Category Archives: Politics – Science

Mark Bittman on the Purpose of Society

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 21, 2014)

New York Times food expert and op-ed columnist Mark Bittman wrote a recent piece, What Is the Purpose of Society? Obviously the title captured my interest. But what could an expert on healthy food have to say about the purpose of society? A lot it turns out.

Bittman begins,

The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States. But because food is plentiful for most people, and the damage that conventional agriculture does isn’t readily evident to everyone, it’s important that we look deeper, beyond food, to the structure that underlies most decisions: the political economy.

Bittman argues that progressives don’t pressure the “Democrats to take strong stands on everything from environmental protection to gun control to income inequality …” Instead they accept that most politicians are indebted to monied interests. But the big problems of the country—income inequality, race relations, climate change, unhealthy food, immigration law, education—won’t be fixed by creating a nice business climate. So he offers a different vision.

Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, not how do we create a better business environment. Consider what this implies about the purpose of people, to say nothing about the meaning of life. The business of America should not be business, but well-being.

No philosopher can read this and not be reminded of Aristotle’s assessment of governments. They are good to the extent they provide the conditions in which all their citizens can live well. But does America today do this or even try to? As Bittman says:

For example, is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the latter; that has to change … For example, if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose.

Bittman understands that there will be unintended consequences that follow from tinkering with complex political and economic systems,

But without an agreement on goals, without statements of purpose, we are going to continue to see changes that are not in the interest of the majority. Increasingly, it’s corporations and not governments that are determining how the world works. As unrepresentative as government might seem right now, there is at least a chance of improving it, whereas corporations will always act in their own interests.

Bittman challenges us to rethink political philosophy and political economy, whose goal should be to create a society in which everyone can flourish. A society so much different from America today.

The big ideas and strategies for how we should manage society and thrive with the planet are not a set of rules handed down from on high. To develop them for now and the future is a major challenge, and we — progressives and our allies — have to work harder at it. No one is going to figure it out for us.

George Will on Climate Change: What’s Wrong With Him?

George Will has written one of the most poorly reasoned pieces I’ve ever read: “Climate change’s instructive past.” If my introductory college students had written this essay I would have responded: “This is so poorly reasoned, please don’t expect to receive credit.” Or “I recommend an introductory logic class before you write another essay.” Or “Please don’t turn in such nonsense again.”

Will was an intelligent man at one time. I don’t know what happened to him. Our brains do shrink as we age, still it’s just hard to believe that he believes what he writes. I suppose a non-scientist like Will, writing about a topic on which the experts are in virtual unanimous agreement, might be correct. Perhaps he’s a genius. But not likely.

In defense of his anti-science position, Will cites two books by historians who note that past climate change wasn’t caused by human activity. From this he concludes that present climate change isn’t caused by human activity. Really? That’s like saying that in the past people died from natural causes so today no one can be murdered. The argument is ridiculous. Here it is in syllogistic form:

In the past there have been warming periods not caused by human activity.
Therefore today’s warming period is (probably) not caused by human activity.

Logic teachers shake their heads. And I can just see the climate scientists discussing the column. “Hey Joe, did you know that some climate change in the past wasn’t attributable to human activity?” “Oh my God Bob, I never thought of that! I don’t think anybody who has devoted their life to studying the climate knew this! All of our evidence and the scientific consensus go out the window! I’m so glad George Will taught us about climate history! We had forgotten to include that in our calculations!”

Of course every climatologist knows that the climate has changed in the past from natural causes.That’s one of the things they study. But that doesn’t refute the overwhelming evidence for human caused climate change.

I wish Mr. Will wouldn’t insult our intelligence; I wish he’d retire, but he won’t. Perhaps he’s just a shill for the oil companies. Perhaps he’s just an old curmudgeon. Or perhaps he’s just arrogant, so in love with his own intellect that he doesn’t know there are real scientists who really understand science. They go to their laboratories every day trying to tease a bit of truth out of nature. They don’t just pontificate about science from their office chairs or studies and then write op-eds. 


Addendum – Of the nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published between 1991 – 2012 exactly 0.17% either reject warming or attribute it primarily to causes other than CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Transhumanism and Scientific Requirements to Hold Political Office

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 23, 2014)

Recently I have written multiple articles about the scientific illiteracy of American politicians. [1] [2] [3] Even members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology display an ignorance of science that should make a high school student blush.

After reading my essays a perceptive reader posed the follow questions: 1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? 2) What about someone who denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? 3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To these questions I would like to add my own: 5)How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant to transhumanism? Let me answer each of these questions in turn.

1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? In the simplest and most obvious case a person holds unscientific views if they deny a received view of modern science for non-scientific reasons. If someone denies atomic theory for an invisible gremlin theory of matter, or evolutionary theory for an invisible god theory, then that person holds an unscientific view. In the case of biological evolution this has been affirmed over and over by the courts after listening to experts testify as to the nature of science—creationism, creation science and intelligent design are not scientific hypotheses.

To illustrate this point, suppose I say that bread rises in an oven because of the oven’s color. This claim is clearly false, but it is a testable scientific hypothesis—one that could quickly be falsified by placing bread with yeast into different colored ovens. However if I say that bread rises because there are invisible gremlins inside the bread that cause the bread to rise by jumping when it is heated, then I have not advanced a scientific hypothesis because no experiment can falsify this belief—no matter the outcome of any experiment the believer can always claim that invisible gremlins did it. (I am relying on Popper’s theory of falsification here, fully cognizant of the fact that it is a complex issue in philosophy of science to show exactly what makes something a scientific hypothesis. But here falsification clearly shows why some hypothesis aren’t scientific.)

There are also more complicated cases, as when someone denies the received scientific wisdom for a scientific reason. What are we to make of such daring hypotheses? We treat them like any other scientific hypotheses. For what scientists do “is to try to answer fundamental questions by crafting comprehensive and reasonably explanatory hypothesis suggested by the data, and leave it to their own later work, or that of others, to try to verify or falsify it.”1 And who decides what is a scientific reason? Scientists do. It is their expertise that allows them to differentiate a scientific from a pseudo-scientific hypothesis, although there are issues on the fringes of science in which it is difficult to determine what is and is not a reasonable scientific hypothesis. There are many debatable ideas in science, countless unsettled areas which are for the moment unsettled. In such cases we must wait for further evidence.

2) What about someone that denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? Much rejection of the received scientific wisdom in our society today is a response to propaganda dispensed by those motivated by profit. It in the interest of tobacco and oil companies to deny the scientific consensus about the deadly consequences of their products. Other reasons for rejecting science include: cognitive errors, scientific illiteracy, fear of authority, and fear of government. In the specific cases of evolution or big bang theory such opposition is easy to understand. People reject ideas that seemingly contradict the preconceived world views. As William James so aptly put it: “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”

To better understand this consider the curious case of the intelligent design movement, which tries to make its opposition to evolutionary biology appear scientific even though the motivations are clearly religious. Intelligent design is pseudo-science masquerading as science, but that doesn’t stop blatantly immoral, theocratic organizations like the Discovery Institute from trying to have their religious views taught in American public school science classes! Clearly such opposition is ideologically motivated and has nothing to do with the science, about which there is a unanimous consensus. Should scientifically illiterate, anti-sciences ideologues sit in positions of on committees charged with setting public science policy or choosing public school science curriculums? Of course not! That would be like a religiously illiterate, atheist being Pope.

3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? and 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? The answer to the first question we answer is yes; the answer to the second question is probably not.

Not only should the members of this committee have to pass a basic scientific literacy test to be members of said committee, but so should anyone holding political office anywhere. The notion that scientifically illiterate political leaders should be in positions to make important decisions is abhorrent. The idea that holders of political power should be among the most intellectually excellent goes back to at least Plato in the west and Confucius in the East. That one must pass a test to practice law, medicine, nursing, education and many other professions yet anyone, regardless of their level of ignorance, can hold important political positions is a travesty. Plato believe that one could only have a good life in a good society, which itself depended on knowledgable rulers who had passed a long series of tests. The imperial exams in ancient China played a similar role, assuring that those who held political power were masters of Confucian political texts. (The result was one of the longest eras of peace and prosperity ever known on the planet.)

5) How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant for transhumanism? I recently wrote about my support for the newly formed Transhumanist Political Party. Clearly progress toward a transhumanist world depends on political action informed by an understanding of science and technology. Opposition to transhumanism is strong enough given the general human tendency toward stasis, but such opposition is multiplied if the more open-minded and dynamic among us are uniformed. Think of how opposition to stem cell research and therapeutic cloning is driven, not only by legitimate worries and rejection of the novel, but by scientific ignorance. (No there won’t be multiple copies of people running around.) Similarly opposition to robotics, artificial intelligence, intelligence augmentation, and nanotechnology is largely driven by irrational fears.

The transhumanist movement is stifled and compromised by an uninformed public, and the situation is exacerbated by scientifically ignorant policy makers. However, while it is self-evident that we would all live in a better society if government officials were more generally educated, such a political change is almost certainly not feasible. Perhaps then the best hope for transhumanism lies, not with governmental support, but with the efforts of privates corporations like Google and private organizations like the Singularity Institute and others.

In the end illiteracy of any kind, but especially scientific and technological, impedes a movement based on using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. The movement needs to be more cognizant of these impediments.


The Transhumanist Party: Could It Change Our Political Future?

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 20, 2014)

The noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan recently published an article in the Huffington Post entitled: Should a Transhumanist Run for US President? Istvan is preparing to run for the Presidency of the United States in 2016, as a member of his newly formed Transhumanist Party, a political organization dedicated to using  science and technology improve human beings and their society. In addition to promoting ideals like prosperity and security his political agenda is as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

Although the universal benefits of such goals are obvious, politicians ignore them. Instead “They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).”

Istvan realizes that he will not get elected, and will have difficulty even getting on many state ballots, but he thinks the forming of the party is a start. “[I]f transhumanists—a growing group consisting of futurists, life extensionists, biohackers, technologists, singularitarians, cryonicists, techno-optimists, and many other scientific-minded people—are serious about the pending future, then it’s time to get involved in the political game …” And perhaps the time is right since the transhumanist movement is becoming more mainstream. “There are many employees at major tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google who subscribe to transhumanist aims. Transhumanist-themed conferences, groups, and even schools, like Singularity University, are popping up.”

I can personally attest to this rapid transformation. When I taught transhumanist themes in a world-class computer science department just ten years ago, the ideas were generally dismissed by both students and faculty. Now, with drone planes replacing jet pilots, AI and robotics progressing, Ray Kurzweil essentially Google’s thinker-in-chief, the idea of the singularity omnipresent in silicon valley, rapid advancement of self-driving cars, exoskeletons showing promise and more, I do feel somewhat vindicated. No, we haven’t yet reached a technological singularity, and any given prediction regarding the reality and benefits of a future technology is open to the vicissitudes of fortune and a thousand caveats. Still the inexorable transformation of our world unfolds before our eyes each day.

Yet although the pace of change is increasing exponentially, many still respond to the unfamiliar with ancient and uniformed dogma wired by culture into their primate brains. This will not do. As we enter into this new world we need brains capable of greater intelligence and morality; we need to evolve; we need to transform. But this can only be accomplished in a social and political milieu that actively promotes the transhumanist goal of using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. I thus applaud Istvan’s potential foray into politics and I think we should support him.

Finally I echo Istvan’s concerns about mustering the political will to defeat death. There is no more important human project. As I wrote in my most recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives:

Only if we can choose whether to live or die are we really free. Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent, and, to the extent death can be delayed or prevented, further possibilities for meaning [in life] ensue. Perhaps with our hard-earned knowledge we can slay [what Nick Bostrom calls] the dragon tyrant, thereby opening up the possibility for more meaningful lives. This is perhaps the fundamental imperative for our species.

The Chair of The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is a Christian Scientist!

My Encounter with The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Last week I wrote a post entitled “Black Holes and Political Ignorance.” In it I quoted Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) who, reacting to the recent news that black holes might not exist,  reportedly said: “Going forward, members of the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists.” A footnoted disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the page informing readers that the quote was taken from a satirical piece, and that the representative had not actually said this.

The same day I received an email from Zachary Kurz, the Communications Director for the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Kurz had become aware of my piece, which had been reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, where the disclaimer was inadvertently omitted. Mr. Kurz requested that I update the piece to inform my readers that Chairman Smith had not reallly said: “the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists.” I notified the editor of the magazine who immediately printed a disclaimer at both the top and bottom of the page.

Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas 

The reason the communications director is interested in public relations is that one could easily mistake the satire for the real thing. In fact Representative Smith does not listen to scientists because Representative Lamar Smith is  a Christian Scientist. For those who don’t know what this means please read on.

Christian Science 

Christian Science is a set of beliefs and practices belonging to the metaphysical family of new religious movements.[3] It was developed in 19th-century New England by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), who argued in her book Science and Health (1875) that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. The book became Christian Science’s central text, along with the Bible, and by 2001 had sold ten million copies in 16 languages.[4] 

There are several key differences between Christian Science and orthodox Christian theology.[9] In particular adherents subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that reality is purely spiritual and the material world an illusion.[10] This includes the view that disease is a mental error rather than physical disorder, and that the sick should be treated, not by medicine, but by a form of prayer that seeks to correct the beliefs responsible for the illusion of ill health.[11] 

Between the 1880s and 1990s the avoidance of medical treatment was blamed for the deaths of several adherents and their children; parents and others were prosecuted for manslaughter or neglect and in a few cases convicted.[13]

Hopefully this gives you a sense of the philosophical beliefs that inform Representative Smith. If you would like you can read about Mary Baker Eddy’s beliefs in animal magnetism, witchcraft, and others superstitions. But the more you read the more you will be convinced that this man should not serve on, much less head, this committee.

The Implications

Now Representative Smith has a legal right to hold to whatever ignorant superstitions he likes. He is free to pray when ill rather than see his physician, which is exactly what he should do if he is faithful to his religious principles. It also makes sense that he opposes the expansion of medicaid under the ACA because Christian scientists, if they are consistent, have no use for medicine. The representative, to be consistent with his religious principles, also shouldn’t benefit from other technology, since technology is applied science.

Now remember this man chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. If all of us, conservatives, liberals, libertarians, socialists, progressives, and everyone else don’t take steps to change a situation  where a religious fanatic uses his position to impede science we will soon live in a theocracy heading toward a new Dark Ages. And that world of superstition and ignorance before the Enlightenment was a horrific place. In it people with the plague  prayed furiously … and then died miserably

FInally, if you are a conservative interested in projecting American power in the world, remember that American power depends, not on the outstanding level of physical fitness of the American public, but upon smart bombs, drones, missiles, submarines, engineering, and computer software. Knowledge is power..

Here by the way is the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in action. (The most relevant segment begins at about 3 minutes into the video.) Watch the scientifically illiterate Republican members of Congress juvenile attempts to critique a real climate science. Let us hope the Dark Ages do not return.