Saturday, July 31, 2010

Letter to my Senator

Senator Richard Durbin
309 Hart Senate Bldg.
Washington, DC 20510

Senator Durbin,

I am writing to urge you to oppose our President’s proposed change to the law designed to make it easier to obtain internet usage information without a court order.

As I understand it, these additional powers are intended to be used for counterterrorism and are related to the extraordinary authority given to law enforcement by the Patriot Act.  As with the Patriot Act, this is too great a threat to our civil rights to be reasonable.

I do understand the very real threat that terrorism represents.  I applaud the hard work and dedication of our local and national law enforcement agencies as they strive to protect us and our way of life.  But our way of life also includes protection from unreasonable search and precludes such without a court order.  To circumvent those principles in the name of expediency is to change the very nature of our nation.

I would also like to urge you to support genuine internet neutrality.  Just as I think it is in the best interests of my nation to prevent its government from censoring and monitoring the internet, so to do I think that it is in our best interests to prevent companies from doing the same.

Whether telecommunication companies like it or not, the internet has become the wonderful, unruly, stream-of-consciousness of the world.  Though we may pay them for a doorway into this often obnoxious place, the content is ours and how we use it is not something they should be allowed to manipulate with impunity.

Thank you for your time and consideration of these issues.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Distracted Driving

We are all busy with many things we either want or need to do.  Multitasking has become a way of life for many of us as a way to squeeze 26+ hours worth of activities into a mere 24 hour day.  Not all of our obligations in life are good candidates for multitasking.  Imagine chatting on a cell phone in the midst of a funeral service… nope, not acceptable.  But there are plenty of other opportunities that are both socially acceptable and legal, like driving, right?

The daily commute is a routine that uses up so much time in an activity that many consider to be so mind numbingly boring that it can be a perfect opportunity multitask.  Having some breakfast on the way to work saves real time.  Checking the paper for last night’s sport results can make the drive a lot less monotonous.  Modern smart phones let us check our email, watch a movie, send messages, and of course chat on the phone.  Sometimes the drive is so undemanding that it can be a chance to paint fingernails.

The truth is that all of those activities take attention away from the road, perhaps for only a moment at a time, but that can be enough for something catastrophic to happen.  For example, last year Lora Hunt was driving in a northern suburb of Chicago while painting her fingernails.  She approached an intersection at speed, failing to notice that a motorcyclist, Anita Zaffke, was stopped there.  The resulting accident claimed the life of Anita Zaffke and sparked a debate in Illinois about whether to treat distracted driving as a criminal offense, like driving intoxicated, or continue to issue a ticket and a small fine, even if the result is a death.

The debate is likely to continue, but the legal precedent has been set.  Lora Hunt was found guilty of reckless homicide in May and sentenced to 18 months in the Lake County jail this past week.  Circuit Judge Fred Foreman said before passing sentence, “In our society, distracted driving is becoming an epidemic.  People don't appreciate how dangerous that vehicle is or what they could do to other people.”

If the thought of causing an accident and taking a life isn’t enough for you to stop multitasking while driving, perhaps the idea of a reckless homicide conviction and jail time will be.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The TAM8 Watershed

There were many speeches, presentations, and ideas that covered a diverse range of topics at TAM8.  I would love to be able to recount them all with perfect clarity and understanding in this blog, but I have neither the memory nor the depth of knowledge to do them justice.  The James Randi Educational Foundation says that videos of the speeches will be available soon, so I want to encourage people to watch the videos and perhaps even purchase the DVDs when they are available.

And here is the video of Phil's speech:

There was a theme that developed over the weekend in some of these speeches that I think will be remembered as an overall tone for the conference and perhaps as a watershed moment in the skepticism movement.  Although Carol Tavris and Steve Cuno had similar things to say, I am referring most to Phil Plait’s speech, in which he implored us, all of us, to craft our message with the goal of effectively promoting skepticism, not just expressing ourselves.  It seems that his speech has ended up being informally entitled the “Don’t Be A Dick” speech.

Early in the speech, Phil asked the audience how many of us at one time believed something we now consider silly.  He rattled off some examples of things like horoscopes, flying saucers, etc.  A lot of us raised our hands, which didn’t seem to surprise anyone.  Then Phil asked us how many of us changed our minds about those things because someone insulted us into sharing their view by calling us stupid.  Not very many hands stayed up after that.  Which is the public relations problem we skeptics are having that he highlighted in his speech.

Phil related a story that I thought was particularly poignant.  He was giving a talk at a school somewhere in the South.  Being an astronomer, he talked about the age of the Earth, our solar system, the universe, etc.  A particular teenage student was a young Earth creationist and had prepared some questions for him.  She had clearly gone to websites like Answers in Genesis to research and prepare for this chance to set him right.  *

Her ideas were wrong.  He explained how her questions about the Moon do lead to the conclusions of a young Earth until all the variables are taken into account.  What he didn’t do was berate her, insult her, or mock her beliefs.  He took the time to encourage her to pursue all the information on the topic and how those facts were discovered.  She was clearly a bright kid.  She had the basic tool kit of a good scientist in that she was curious, knew that she needed to research her position, and then did so.  That her sources were poorly informed isn’t her fault and poking fun of her would not have encouraged her to expand her knowledge or critical thinking skills.

It is tempting to loose our patience with irrationality.  Hearing the same tired and long debunked concepts trotted out time and time again is frustrating.  Phil acknowledged that, but stressed that we skeptics would be better served by being diplomats for reason rather than warriors.  Since being aggressive and insulting, however satisfying it might feel, alienates potential future allies by pushing them away from skepticism altogether and into the open arms of familiar irrationality.

If we are to set for ourselves the goal of reaching people and helping reason become valued, then our tactics need to be taken into account.  I think the following analogy demonstrates this TAM theme:  If we want to carve a beautiful sculpture from block of stone, we will be more successful by carefully chipping away at the unwanted stone to reveal the statue within, than to blast the block with a single dramatic explosion.

Skeptics have been debating this for years and honestly there is nothing groundbreaking here.  What makes Phil Plait’s speech important is that it illustrated with eloquence a theme that was expounded upon at TAM8 by other speakers and guests alike, becoming an important talking point there that has already reached far beyond conference itself and perhaps will influence our outreach for years to come.

*  I've made a change in that paragraph.  Originally I had written that the girl in the story was in elementary school.  Phil tweeted me with the correction that she was in high school, so older than I had implied.  That was a memory and comprehension failure on my part.  Sorry folks.