Archive for January, 2010

The collapse of society that H1N1 brought (oh wait, it didn’t)

January 23, 2010

Going into the fall and winter flu season, the concern in the popular media was what the scope of the H1N1 flu virus would be.  Would it be like previous H1N1 or Avian flu worries, which proved to be ultimately exaggerated, or would this be the time that we’d all be glad for our vaccines?

Amongst conspiracy theorists, however, there was a far more serious allegation being put forward.  What you heard depended, of course, on who you asked, but I had a rather extensive debate with a few different people who argued the following:

1) The H1N1 virus was created by “Big Pharma;”

2) The virus was being transmitted via the vaccines;

3) The vaccines would spread the sickness far and wide, resulting in drastic death and illness across the world;

4) This outbreak would give world governments (in particular, for some reason, the US) an opportunity to quarantine its citizens in “internment camps” that, according to folks like Alex Jones, were popping up everywhere just in time, including mass orders of body bags to process the deceased;

5) The combination of mass internment and mass illness would give the New World Order the opportunity its been waiting for: a chance to overtly wield its power over the world and eliminate our freedoms once and for all.

My argument was very simple: the vaccines were created to respond to a predicted mutation of H1N1; they used ingredients that had a history of success (in the case of the adjuvants used in Canadian vaccines, they had been used in Europe for over ten years); and that the risk of contracting H1N1 greatly outweighed the risk of getting the vaccine.

This last argument in particular has been vindicated.  Though there was no mass H1N1 outbreak (“news” groups like Prison Planet are celebrating the return of millions of vaccinations), it is even more telling that there hasn’t been a sudden rise in illness associated with the vaccination, and there has been no coup of our liberties.  The beauty of conspiracy theories is that you can always come up with post-hoc explanations: the New World Order has decided to bide it’s time and will wait for another opportunity.  One has to wonder, though: if the New World Order exerts all of this power covertly, what reason would they have to ever be overt in their takeover?  According to some conspiracy theorists, they’ve already been controlling our media, our government, our economy, our schools, our science labs, for decades; surely that’s satisfactory enough.

Meanwhile, as Robert Nelsen argues for Forbes, some 14,000 lives were lost as a result of H1N1.  Conspiracy theorists will no doubt engage in endless debate about what really killed these people (epidemiology is not always easy), but I’m waiting for a good number on how many died from the vaccine.  As far as I can tell, the doomsday predictions have failed to come to fruition.  Then again, that fits right in with the pattern of history.

Michael J. Totten interviews Christopher Hitchens

January 23, 2010

Hitchens has a way of making me look differently at almost every issue, and of course his diction and vocabulary make him a fantastic listen/read.  In Part II of his interview with the independent foreign correspondent Michael Totten, Hitchens continues to argue his case for action in Iraq and, more controversially, in Iran: he argues that removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard might raise the ire of some Iranians and/or the international community, but would ultimately be worthwhile.  He also presents a fairly balanced view of Obama, acknowledging his inexperience while also touting his ability to make good judgement once he learns how to steer the ship.

MJT: …but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard would be gone.

Hitchens: It’s not as bad as having them running Iran and its nuclear program and stoning women and blinding girls. They rape boys in jail.

We can simply say, “We’re not going to stay. We’re handing the country over to you. We’re not occupying. We don’t want to stay. We can’t wait to get out. And you’ve been de-Revolutionary-Guardized. Cry all you want.”

We will have done them a favor, and ourselves. We have rights, too. The international community has rights. The U.N. has rights. The U.S. has rights. The IAEA has rights. The Iranians made deals with all of them, and they broke them.

Hitchens: I think he’s someone whom it’s a mistake to underestimate. I think he wants it to be made clear that he tried everything, that they pushed him to this. That’s what we’re doing with Iran now. We let them walk over us, spit on us, and laugh at us, but this can’t go on forever.

Even with the Major Hasan thing—which I thought was terrible—when he said, “Let’s not rush to judgment.” That wasn’t only itself an awful thing to say. I wish he’d said that about the Cambridge Police Department.

More Church/State Separation issues in the US

January 20, 2010

The battle in the US between the religious and the secular is at least as old as the country is.  The First Amendment of the US Constitution, which prevents the state from endorsing or promoting a particular religious perspective, is the source of many battles over what, exactly, the founding fathers intended in the crafting of this amendment and, more recently, what role these varying interpretations have on the formation of public policy.

The most recent argument has come about due to a company inscribing biblical passages in the serial numbers of their guns, which are currently used by US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For example, one scope includes “JN8:12” in the model number, a reference to the book of John in the New Testament, Chapter 8, Verse 12 which says: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Many have already pointed out the irony of a weapons manufacturer evangelizing about Jesus (I’m not convinced that Jesus, if he existed, was the type of person to coerce via gun point).  What is more intriguing to me is what role the First Amendment plays in the use of these guns going forward.

The manufacturer, Trijicon, has a contract with the US Army, and the question is: should this contract continue to be upheld?  From the perspective of the private business owner, Trijicon has every right to put whatever they like in their model numbers.  However, it doesn’t have a right to their contract with the US Army; on the contrary, I think the US Army, in accordance with the First Amendment, will have to either terminate the contract or acquire sights that don’t proselytize.

There are, of course, differing opinions on this point, and ultimately it only matters what the Supreme Court decides.  Let’s look at some issues that are tangential to this First Amendment question:

– Is it prudent to include Christian scripture in anything the US Army does in the Middle East?  When the Taliban and other religious extremists perceive themselves as in a holy war between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East, isn’t it possible that the continued use of these sights provides fuel for the fire?  Some have argued that those on the wrong end of the barrel are not likely to see or know the inscriptions first hand, but that’s not what matters: they need only be told that it happens to produce motivation.

– Does the safety of US military personnel override the First Amendment?  Though I have no idea if this is true (being that I am not a gun owner), I’ve heard from several US citizens that Trijico makes fantastic weapons and accessories.  Would it be right of the US Army to terminate its contract with Trijico on First Amendment grounds if the only solution is to use inferior equipment?  Hopefully Trijico would prove to be flexible on this point, or else another private gun manufacturer will have to rise to the occasion.

In other news that I consider even more intriguing, we have another case of the Ten Commandments on public display.  In this case, it’s down in Kentucky.  The Ten Commandments were taken off the court house wall in 2002 due to a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union on First Amendment grounds.  Now, a court of appeals has overturned that decision, arguing that the Ten Commandments should be displayed alongside the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and other documents considered historically revelant to the US.

Of interest to me is what role the Ten Commandments really play in the formation of key US ideas.  First of all, look at the ten commandments, taken from the King James Bible, Exodus 20:

1. Exodus 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me;

2. Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image;

3. Exodus 20:7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain;

4. Exodus 20:8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy;

5. Exodus 20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother;

6. Exodus 20:13 Thou shalt not kill;

7. Exodus 20:14 Thou shalt not commit adultery;

8. Exodus 20:15 Thou shalt not steal;

9. Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor;

10. Exodus 20:17 Thou shalt not covet…any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

1-4 are all about how jealous god is, which he admits to in Exodus 20:5.  The 5th can (and has been) regularly challenged when parents mistreat their children.  The 10th is what Christopher Hitchens has called an example of thoughtcrime: you cannot even think such a thing.  It also seems to undermine a motivating factor that can lead to a more prosperous society when done in moderation.  I’m all for the 7th when its concealed or deceitful, but it’s not legislated by law.  6, 7, and 9 are all good to me, but you see that there are only 4 of the 10 commandments that are of practical use.  Of those 4, only 3 are actually prohibited by law.  None of them are original to Christianity, and we never see someone sentenced to death for violating these commandments (with the rare exception of the 6th commandment).

The Decalogue doesn’t seem to have been that much of a cornerstone for the US.  As another example, look at the Treaty of Tripoli, which explicitly says that the US was not founded as a Christian nation.  Equally interesting (and often forgotten amongst Christians espousing patriotism as their motivation) is the strong tradition of secularism in the US.  A number of the founding fathers were deists who didn’t believe in a personal god, including Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote his own version of the bible stripped of all miracles.  Having come from Britian where their religious rights were challenged, the founding fathers felt it very important to keep religion and government completely separate.  The two are parted by a chasm across which neither can reach, and it is my view that this is ultimately beneficial for the religious, the non-religious, and the government alike.

It is time to get rid of the death penalty

January 16, 2010

In an earlier post of mine on Free Will and Determinism, I argued that it seems clear to me that the justice system should allow rehabilitation to take precedent over retribution.  The strongest example of where this approach needs to be taken is in the most serious of crimes, where certain countries or states seek the death penalty against the defendant.

Now the New York Times is reporting that the American Law Institute, which developed the framework for capital punishment in the US, can no longer endorse this project:

“The A.L.I. is important on a lot of topics,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “They were absolutely singular on this topic” — capital punishment — “because they were the only intellectually respectable support for the death penalty system in the United States.”

A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.

Hopefully this will help continue the landslide away from capital punishment in the US, though the problem still rages on in areas like the Middle East.

Dogma and ideology continue to reign supreme for the Canadian Federal government

January 16, 2010

The Conservative Party of Canada has received another setback in their continued fight against a safe-injection site in Vancouver, BC.  The Insite facility located in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, well recognized as one of the most drug-infested and crime-infused regions on the continent, is the only place in North America where drug addicts can legally and safely inject their drug of choice (typically heroin, cocaine, and morphine).  In 2003, the facility and the province of BC were granted an exemption allowing them to open what was supposed to be a trial run of a harm-reduction strategy.  This exemption was extended twice, before being ruled as a permanent exemption by the BC Supreme Court in 2008.

This latest setback for the Canadian Federal government, held by a minority Conservative Party of Canada, is the second time that this permanent exemption has been challenged, and the second time the Federal government has lost.  From my conversations, it seems that many intuitively believe that the Federal government is right: why are tax payer dollars going towards a facility that “promotes” using illegal, Schedule I drugs?

The answer is, necessarily, a bit nuanced.  Undoubtedly the world would be best if no one ever used heroin.  Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.  In Vancouver in particular, unmonitored drug use translates to deaths by overdose and by HIV/AIDS resulting from sharing needles.  The Insite facility was designed to attack this problem: by providing a clean facility with clean needles where drugs can be injected by registered nurses, we can drastically reduce the number of overdoses and slow the transmission of HIV/AIDS.  Also, by providing an environment where drug addicts can easily seek support if wanted, the Insite facility could (in theory) help decrease the number of addicts through counselling services.

The evidence all comes down on the side of Insite.  A May, 2007 paper in the journal Addiction noted that “[Insite]’s opening was associated independently with a 30% increase in detoxification service use, and this behaviour was associated with increased rates of long-term addiction treatment initiation and reduced injecting at [Insite].”  An earlier paper in the same journal found that the Insite location led to a reduction in public injection, neighbourhood littering, and needle sharing.  You can find a great deal of support in the drug literature for the efficacy of Insite, and it actually has the potential to save money for the tax payers.  A single case of HIV/AIDS costs ~$250,000; running the facility costs ~$500,000/year; the facility serves ~25,000 injections per year; and 30% of the facility’s users have HIV/AIDS.  If the facility can prevent at least two cases of HIV/AIDS (which seems incredibly plausible), then the facility has already made up for its cost to taxpayers.  Still, I completely understand that some taxpayers don’t want to implicity support viewpoints they disagree with, so I would be open to allowing a well-regulated private location (perhaps non-profit) to establish itself in Vancouver, but the Conservative Party of Canada is no more willing to do that than they are the current policy.

This brings me back to my original point: the CPC is intentionally ignoring evidence that suggests that this policy has been greatly beneficial to not only the addicts in question, but to the community as a whole.  Indeed, empirical evidence continues to strongly support the argument that the only useful approach to ANY currently illegal drug is that of harm reduction.  The CPC doesn’t care about the evidence, though; they are stuck to their dogmatic ideology which says explicity that the only solution to illegal drug use is punishment.  This is why they’ll enjoy their alcohol at New Year’s while someone who grows 5 less harmful cannabis plants (relative to alcohol) will be sentenced to a year or more in jail, and why taxpayer money continues to be wasted fighting a facility that actually attacks what the CPC claims they’re seeking to get under control.

You can be sure that the CPC will be appealing the latest decision in a clear chain of well-reasoned arguments by the BC provincial courts.  While those of us in favour of ending the scourge of heroin addiction are hoping for more Insite facilities, the CPC hopes to extinguish a rare spark of success in this decades long, and rather futile, war on drug users.

In related news, evidence seems to indicate that the US National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has not only failed to reduce use of cannabis: it seems to have done the opposite.  The article I’ve linked to shows a couple examples which indicate, to me, why the campaign is ineffective: it is either misleading or misrepresentative.  Take, for example, the “Pot Quiz” which suggests that there is more cancer-causing tar in a joint than there is in a cigarette.  This statement is intended to imply that cannabis causes cancer, even though studies like those of Dr. Donald Tashkin of UCLA have shown: A) There is no correlation between smoking cannabis and cancer, B) The THC present in cannabis seems to have a protective effect against lung cancer, C) Other cannabinoids (such as CBD) seem to be capable of triggering autophagy in cancer cells, a form of programmed cell death.  In other words, if smoking cannabis has a specific relation to cancer, it seems to be in preventing or killing it, not causing it.  You can also avoid almost all of the carcinogens by using a vapourizer, which has repeatedly shown to be a safe method of ingesting cannabis, instead of smoking via a joint.

Saturday’s Biology Recap

January 16, 2010

I hope for this to be a recurring theme on the blog here: looking at recent scientific developments, or age-old scientific arguments, about biology.  In particular, I find the theory of evolution and its opposers extremely intriguing.  Perhaps I’ll expand on that another day.  In the mean time, here are some interesting stories related to the world of biology from the last week.

Of Fish and Flies: The Evolutionary Role of Genes

The NPR takes a look at the role that genes, and gene expression, play a role in evolution.  The stickleback fish and its many varieties are considered.  David Kingsley, a biologist from Stanford University, discusses how the stickleback found in environments with a large number of insects typically have less spines: insects eat sticklebacks by attaching them to those spines.  So it follows that those who grow less spines in that environment have a fitness advantage and are able to propel their genes on into the future.  Having found the gene responsible for building these spines, Kingsley also discovered that the gene plays a role in the development of the brain, jaw, and in the hind quarters.  Even more intriguing, the roughly identical gene is found in all sticklebacks; the difference between the varities is how and where the genes are activated or switched on.

The journalist then takes up a conversation with Sean Carroll, the author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful and, more recently, From Eternity to Here.  Carroll gives a similar example to that of the stickleback, arguing that fruit flies living at higher altitudes are darker than their lower-altitude counterparts because of a genetic mutation changing how these genes are expressed.  As Carroll puts it:

“If we take a big picture of our genome,” says Carroll, “only about 1 1/2 percent of the 3 billion letters of our DNA code for proteins. And we think that several more percent is involved in doing just this. Of controlling how those genes that encode proteins are being used.”

Meat may be the reason humans outlive apes

Of interest to biologists is a simple fact of life: if homo sapiens sapiens share 95-98% of their genes with their great ape relatives, why is it that humans are capable of living to 70+ while great apes almost never crack the 50 year mark?  In the Western world, we could seemingly attribute this discrepancy to advances in technology, in particular the rapid advancements in medical science in the last 200 years.  Still, those living in what we could consider to be more archaic lifestyles (a la hunter-gatherer/forager) have a lifespan that exceeds that of the great apes.  What could account for this?

It has long been suggested that eating meat played a central role in our presently evolved brains.  With a diverse food supply, not only do we have a greater selection of nutrients with which our bodies may be fueled, but also we must be capable of understanding and finding a much larger range of delectables.  As a simple example: an animal that needs to make a mental catalogue of what’s safe, what’s tasty, what is easy to find, for both meat and legumes would almost certainly require greater processing power than a herbivore.  Biologist Caleb Finch at USC suggests that meat also played a role in our improved life expectancy.

Finch argues that many moons ago, our new found diet of raw red meat brought with it a new challenge: chronic inflammation.  To combat this, the humans that evolved a particular cholesterol transporting gene, ApoE3, were more likely to survive, and thus this gene has spread to virtually all of the human population.  ApoE3 appears to lower your risk of contracting heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and is correlated with longer lifespans.

Surprising sea slug is half-plant, half-animal

A recent discovery was made of a rare animal: one that produces chlorophyll, a pigment normally found in plants only.  With this ability in their pocket, the sea slugs Elysia chlorotica are capable of doing photosynthesis, a process that allows the slugs to convert sunlight to energy.  The sea slug is thus able to acquire the energy necessary for living.  Though it seems that such an ability, which can be passed on genetically, would allow the slugs to live without eating, but they cannot use the chlorophyll to do photosynthesis until they’ve “stolen” the necessary chloroplasts from algae that they’ve consumed.  Though this ability to produce chlorophyll can be inherited, it is not clear how they’ve acquired this genetic material in the first place.

This story was of particular interest to me.  About two weeks ago, I was listening to a debate on YouTube between a geneticist and the famed Young-Earth Creationist Kent Hovind.  Hovind asked the gentleman (I’m afraid I don’t remember his name) what would disprove the theory of common ancestry, and this geneticist responded that finding plant DNA in a multi-cellular animal would disprove it.  My first thought was that this wouldn’t disprove common ancestry by a long shot.  Instead, it raises questions about what common ancestor these slugs share with plants or, as seems more plausible, how the slugs were able to acquire this genetic information.  That there is an instance of evolution where we don’t know the mechanism really does no damage to common ancestry or evolution as a whole; it simply raises questions about what mechanisms can do what, and which play the biggest role.  The totality of evidence still supports evolution and common ancestry, and it will take a lot of work to unravel that thread.

In monkey babble, seeking key to human language development

The NYT does a fantastic job reviewing the concept of primate language.  It is argued that if we can find some markings of language in other species, we can gain insight into how the complex language shared by humans could have evolved.  In past experiments, we’ve been able to get primates to use human language to a limited extent (the strongest example being that of sign language).  Similarly, we’ve found what appears to be a sign of animals having their own very rudimentary language: Vervet monkeys have specific alarm signals which are called out.  When these signals were recorded and played back, the monkeys responded as if there were a predator to be concerned about.  Though these verbal signals do not have anywhere near the complexity of human language, there do seem to be specific noises associated with specific meanings.

The bulk of the article gives examples of Dr. Zuberbühler’s finding that specific noises are correlated with specific meanings, contrasting this proto-language with the simple fact that chimpanzees have no clear language of their own; you would think that they would having shared a recent common ancestor with other apes and monkeys.  While we are a long ways away from identifying a clear evolutionary model for the neural mechanisms through which language came to fruition, we seem to be just scratching the surface, with many discoveries yet to come so long as we stay the course.

North American Imams speak out, but is it too little, too late?

January 11, 2010

The CBC reported last week that a group of Muslim imams issued a fatwa, a religious edict, against attacks on North America.

A group of Canadian and U.S. Islamic leaders on Friday issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring that an attack by extremists on the two countries would constitute an attack on the 10 million Muslims living in North America.

The fatwa is largely a response to the attack on December 25th when a Nigerian man attempted to detonate a bomb on an inbound US flight coming from the Netherlands.  The press article contains some statements that many have been waiting to hear for a long time:

“In our view, these attacks are evil, and Islam requires Muslims to stand up against this evil,” the imams said in their fatwa.

The imams said it is a duty of every Muslim in Canada and the U.S. to safeguard the two countries.

“They must expose any person, Muslim or non-Muslim, who would cause harm to fellow Canadians or Americans,” they said.

“It is religious obligation upon Muslims, based upon the Qur’anic teachings, that we have to be loyal to the country where we live,” said Soharwardy.

These statements represent a shift in liberal Islamic thinking.  Since September 11, 2001, there has been a long-standing tension between those who identified the attacking terrorists as religiously motivated and those who defended Islam as a religion of peace.  What many have been asking for has been that liberal Islamic leaders be more proactive in denouncing acts of terrorism, while said leaders have seemed hesitant to speak out against those of the same faith.

Still, there are some serious questions still on the table.  Is this fatwa anything more than a bit of hand-waving?  Given that the fatwa was issued by North American Imams (almost exclusively Canadian), will it be closely followed by the typically less moderate Muslims in the Middle East and Africa?  If this fatwa will be followed by Islamic followers of all nations, why did it take so long to be issued?

Even more disturbing to me is the reasoning behind the fatwa.

Calgary Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said attacks on Canadian or U.S. soil are essentially attacks on Muslims.

Perhaps I’m misreading between the lines, but that appears to me to suggest that the attacks are wrong because they’re against fellow Muslims.  This is not at all suprising to me (like many faiths, Islam has a special focus on in-group thinking and ethnocentrism), but it should be appalling to most with a conscience.  The reason the attacks are wrong is because they’re against innocent human beings.  It doesn’t matter whether there’s 0 or a billion Muslims living in North America; the attacks are every bit as unjust no matter the Muslim body count.

The trouble continues in Uganda

January 11, 2010

About a month ago, I reported the law suit against Leo Igwe for attempting to derail the practice of religiously-supported witch burning in Nigeria.  Unfortunately, Nigeria is not the only place that superstition and a belief in supernatural religious practice has led to the untimely demise of many seemingly innocent people.

Newstime Africa reports that a Ugandan government official has acknowledged that child sacrifices have been on the rise.  Where we normally see these sorts of extreme tactics negatively correlated with welfare, we see the opposite in this case: because the sacrifice of children is supposed to lead to greater financial success, those who are doing well personally are even more committed to sacrificing children as, by their view, they’re receiving confirming evidence.

Human sacrifice is on the increase in Uganda according to a government spokesman. This barbaric crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly. Witch doctors claim they have clients who regularly capture children and bring their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits. One witch doctor confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

This continues the trend of limited critical thinking skills being demonstrated even at the highest levels of Ugandan society, following in the wake of proposed legislation to make being gay and HIV positive a crime worthy of the death penalty (legislation designed, in large part, by “The Family”, a US consortium of Christian politicians).

The atheists I can’t quite agree with (but would most certainly protect!)

January 4, 2010

When someone describes themselves as an atheist, they’re not telling you very much. It tells you nothing of their morality and nothing of their intellect.  Within atheism there are a lot of rifts because the term is so limited in scope.  Popular battles include: social liberalism vs classical liberalism (or libertarianism), whether or not religion is a net positive impact in the world, and whether deconverting the religious is best accomplished by a less confrontational standpoint (a la Michael Shermer or Paul Kurtz) or by a view that refuses to give any ground (a la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or PZ Myers).

There is one type of atheist, though, that I, and indeed most, atheists cannot agree with: the Raelians.  A Raelian is someone who believes, at a minimum, that life on Earth was created by uber-intelligent extra-terrestrials, known as the Elohim.  Typically Raelians have a strong commitment to cloning.   One example is that some believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected not by a divine and personal creator, but by the cloning power of the Elohim.  Further, the Elohim are recording our DNA and memories so that we could be cloned one day if necessary.

This is all developed from an attempt to corroborate more supernatural religious concepts with more materialist explanations.  Noah’s ark is really just a story about the DNA and cloning lab on a spaceship; the Garden of Eden was a lab on Earth; the “great flood” was the product of a nuclear explosion created by the Elohim; and all of history’s prophets were directed or contacted by the Elohim themselves.

Most importantly, for some, this answers the question of where life came from.  Let’s forget, for a moment, about whether or not there is any evidential basis for such arguments.  Sure, life on Earth came from aliens, but where did the aliens come from?  If the aliens were produced by a chance assemblage of chemicals and evolved slowly over time (which seems, to me, the most likely hypothesis for ANY alien life we would discover), why not just posit that this happened here on Earth without introducing fantastical ideas of ET scientists?  Some Raelians will argue that the universe is infinite, in both time and space, and thus asking where or when life began is an utterly non-sensical question: it just always was.  Unfortunately, modern cosmology doesn’t seem to confirm this opinion for the time being: it points to a specific moment at which time and space came to be.

Why is this of any relevancy to me?  Well, it’s not really, except that there are still countries so theologically warped that any atheist or apostate (one who has left the Islamic religion) deserves to be sentenced to death.  Such is the case of Negar Azizmoradi, the Iranian leader of the International Raelian Movement.  She fled Iran after publicly declaring herself an atheist, thus saving her life.  Unfortunately, she went to Turkey where she was arrested for having an improper passport.  Now the Turkish government is deciding whether or not she should be sent back to Iran; it seems Turkey has a history of declining those seeking asylum.  Unfortunately for Azizmoradi, being sent back to Iran would be a death sentence that no human being deserves, no matter their professed faith.

Though I disagree greatly with the validity of Raelianism, I cannot help but feel deeply for Azizmoradi, for whom the prospects do not look good.  What a shame that the “superior morality” of religion is paving the way for seemingly well-intentioned individuals to lose our only chance at life, love, and liberty.

The peril of power

January 4, 2010

2009 continued the trend of unhealthy obssession with celebrities and their personal lives, and ended with a public relations nightmare for perhaps the decade’s best athlete: Tiger Woods.  One night while sitting at the dinner table, my mom professed that she couldn’t understand why people with power and money have a hard time sticking to one person.

My opinion was the exact opposite.  I think it is completely clear why humans have a hard time being monoamorous (having only one lover).  We have a biological impulse to pass on our genes which becomes a huge drive once we’re physically capable of doing so.  I don’t think it’s something restricted to the rich and powerful, either; it’s just that the rich and powerful are usually in a unique position to attract others to them, and thus fulfill their desires for polyamory.

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, it is very obvious why those who are the most well off might be the most polyamorous.  When we are picking out partners, we are subtley looking for a good genetic match.  We are biologically coded to look for certain factors that indicate a partner capable of: a) Producing good offspring, b) Providing and taking care of that offspring.  The affluent are in a unique position to handle these tasks, and are thus very appealing to us.

Now the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern  University has published some interesting research confirming that the most powerful have a certain inability to practice what they preach.

In all cases, those assigned to high-power roles showed significant moral hypocrisy by more strictly judging others for speeding, dodging taxes and keeping a stolen bike, while finding it more acceptable to engage in these behaviors themselves.Galinsky noted that moral hypocrisy has its greatest impact among people who are legitimately powerful. In contrast, a fifth experiment demonstrated that people who don’t feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon the researchers dubbed “hypercrisy.” The tendency to be harder on the self than on others also characterized the powerless in multiple studies.

This study confirms what seems to be patently clear in the public sphere, and we can be reasonably certain that this will continue to be an ongoing battle as social networking and the media continue to bring everyone’s private life into the public purview.