Archive for May, 2013

That was Then, This is Now

Monday, May 27th, 2013

A terrible tornado struck Oklahoma earlier this week.

The Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin is sounding very similar to Chris Christie from New Jersey in calling for Federal assistance.  She is saying the FEMA is doing a great job, but Congress is moving much too slowly in authorizing additional aid for those in need as a result of this historically destructive tornado.

The two Senators from Oklahoma were some of those responsible for delaying the aid to Hurricane Sandy victims for two months.  Jim Imhofe called the aid to the victims of one of the most destructive hurricanes in our history, a “slush fund” because it included aid for victims outside of New Jersey.  His counterpart, Tom Coburn, held up aid for Sandy victims because he insisted that it be balanced by cuts to other spending.  When that didn’t happen, he voted against it.

He doesn’t have the same dilemma here because the scope of the damage in Oklahoma can be covered by the existing FEMA $11B budget.  But he neglected to say in his comments that he and Jim Imofe voted against the very FEMA funding that he is now suggesting are going to be the source of relief for his storm-ravaged state. He also has gone on record to say that if FEMA disaster recovery funds are exhausted before the end of the federal fiscal year (October), he will again require that any additional funding required to help others recover from any other natural disasters that may occur between now and then will have to be matched by other cuts in spending.

Sequestration which both Imhofe and Coburn supported included an 8.2% cut to the National Weather Service.  According to the organization representing weather service employees, that means there is “no way for the agency to maintain around-the-clock operations at its 122 forecasting offices” and also means “people are going to be overworked, they’re going to be tired, they’re going to miss warnings.”

Summarizing the problem, a letter from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce put it bluntly: “The government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error, and the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised.”

While the NWS was able to provide 16 minutes notice of the storm which is three minutes more than the average, $24M of the of “slush fund” money authorized for Sandy relief went to the NWS for computer upgrades.  Those upgrades will improve forecasting and provide even more notice to those in the path of deadly weather.  This funding, however, will only bring us on par with the types of systems Europeans use to forecast dangerous weather.  They, for example, were able to forecast the path of Sandy more accurately than the NWS.  This is only a fraction of the funding, however, needed to create a state of the art system which, as Oklahoma proved, could save lives.

NOAA also has warned that our weather satellite system is aging.  We may be facing a 53 month gap if they fail before they are scheduled to be replaced.  The reason for this gap?  The Republican-controlled house cut $700B from the NOAA budget in the 2011 debt ceiling shutdown.  Those funds were restored earlier this year in the fiscal cliff compromise.  Both Imhofe and Coburn voted against the fiscal cliff compromise bill.

Finally, both Coburn and Imhofe are climate change deniers.  Coburn said there is, “no hard evidence to support global warming” and that it is “just a lot of crap.” Imhofe wrote a book entitled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.  He supports the Dominion Theory which states that the whole concept of climate change is contrary to the Bible’s statement that God gave man dominion over the whole earth. So human activities can’t be detrimental.

Coburn and Imhofe are two of the top legislators supported by the oil industry.

What’s the moral of the story?

Spending cuts have consequences.  Our weather systems are aging.  Even though we suffer more deaths and property loss than any other country in the world, other countries have found a way to invest more money in more accurate equipment than the United States.

Private industry, non-profits, churches, and local government CAN’T provide all of the services that citizens need.

Government DOES have a role in the lives of its citizens.  Even conservatives are willing to admit this, at least when it is their state or district in need of help.

FEMA when properly staffed and funded CAN effectively respond to natural disasters.

When you cut funding for NOAA and NWS and when you politicize FEMA (as occurred during the Bush administration); people die.

Climate change is real.  The number of natural disasters has been increasing dramatically over the past decade.  Insurance paid out $35B in claims last year alone.  That’s $11B over the average.  This is at least one industry that is taking global warming seriously.

Eventually the American people and their representatives will come to the same conclusion.


Sunday, May 12th, 2013

Every advance of knowledge in our civilization is accompanied by a conservative backlash to that advance.

Based on the scientific study in earlier posts, we’ve learned that individual reaction to change is probably genetic.  Liberals tend to view change optimistically.  Conservatives feel threatened by change.  Both dispositions have evolutionary value.  Tribes made entirely of liberals might take risks that could threaten the tribe’s survival.  Conservatives might never venture outside their known area which poses a whole other set of risks.

Science is apolitical.  There are conservative scientists and liberal scientists, but science itself is driven by a whole other motivation.  That’s to explain how stuff works.

The scientific method is a process developed to manage this continual questioning of the status quo.

The result is that existing theories are continuously refined and sometimes even replaced.

So it is fair to say that science never really proves anything because it is always questioning everything.

What drives these changes is new data.  That data can either be theoretical or experimental.  Scientists are thinking about new ways to explain existing phenomena or challenging existing explanations based on the results of new experiments.

Some examples may help to prove the point.

The Catholic Church developed a theory of how the universe was structured based on their interpretation of the Bible and the work of Ptolemy.  The problem was that the observed movement of the planets did not adhere to the theory.  The earth-centric theorists continued to refine their theories to account for these increasingly eccentric orbits.  But it finally all came apart when Galileo improved the telescope to the point where he observed moons orbiting Jupiter.  We don’t consider moons orbiting other planets revolutionary today, but in 1609 it was heretical.  Everything in the universe was supposed to orbit the earth.  It took the Catholic Church almost 400 years to finally admit that it was wrong.  That’s conservative.

One of the problems in today’s culture is that science is perceived by conservatives as a liberal pursuit.  That’s not only because of the natural tendency of conservatives to be suspicious of change.  It’s also because the conservative movement has embraced religious fundamentalism as a component of their belief structure.  Fundamentalists not only believe that science is a liberal pursuit.  They believe that it is an atheistic one as well.  From a fundamentalist point of view, the world is a structure of beliefs governed by God.

So we have a culture, aided by the Internet, where science is no longer the arbiter of what is true.  It is only another opinion that conservatives choose to accept or reject based on how it aligns with their beliefs.  This frustrates liberals to no end because liberals look to science as the common basis for any discussion rather than just another opinion.  The liberal perspective is that everyone is not entitled to their own set of facts.

This brings us to the discussion of miracles.

Conservative fundamentalists use miracles to replace science.  Climate change is a good example.  Fundamentalists use a “dominion” theory to suggest that we don’t have to worry about climate change because God gave man dominion over the earth.  Why would God give man dominion over the earth and then allow man to so pollute the earth as to make it uninhabitable.  Essentially, if God was able to free the Biblical Jews from Egypt, He certainly can deal with something like climate change.  The problems, from a fundamentalist conservative point of view, are not scientific ones.  They are political – specifically we aren’t Christian enough.  If our country fully embraced the conservative Christian lifestyle, we would enjoy the protection God has promised to those who believe.

It’s not the liberals don’t believe in miracles, but speaking for myself, here’s how at least one liberal looks at it.

I don’t think that God who is omnipotent should need to suspend the laws that He put in place to prove to us that He exists.  He already has designed an incredible universe and the laws that control it.  Why would He need a miracle to prove to us that He is here, when you can just look around you and see His likeness reflected everywhere?  Also miracles are capricious and random.  Why is any particular moment in human history more important than any other to a being who is infinite, eternal, all powerful, all knowing, and all loving?  So why would one moment deserve a miracle and another not?

The miracle, in my understanding, is that life is not random.  There are just too many moments in all of our lives that defy simple coincidence.  Life has a purpose, that’s what the real message of the Bible is.  That purpose is to better understand and embrace our relationship with our Creator.  That suggests that our Creator is an active participant in our learning and has a grand plan for all his creation to understand and express His perfection.

The miracle is that there ARE answers to our questions.  Our dominion is that we ARE able to both discover the laws that govern God’s creation and use them to improve and perfect our lives.

The miracle is that we ARE all part of a larger plan.  As we understand and yield to that plan, our lives become more fulfilling and harmonious.

God doesn’t need a miracle.  He only needs to make sure that the right person is at the right place in the right time to effect the changes that further His plan.

The other part of miracles is that as science advances, we can often explain what previously seemed unexplained.

People used to think that the world is flat.  We now know that is not the case even though only a small number of us have either gone up in space or actually traveled around the world.  We used to think that the universe orbited the earth.  We now know that not to be the case even though very few of us have looked through a telescope to see the moons of Jupiter.

Even parting the Red Sea has been explained by the phenomena of standing waves, tides, and the geological configuration of the sea floor.  When the proper conditions exist, the Red Sea replicates what was described in the Bible without the need of Moses or the pharaoh’s army.  The miracle was that this natural phenomena happened at the moment that Moses needed it.

Here’s my take on how some of the world’s current controversies will be resolved by science.

  1. Climate change will ultimately become an accepted fact rather than a point of political contention.  The efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to new abundant non-polluting sustainable energy sources.  This will finally transform the economy from one of haves and have nots to one powered by maximizing human potential.
  2. Advances in understanding human reproduction and genetics will finally produce a cheap 100% effective contraceptive that will eliminate unplanned pregnancies.  It will be universally administered just like many other immunizations.  Genetic testing will dramatically reduce birth defects.  Population growth will stabilize as education increases.  Family sizes will shrink along with childhood mortality.  Lifespans and retirement age will increase.  Abortion will become an accepted, necessary, and relatively rare medical procedure rather than the contentious form of birth control that it is today.
  3. We will finally make contact with another intelligent species.  This will serve to unify the earth and cause much deeper reflection on the whole concept of Christ as the exclusive savior as we discover that the religious tradition of this alien civilization got to the same place, but by a different route.

Will these or any other scientific discoveries eliminate miracles or diminish the role of God?  No.  If anything, the more we understand, the wider and more spectacular the universe becomes.  The more we appreciate the universe that God created, the more we become willing to embrace the plan that he has for everyone in that creation.