Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eucharistic Miracle Story

Recently I encountered some Catholics who repeatedly mentioned miracles as evidence for their god and specifically seemed impressed with a story about eucharistic bread turning into human flesh. So, I’ve been looking into that. There are two stories. One from 8th Century Italy. And one from Argentina in the 1990s. It is the second story that I think the young women were referencing since this is the version where the flesh is specifically thought to be cardiac tissue.

The story is that a discarded eucharistic bread piece (host) was left in a church. When the priest found it, he put it away. The next day, in place of the host there was a much larger piece of bloody substance. Years later, an Argentinian Cardinal, now the Pope, investigated this and ordered that the still fresh flesh be scientifically tested. A sample was sent to a famous medical examiner in New York, Dr. Frederic Zugiba, who proved the tissue was human cardiac muscle from a left ventricle.

There are numerous Catholic sources on the internet that tell that story, almost word for word. But there is woefully little respectable, secular coverage of the events depicted. In searching for additional information I looked up the doctor. His name is actually spelled Dr. Frederick Zugibe and he is a recently deceased, famous medical examiner for Rockland County, New York. But nowhere in his publications, biographies, or other online information officially attributed to or about him is any mention of this miracle story from Argentina. There’s plenty about his Shroud of Turin investigations and crucifixion studies, but I found not a single reliable source of documentation that corroborates his involvement with bread turning into human cardiac tissue, just a blog post with no citations.

I place a very low confidence in the accuracy of that miracle story. The story itself shares many characteristics in common with internet chain letter glurge. Various sources of the story are all self referential and nearly verbatim copies of one another. I could find no secular reporting on the story that doesn’t just credulously repeat the internet story and very little of that. There is no way to guarantee that no one could have tampered with the bread/flesh at any point in the years after its discovery but before samples were allegedly tested. But most importantly, the story makes fantastic claims that would be hard to believe even if the National Academy of Sciences had throughly investigated and endorsed all the particulars, making this a sensational, international news story.

No, it is far more likely that the story is fabricated in part or in whole and that pious fraud has played a role in aspects of the story’s development and distribution. Which is how I'll treat this story and any others like it, until such a time that the preponderance of solid scientific evidence serves as irrefutable, if still extraordinary proof.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Avoidances

I’m absolutely certain that I’m not a great independent thinker with a keen intellect able to parse ideas from a far range of potentially offensive sources thereby arriving at every one of my opinions by throughly investigating nearly every available angle on an issue in detail. I don’t try to be. I don’t even want to be.

I want to know things, yes. Of course, I want to have informed opinions. But I’m also very interested in being a good person and I work hard at that. I also have a partial awareness of my own cognitive limitations and tendencies, which can work against my goals, even challenging my efforts at decency and empathy. So I do try to be at least somewhat selective about my sources of information.

As a result, despite caring a lot about gender and sexual equality, I don't read much Mens Rights Activist writings or interact with men who identify as such. Quite the opposite, I avoid such people just as I avoid avowed white supremacists, neo-confederates, or Christian dominionists. Because, what philosophical positions of theirs that I do know are antithetical to what I value.

That said, are there MRAs who complain about unfairness like the ways in which courts sometimes treat divorce or child custody? Sure, and those are valid complaints that are shared by feminist thinkers -- though the feminists have arrived at that conclusion via different rationale -- and I don't see any need for male supremacists to tell me about injustices that equality minded people have already shown me. Do my avoidances make me prone to ideological limitations on what I know about? Maybe they do, but I'm not bothered by that if it helps to marginalize the ideologies of misogyny or racism or other social evils.

Are there other people who actively seek out fringe opinions, take such views seriously, and incorporate what they learn into their thinking in rational ways without fear of adopting anti-social attitudes, falling into depression, or becoming disillusioned with humanity? Sure there are and I’m glad they do it. I learn a lot of things I might otherwise not know from such people. But I am not one of them and at this point in life I don’t even aspire to be.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On Deadly Misogyny

A few days ago a young man in Southern California went on a shooting spree. The details of the shooter, his experiences, and his motivations have become topics of considerable, sometimes heated, discussion. Some blame his rampage on mental illness. Some blame his toxic beliefs. I think that even if there were some underlying mental health problems, he still chose influences that made him worse, that made him dangerous.

That young man absorbed so much ugly entitlement and misinformation that it twisted his view of women to the point of hate and spectacularly misplaced blame. Many of the sexist influences to his thinking are omnipresent in our culture, like a haze of pollution in the air and that young man sought out the tail pipes of misogyny from which to breathe deeply. I think it transformed a troubled young man into a monstrous one.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thought Experiment on Progressive Tax Rates

By way of a thought experiment, let me illustrate why I am completely comfortable having tax rates that tax a greater percentage of our income as our income goes up.

Imagine there is a park. In this park there is a low bridge over a pond. The bridge has no handrails and the pond has a series of stepping stones that lead from the shore to a small platform below the bridge. On the bridge there are a number of individuals in wheelchairs, none of whom are able to swim. Below them on the platform is a person who fell from the bridge and is badly injured. On the shore near the stepping stones leading to the platform and the injured person is a strong, able bodied person relaxing.

It is not possible for the injured person to get to safety alone. Due to their wheelchairs and inability to swim it is not possible for the people on the bridge get to the injured person, let alone carry that person to safety. Trying would almost certainly result in additional injured people and possible deaths. What they can do is call out, make it known that someone needs help, and offer encouragement. All of which they do, alerting the able bodied person to the situation, who can easily and safely walk on the stepping stones out to the injured person and carry them to safety.

In this scenario, is it morally permissible for the able bodied person to do nothing or to do no more than the people on the bridge?

I would argue that the able bodied person is morally and ethically obligated to help. It is true that this person will have to inconvenience themselves to help. Their help is not without cost, but the cost to the able bodied person is negligible compared to the people in wheelchairs. Just as the burden of paying more in taxes is easier to bear for the wealthy, even if they are paying at higher rates. In a community, our responsibilities are heavily influenced by our capabilities and those better able to contribute to the common good ought to do so.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Just a Theory

Anyone who discusses the interactions of religious belief, public policy, and science will encounter the argument that because something in science is just a theory, it shouldn't be taken any more seriously than other ideas. This comes up a lot in creationism versus evolution conversations and its use betrays a certain degree of scientific illiteracy.

The word theory has two very different meanings. In everyday language, a theory is just an uncertain idea, perhaps thought up on the fly. In science, a theory is a comprehensive framework that unifies and explains a large number of actual observations, has withstood rigorous testing, and makes accurate predictions of future observations. A scientific theory, like the theory of evolution, isn't a wild guess. It is the best possible understanding of some aspect of nature we currently possess. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nye vs Ham

Bill Nye the Science Guy just did a debate against Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. This debate was on the validity of creationism and was conducted at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky. From what I’ve read, many in the audience were followers of Ham’s version of fundamentalist Christianity.

Towards the end of the debate, they took questions from the audience. The format of that section was that a question would be directed to one of them who had two minutes to answer and then the other was given a minute to respond. One of the questions really served to sum up the differences in their world views. Ham was asked what would change his mind. He said in essence that nothing could. Nye responded that he just needs evidence and then listed a bunch of potential examples.

Here is a link to that section of the video of the debate:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6kgvhG3AkI&t=123m58s

That there is no evidence that could ever be compelling enough for Ham to change his mind demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of creationism and concisely shows why it isn't science and isn't compatible with science.

The danger in this debate and others like it is that many will erroneously interpret the very existence of the debate as proof that creationism has scientific merit or that there is ongoing scientific controversy between creationism and naturalism among scientists. We can at least hope that some viewers will reflect on the profoundness of the debaters' answers to the question above and realize that Ham’s answer was antithetical to a scientific mindset.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Are My Beliefs All Scientific?

I care a great deal about whether the things I believe are true or not. I try to use the best tools at my disposal to make those determinations. To date, the most reliable tool humanity has to sort the factual from the fanciful is science, so I do try to use it to inform my beliefs. I try to apply the rationality of science in my daily life, testing my expectations against my observations constantly. I try to examine my feelings and note the behavior of others to gauge their feelings. In all of this, I hold every idea, every belief provisionally — always ready to modify a belief or discard it in favor of one better supported by the evidence and able to withstand logical scrutiny. My beliefs change and shift as a result, but always with the goal of obtaining a more accurate, more complete understanding of the world around me.

So does that make all of my beliefs scientific? In the sense of being learned only from science papers and books, no. But I do try to arrive at my beliefs in ways that are consistent with the mindset and findings of science, to the best of my ability.