these TV and radio personalities are so uppity about it in recent years is beyond me.  It’s been happening for decades.

What Carlsson, and many, many others, fail to understand is that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t actually born on December 25th, and that the date was (likely?) chosen by Rome because of other festivals occurring around the Winter Solstice; or the fact that Hanukkah predates Christmas by almost two centuries.  These people miss  the fact that the very idea of “Christmas” has become something more to the general population of the world.

A time of peace.  A time of giving and sharing.  A time of remembering and helping the less fortunate.  A time for friends and family.  A time to end hostilities between you and your neighbor.  A time to think back on those that have gone before you, and a time to watch new lives grow.

Whether or not you ascribe the holiday to Jesus, Santa, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or someone/something else: shirley these are tenets we can all agree on.

I’d be willing to bet that Jesus would rather you love and remember your neighbor, instead of getting caught up in saying “Merry Christmas.”  He’d want you to say something.  And mean it.

The Science of Speaking Out

Ira Flatow had a group of climate scientists on his show, NPR’s Science Friday, this past week discussing the “fine line” that many scientists find themselves walking.  Philosophically, there are many in the scientific community that believe they should present the facts and allow the public to interpret them.  These scientists frequently just want to stay out of that realm of discourse, allowing the public (and, therefore, politicians) to decide how their data is used and what the best course of action is.  Largely, this is how it’s always been.  Early astronomers could tell what they knew, but had to wait for their ideas to be accepted by their respective communities.

This particular group of climate scientists, however, is getting together to move beyond the borders they have typically held themselves to, instead choosing to speak out with what they know and actually make policy recommendations based on their information.  Largely, this group adheres to what the great Carl Sagan once said:

“People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.”

That is to say, these scientists are tired of presenting facts time and time again only to have them ignored and have other people’s opinions matter more than proven factual data.  To the scientific community, there is no question regarding the fact that global warming is occurring and that humans contribute to it.  In a separate (but related) issue, to the scientific community, there is no question regarding the fact that evolution is occurring and that natural selection is the most likely mechanism.  There is no question that frozen embryos are kept in that state for years and end up “dying” in a liquid nitrogen freezer when they could have been used for stem cell research rather than being discarded in a biohazard bag and incinerated.  Yet politicians, for some reason, are able to ignore these facts in their decisions of what is taught in our schools and what energy policies should be enacted and how important research could be conducted.

After listening for awhile, an individual called in and asked a question that intrigued me, and it’s one that I haven’t really considered up until now: why is it that members of Congress, and politicians in general, feel the need to question facts of science, yet do not pose the same questions toward religious beliefs?  Let us assume that all politicians turn their magnifying glass toward all information that comes across their desks (hah!).  Shouldn’t that magnifying glass analyze all information the same way, equally?  Shouldn’t they ask, “Well, this group of people used rigorous experimental techniques and verified their findings, and this other group didn’t.  Which should we believe?”

I mentioned this concept to Brooke and her attitude was, generally speaking, “That’s Just How It Is.”  This is true, but it still irks me.  I realize that this is how religious beliefs have always been.  There has always been a large enough group of individuals that are so adamant about their beliefs that, no matter what facts you give them, they will not shift policy to match.  The most recent issue of childhood vaccinations and the misconceptions about them comes to mind.  I’m not sure if this is a failing of critical thinking skills or education in general, but it’s been such a pervasive problem throughout history that I have to wonder.  Frequently, it takes at least one generation to change minds about these things, and in some cases, many generations.  I’m just afraid that, on many of these issues, we don’t have that long.

Case in point: the Catholic Church condemned Galileo‘s heretical thinking about the Earth revolving around the Sun as “vehement suspicion of heresy.”  He died in 1642 and he couldn’t be buried with his family because of it (to be fair, the Church moved his remains to their rightful place almost 100 years later).  However, the Catholic Church waited over a century before accepting heliocentrism, and until 1965 to revoke its condemnation of Galileo himself.

Scientists are getting a little annoyed with that kind of treatment.  Granted, the world moves faster today and ideas are disseminated and accepted much faster, yet Natural Selection has been a concept for over 150 years and there are still people that use the phrase “but it’s just a Theory.”  It shouldn’t take over 150 years, let alone 300 years, for ideas to be accepted when those ideas are revolutionary to our understanding of our place in the universe, and it really shouldn’t take that long for governments to make policies that use legitimate scientific data to actually preserve our place in that universe by preventing our extinction from it.  In 300 years, without any change in policy, we won’t have California or Florida anymore.  It will be too late.

The Digital Generation

I was listening to NPR’s OnPoint podcast from November 2nd, where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Douglass Rushkoff on his “Rules for the Digital Age,” discussing Rushkoff’s new book “Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” The discussion bounced around quite a few topics, but largely focused on the thought that people today take their digital presence for granted and that people interact with digital media in such a way that they don’t control the outcome, but instead they are controlled by their digital media.

For example, Rushkoff recounts a story from their PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Digital Nation,” where the producers ask a child: “What is Facebook for?”  The kid’s answer was “for making friends.”  It’s a relatively simple answer, and one that many adults would also provide, yet the true answer is “to make money off of the relationships, likes and dislikes of its users.”

As another example, Rushkoff says that students when we were growing up decades ago would go to the World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica in order to get a “primary source” for our book reports.  Now, for many people, simply using Google is “good enough” to find the information you want.  If you use Google’s Instant Search option, introduced a few months ago, your search results change by the second and are largely influenced by traffic on those sites, yet Google is perfectly capable of adjusting the results so that some pages show up first and others don’t.  For many users, they’re just “The Results” that they get, however the user typically doesn’t think about the vested interest that Google has, as a company, in making money off of their Search ventures.

Rushkoff’s solution, outlined in his “10 Rules,” is generally that people should be more computer literate.  He says that kids today that take a computer class in junior high or high school learn Microsoft Office.  To him, that’s not “computers,” but instead it’s “software.”  You aren’t learning how a computer works.  You aren’t learning about what programming had to go into those programs.  You aren’t learning about the types of programs available (i.e. closed-source vs open-source).  You simply accept what you are given as Gospel without critically thinking.

As I listened to the discussion, especially with regards to Google, I had to think about this past election which saw the rise of the Tea Party.  While many of them would have you believe that they were all educated, intelligent, active people, so many of them were taken advantage of by other third-party groups, primarily corporations.  These are individuals that believed what they found in Google searches without thinking critically about what they were discussing.  Rachel Maddow did an interview in Alaska discussing the Senate race of Tea Party favorite Joe Miller (who lost…), and the supporters outside were angry about all the policies that Attorney General Eric Holder had supported, and his voting record prior to becoming A.G.  Of course, Maddow points out that Holder never held public office, and thus had no voting record.  But these people believed it because that’s what they were told.  It’s what they read on the internet.  As if “The Internet” is to be equated with the Encyclopedia Britannica of old.

Rushkoff’s larger point, in my view, is that people today simply don’t have the critical thinking skills to handle what digital media has provided.  So much information is now provided with so many more sources that individuals can’t effectively wade through it and discern whether what they are reading is fact or fiction.

I’m not sure that a better understanding of computers alone would be enough to combat the problem, honestly.  Rushkoff suggests that some basic programming skills would be helpful for people to know as well, much as people thousands of years ago had to learn to write when “text” was invented.  He believes that the invention of text empowered people to write laws, to hold each other accountable, and to be more than they were.  He believes that giving everyone basic programming skills would do something similar, where they would be more likely to know and understand why a computer does what it does, and how the programs on your system interact with programs on the internet as a whole.  I barely have any programming training and I think I’ve got a relatively decent handle on how the internet works, but most of that was self-taught over nearly two decades.  I certainly don’t think it would hurt to have kids learn some basic programming, but they’re already missing the boat in various other subjects that programming is surely on the bottom of the list.

To me, it’s the critical thinking part that needs to be improved.  With some basic critical thinking skills, hopefully, people would be more informed about everything they do in their daily lives: in raising their children, in voting for elected offices, in thinking about where their food comes from, in choosing which car to drive, in where they get their information, and so on.

But hey: if people want to learn more about computers, I’m all for it.

P.S. Happy birthday, Mom.  :-)

God is (Un)necessary

I listened to an episode of On Point on NPR this past weekend, where Tom Ashbrook interviewed Leonard Mlodinow, co-author with Stephen Hawking of a new book titled “The Grand Design.”  I had never heard of Mlodinow before this episode, but I’d certainly heard of Hawking, the theoretical physicist that is confined to his wheelchair as a result of advanced ALS who wrote “A Brief History of Time” back in the 80s.  His first book, “A Brief History…” was relatively short (heck, even I was able to read it) and did a reasonably good job at helping explain to the layman some very advanced cosmological concepts.

Their new book, “The Grand Design,” is set up to answer the question: “Is God necessary?”  Or more generally, does all life in the Universe require the hand of an all-powerful Creator being?  According to their book, the answer is “no.”

Now, as Mlodinow says in the interview, that answer doesn’t mean “there is no God.”  He points this out a few times: Science itself cannot determine whether or not God (or any Creator) exists, but many or all of the questions of Creation can, in fact, be explained by Science.  Hawking was quoted when the book came out as saying that “there is no God,” but that was a mischaracterization of what the book describes.

Interestingly, around the 12:30 mark of the podcast, Ashbrook plays some tape of an interview with Hawking from a few years ago.

Interviewer: “Do you believe in God?”

Hawking: “The basic assumption of science is scientific determinism. The laws of science determine the evolution of the universe, given its state at one time. These laws may, or may not, have been decreed by God, but he cannot intervene to break the laws, or they would not be laws. That leaves God with the freedom to choose the initial state of the universe, but even here, it seems, there may be laws. So God would have no freedom at all.”

While I realize this is something of a cryptic answer, my interpretation is that Hawking kinda believes as I do about this whole “Creation” thing.  Hawking is describing the idea that our Universe is based on a series of Laws (e.g. gravity, the speed of light, etc.) and our Universe is well-suited to the existence of Life (as we know it…).  If the Universe did not have the Laws it currently does, then Life would not exist (as we know it).  Therefore, God set a series of Laws (or adhered to previously existing ones) that allowed for the existence of Life.  Therefore, we humans eventually showed up on the cosmic block.

So yeah, as the authors point out, a Creator may not be “necessary” in a Scientific manner, in that our Universe is apparently set up in such a fashion that Life can and does exist.  From that standpoint, God is “unnecessary.”

However, I would argue that God is, in fact, “necessary” for our lives, at the very least for the social and moral implications.  Sure, God may not be “necessary” for our existence, but He is “necessary” for bringing meaning to that existence.  For providing a moral compass to follow.  For helping define who we are and who we all want to be.  It all depends on how one views “God” (whether in the Christian, Muslim, or Judaic traditions, amongst others), but all faith traditions provide us with a relatively clear idea of the kind of people we should be.  The kind of people we all want to be.

I guess I’ve always felt this way.  I’ve never felt that the “Creation” part of the Bible was all that important to who I was.  The Book of Genesis does not define my life.  It really isn’t important how I was “created.”  However, it’s important that I’m here now.  I do exist, regardless of how it happened.  My existence entails a sense of responsibility that I conduct that existence in a manner I can be proud of.  So for me, God is necessary.

Side-note: Tom Ashbrook asks Mlodinow multiple times to explain how you get “something” out of “nothing,” as in, how exactly did all of the things we know just “spring up” out of the void of existence (e.g. the initial “Creation” itself).  He tries explaining a few times but it was still pretty difficult to follow…may just need to read the book…  I think he was trying to explain it in terms of quantum mechanics in that, according to what we know from quantum theory, you can actually have things just “appear.”  He never said “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” but I think that’s what he was getting at.  Heisenberg stated that you can either know where an object is in space or how fast it’s moving, but you can’t know both at the same time.  As I understand the theory, there’s all kinds of math involved that suggests you can actually get “something” out of “nothing.”  Mlodinow also talked about multiple dimensions in his answer.  In short, I don’t really understand it either, but it was addressed in the podcast as well…. 😛

A Need for Expulsion

Mike has been Facebooking and blogging about the subjects surrounding the material in the Ben Stein documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” Primarily, Mike got to thinking about it after reading an article by evolutionary theorist, Richard Dawkins, where he says that Stein distorted things Dawkins said in the documentary. Admittedly, Mike hasn’t actually seen the movie (as of this writing), and neither had I when I first read his post, but thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant Queue, I took the time to watch it.

In his blog post, Mike argues that one of, if not the, primary issue in the debate is a lack of civility, where both sides (Creation vs Evolution) take things so personally that they cannot have a reasonable argument about the matter. I’ll leave that discussion to Mike, however, as my problem with the whole thing is a general ignorance of the definition of “science.”

science –noun

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

Now, the key in that definition is “…gained through observation and experimentation.” I know I’ve talked about this before (stupid Lee Strobel…), but the definition of science is quite important to understanding what the problem is with the debate.

By the definition put forth above, Intelligent Design (and, relatedly, Creationism) is not science.  I can say this with conviction because I know that in order for it to be science, it must be testable.  If you cannot test a theory, then you cannot consider it science and it must stay firmly in the realm of philosophy.

philosophy –noun

1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles ofbeing, knowledge, or conduct.

5. a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.

Philosophy is very good about providing analysis of an argument.  One could even describe them as “thought experiments,” where one ruminates on a particular moral or existential issue and comes to a conclusion.  However, those conclusions are hardly “evidence,” as they cannot be reproduced by other individuals performing the exact same experiment with the same parameters.  If one person has a “thought experiment,” their experiences in their own lives will inform their conclusions, leading to differences between individuals.  Science, on the other hand, holds specific variables consistent so that any individual can come to the same conclusion, irrefutably.  If I drop a ball in Iowa and you drop the same ball in Missouri, or China, they will both hit the ground in the same amount of time (assuming the ball is held the same way and the height it is dropped from held constant, but only the location of the experiment has changed).

This is, inherently, the issue: Evolution (in the form of Natural Selection) can be, and has been, tested in many, many different ways and it has held up to the toughest of scrutiny; Intelligent Design cannot be tested and, therefore, is not science.  Have all facets of evolution (in the form of Natural Selection) turned out to stand up to that scrutiny?  No, and the Theory of Evolution has been modified when that new evidence has appeared.  I can’t think of a time when Creationism/Intelligent Design has been modified when new evidence has been presented.

Creationists have been trying to get Creationism in public schools for decades, believing that Evolution is not only incorrect, but is somehow anti-Creation.  I’m not going to get into that part of the debate, although I have some pretty clear opinions on it.  I don’t even necessarily have a problem with teaching religion in public schools, as long as they’re all treated equally (i.e. you can teach Christian tenets as long as you also teach the ideas of Islam, Judaism, etc.).  But I do have serious problems with passing off Intelligent Design as science, and serious issues with the people that purport that Intelligent Design should be taught in public schools in science classrooms.

Whether my comments are “civil” or not, I don’t know (they probably aren’t…), but I do know that the proponents of teaching Intelligent Design in science classes are wrong and are doing a disservice to students everywhere.  Science is difficult enough to understand as it is, let alone adding things into the classroom that don’t belong there and simply confuse everyone involved.


So, typically at church on Sunday mornings, the scripture lesson will precede the sermon. Today, the lesson was:

4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you  were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Now, reading through that lesson, one would have to ask themselves, “hmmm…how’s Pastor Scott going to discuss abortion?”

He didn’t talk about it at all.  Didn’t come up once.

In fact, Scott talked about having purpose in your life (the sermon title was “Motivation for Life”).  He specifically discussed how the prophet Jeremiah was around 16 years old when God talked to him, and even at that young age, he had meaning in his life and was motivated to continue along the path put forth in front of him.  The verse talked about how Jeremiah, specifically, was called to preach God’s Word to the masses.

So, I sat there thinking: “how could two so drastically different messages come from the same verse?”  What Scott talked about was a motivation, a purpose, for all our lives and how we can do good with them.  Instead, there are other voices that stop after the word “apart” midway through the 5th verse.  These voices disregard the context in which the words were written, inserting their own meaning.

I realize we live in a world of soundbytes now, when a politician’s words can be cut and cropped to make it sound like they said something when they really didn’t.  Largely, I think this occurs because people are generally lazy and don’t care to listen to the full series of phrases, let alone the entirety of a single Bible verse.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that all of the world’s religions are guilty of the same mistakes…

…but I’d like to think we were smart enough now to know better than to accept the easy answer.


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Jon Stewart had Michael Specter on “The Daily Show” last night, a staff writer for The New Yorker who’s out with a new book, “Denialism.” The sub-title for the book explains what it’s about: “How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives.” The interview is about 7 minutes long and covers a wide range of topics, but he mostly focuses on medicine, genetically modified food products, and vaccines.

He begins highlighting how 62 million people have gotten the H1N1 vaccine with no deaths or serious injury, despite half of American adults saying they won’t vaccinate their children or themselves because they believe it to be unsafe. Specter goes on, citing a friend of his that read the book, but still said she wouldn’t vaccinate her child for polio because “there is no polio anymore.” This is true, but only for the United States: polio is still around in other countries where airplanes travel. Similarly, 200,000 people died last year from the measles, another “forgotten disease,” and while none of them were in the United States, it’s not like it would be hard for the disease to spread here.

Specter also talked about how Vioxx “killed” 55,000 people (which, he points out, is the same number of Americans killed in Vietnam), yet Vioxx was never determined to be the sole cause of the deaths: just correlated. Those people had all kinds of other cardiovascular risk factors as well that likely contributed to the deaths. There were millions of other people that were on it and were just fine and benefited from the drug’s actions. Later in the interview, he points out that 45,000-50,000 Americans die in car accidents each year, but we don’t sue the automobile industry or stop using them like we did to Merck after the Vioxx scandal hit. He says, “We know if we lowered the speed limit 10 miles, we would save 8,000 lives, but, we want to get to the mall, so it’s something we’re willing to do.”

The whole vaccine thing just boggles my mind, honestly. A lot of it goes back to the idea of “over-parenting” (there was a nice article in Time Magazine a few weeks ago on that other can o’ worms), where we try to protect our children and ourselves from everything, when statistically, we’ve never been safer than we are now. Vaccines, according to Specter, are probably the single most important health achievement in human history next to clean drinking water, at least so far as the control of disease goes. And yet, there are people out there that continue to believe, against all scientific evidence, that they’re unsafe.

There are a wealth of other crazy beliefs that could be pointed out, of course, like those that don’t believe global warming is occurring (despite all scientific analysis saying it is)…or that mercury in vaccines causes autism, or that the Earth was created in 6 days, or that humans lived with dinosaurs, or that evolution isn’t real, or that the Earth is flat….and so on, ad infinitum…

Ignoring science certainly isn’t the answer. Humanity has developed knowledge over the generations that they’re supposed to use, preferably for the good of everyone. Picking and choosing the science you believe in is ridiculous. If you don’t believe in evolution, then you shouldn’t be allowed to use electricity: science has given us electricity and evolution, and if you won’t take one of those, you can’t have the other.

It’s a pity that rule isn’t enforced, as it would prevent all The Crazies from posting on the internet…

All Or Nothing

In recent weeks (months? years?), I’ve been thinking about how voting, and politics in general, tends to be handled nowadays in the good ol’ U.S. of A… It doesn’t matter if you agree with the vast majority of what a particular candidate, or congressional bill, you stand for: if there is one hot-button issue you disagree with, that means you simply can’t vote for it. Around election time, we call these people “single-issue voters,” those that typically decide that they like everything a candidate says, but since they’re Pro-Life (or Pro-Choice, occasionally…) and the candidate disagrees with that one issue, that means you can’t vote for them (the death penalty is another one that fits that bill, amongst many others, I’m sure).

I think of this more recently in the context of the on-going health care debate. As Obama said in his Address to Congress on September 9th, 80% of what is in “the bill” (or, more accurately, the various iterations of bills floating around the halls of the Capitol) is agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans. They all want to get rid of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, they all want to keep costs down, they all want to increase competition, etc….but as long as that “public option” is on the table, some won’t support it. Since when is 80% not “good enough?” In school, that constitutes a “B,” which while not being an excellent grade, necessarily, is certainly good enough for graduation and a half-way decent GPA. That’ll get you into college. That’ll get the job done.

I think, largely, many people agree on the vast majority of issues: murder is bad, babies are cute, hair should be washed, and so on. And years ago, the U.S. government got along fine with the agreement on most issues related to their debates, when finally they would compromise and get something passed (yes, it’s true…although, living in today’s society makes us forget that government can work for the benefit of its citizens, and can do so efficiently). Today, however, we find ourselves in an era of conflict. Who wants to watch a reality show about a happy family? Or a cop drama when no crimes happen? People nowadays won’t pay attention to anything unless there is some conflict, something to fight over. Maybe people have always wanted conflict to entertain them, and perhaps politicians finally realized that and figured out that, to make more money from donors, they need to be in conflict all the time in order to get extra exposure, and thus, extra cash.

What angers me most is that compromise doesn’t happen anymore, perhaps of that “conflict craving” (heck, I’d argue that the divorce rate is so high mostly because of a lack of compromise). There was a time when it behooved both sides (in marriage or congress) to agree most aspects of a plan and then focus on a more central issue: both sides would lose something, but both would also make gains because the goal was met. That’s how compromises work. It has worked well for centuries and should still work today.

It angers me because the compromise, in the particular issue of health care, is the so-called “Public Option,” as that is the logical middle ground between a single-payer system and a fully deregulated health insurance industry. The compromise is on the table already and it isn’t “good enough” for some people. Both sides agree on the majority of issues related to the debate, but the single issue holding it back is one where the compromise has already been made, providing both sides with necessary gains for their political careers, as well as American society as a whole.

Maybe “good enough for government work” is 80%? Or at least should be?