Category Archives: Science

Monday’s Mtg: Does religion expand or limit empathy?

Empathy is all the rage these days, from studying it in academia to explaining its origins in pop science to bemoaning its absence in politics.  The Big Questions seem to include what does it mean to be empathetic, how does empathy differ from compassion and generosity, how do we develop empathy as children or adults, and so forth.

And where, oh where does religion fit in with empathy? I thought this seemed like a great question for Civilized Conversation, since we like to tackle topics that most people already have made up their minds about. Religion (especially organized religion) is either tribal and empathy-smothering or the ultimate source of compassion and love. Everybody can cite religious texts, historical examples, and/or personal experience to prove – prove, I tells you – their POV.

What do you think? I’m not sure yet myself. Here are a few optional background readings on empathy and its possible relationship to religiosity. I will start us off with an amateur’s distinction between spirituality, faith, and religion and working definitions of empathy and compassion. We can blow up those definitions right away if you want to.


Religion and empathy:

Religiosity and empathy:

Is empathy in general overrated?

NEXT WEEK: #MeToo – What does sexual harassment mean today?


Monday’s Mtg: How should government incorporate scientific advice?

I think we need more science topics in the future, too. We have done a number of them over the years, from climate change to cloning. All of them involve government policy – and therefore politics.  Luckily, Penny suggested Monday’s topic, a bigger picture look at how government incorporates scientific advice.

Most Americans probably think science policy is all about either public funding of scientific R&D or of specific policy areas that rely heavily on hard science, like environmental policy and medical research. Plus maybe patents and university funding.  But, in the modern world, just about everything government does requires listening to scientific advice and technical experts. For hard science, there is environmental policy, public health, criminal justice, and agriculture, just to name a few. If you include economics and other social sciences, you can throw in practically everything else governments do, from financial regulation to education to welfare policy. This “science in policy and politics” issue is more what I had in mind for Monday.

Why is this worth discussing? Shouldn’t politicians and bureaucrats just “let the science decide” by “listening to the experts?”  As I will explain further in my opening remarks, not exactly.  For starters, scientific study does not always point to a single, optimum policy.  Uncertainty can be high and scientific consensus can change. More importantly, optimum for whom?  Science cannot tell us which values and whose interests should matter the most. Scientists can’t weigh all of the non-scientific (like legal and diplomatic) considerations and their recommendations are not always practical, politically viable, or affordable. These are all political decisions, and rightly so.

I guess this topic requires us to dig into (sigh) Trump and his Administration’s policies. The overt hostility to expertise and scientific advice of the Administration that invented the term “alternative facts” has received a lot of press attention. Experts on federal advisory committees have resigned or been fired in droves. Government reports and websites have been altered to downplay (suppress?) experts opinion on climate change, family planning, and even terrorism. Climate policies re being reversed. What’s occurred is not as dire as many progressives say – at least not yet. Nor can it all fairly be called, “anti-science,” IMO. Yet, something more or less systematic is being done and it’s only going to accelerate.

I will open our meeting by explaining what I know about how scientific advice gets incorporated into government decision-making. There are structures and processes. Then, we can talk about general principles, Trump’s machinations at the EPA or wherever, or anything else related to this topic. We have a number of scientists and other technical experts in Civilized Conversation, and I am looking forward to hearing what they think.


NEXT WEEK: What should all Americans know about the Constitution?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the American diet unhealthy? Why?

Penny suggested this topic and that we focus on one specific aspect of it: The outsized role that big corporations play in making the American diet unhealthy. CivCon has discussed some related issues in the last two years. In May 2017 we debated how far government should go in encouraging healthy lifestyles and in 2015 we looked at some of the implications of Big Ag itself, with a focus on the industry’s huge political clout and the environmental problems of hyper-concentrated food production. On Monday, we will tackle some of the big health issues surrounding the American diet.

There are a lot of them. It is well known that over the last few decades Americans have grown much more reliant on heavily-processed food, especially fast food. Many of these products are chock full of unhealthy or at least nutritionally-questionable ingredients such as sugar, salt, corn, and chemical additives. A lot of people blame this new American diet for the recent large rise in obesity and related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Some go farther.

Like many of our topics, this is not an area I am very familiar with. However, here are some articles that explore the idea that our diet is being manipulated by big companies and several defenses of industrial agriculture.


NEXT WEEK: Does the “paranoid style” control American politics now?

Monday’s Mtg: Is technology ruining our attention spans?

I know, I know. You thought ruining attention spans was my job. Information technology’s effect on human attention spans is just one of those how-info-tech-is-changing-the-world topics we dip into occasionally.  We’ve done porn’s effect on sexuality, cyber security, and Facebook’s influence on friendship.  I remember linking to at least one article for some meeting that said the internet is changing the hardwiring of our brains.

The attention span angle is a new one for us but it is a topic of both general and academic interest.  I don’t know about you, but everybody I know complains the internet has ruined their ability to focus for any length of time on just one thing.  They’ve all but stopped reading books, can’t finish articles they start reading on-line, stop watching videos on-line after 34 minutes, etc.  Academic work on the issue got a short burst of media attention (is there any other kind of media attention?) a few years ago after a major study claimed technology has reduced average human attention span to a mere eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. I don’t know if the study was any good or how it defined “attention span,” but I’ve linked to an article about it, below.

So, on Monday we can discuss the readings and anything else people have read or seen on our allegedly disappearing ability to pay attention. Also, this would be an especially good meeting, I think, to share some personal experiences. Most CivCon regulars grew up before the internet existed at all, and the full-on social media age is new to everybody, everywhere. What has happened to your attention span and those of people you know?  How do you fight it?

We also could get into related issues. For example, how has the information technology revolution affected our memories, how and how much we learn, the capacity for empathy, and openness to opposing points of view?  What about our intimate relationships and social lives?

I’ll see you Monday at 7pm.


NEXT WEEK: Is rural versus urban America’s worst political divide?

Monday’s Mtg: What Should Americans Be Nostalgic For?

Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.

Who’s laughing now?  More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.

I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis.  But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities.  The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common.  It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days.  Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.

But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners.  It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it.  Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism.  I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones.  Maybe using these questions.


  1. What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
  2. Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
  3. What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
  4. Who and what do they blame?
  5. How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
  6. Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?


NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.

Monday’s Mtg: How far should the government go to encourage healthy lifestyles?

The more I think about this one the more complicated it gets. OTOH, a lot of what the government does to prevent and treat what are called non-communicable diseases (like cancer, diabetes, anorexia, Alzheimer’s, and hypertension) is widely supported by most Americans. The public loves govt funding basic research on chronic diseases, Medicare and Obamacare subsidies, and govt-enforced safe food and water.

But, when Americans perceive that other people’s illnesses are due to poor lifestyle choices things get controversial. How far should, for example, regulation and taxpayer-supported health insurance go in protecting people from their own bad choices?

It’s not just a moral judgment, either. As the first article below points out, it is hard to attribute many chronic conditions to specific behaviors. This is true even for health problems they’ve been studying for decades like cancer and diabetes and (it seems to me) is probably even more true for behaviors that public policy is newly targeting, like obesity. How can we know what interventions are cost-effective if we don’t know how a lot of the science works?

Oh, and what constitutes a bad lifestyle “choice” exactly? Not all decisions about what to eat and where to work and live are equally voluntary, especially for children but also in a sense for people too poor to afford healthy choices.

Along with these issues, here are some other basic questions we might consider on Monday. I will be back from my vacation, BTW.


  1. Rationale: Why should the govt try to prevent/minimize bad lifestyle choices?
    — Why: General public interest? Externalities (effects on other people)? To help the economy? To prevent needless suffering? To fulfill international obligations?
    —  When: Scientific uncertainty.
    — Who: Federal govt v. state/local concern?
  2. Targets: Which behaviors?
    — Smoking/drinking, other drug use and vices.
    — Diet: Obesity/sugar, child nutrition/school lunches, “food deserts” in poor areas.
    — Violence and accidents: Guns, hazards. At work/home.
    — Health care: Insurance, Obamacare carrot and sticks.
  3. Tools: It’s not just regulation.
    — Taxation/subsidies.
    — Information and advocacy.
    — Market regs: Restrictions on buying/selling, food service, product safety regs, etc.
    — Health care.
    — People under govt control: School kids, prisoners, soldiers…
  4. Limits:  How much govt action is too much?
    — Who should decide?
    — Where has govt gone too far or should do more?


NEXT WEEK: Does foreign aid work?

Monday’s Mtg: “Trans-Humanism” – Will/should science reinvent the human species?

If you’ve never heard of Monday’s Halloween-appropriate topic, missing our meeting to trick or treat won’t spare you forever. Science and technology cannot yet enhance human capabilities so radically that any of us could transcend humanity’s natural limits and become Trans-human.

But as the articles below describe, we’re getting there. Major advances are being made in key areas, like genetic engineering, pharmacology, and wearable/implantable technologies for the body and brain. Debates over the bioethics of human enhancement technologies have been raging for years already. There has been at least one Presidential blue ribbon commission on bioethics (GWB’s “Cloning Commission”), and an international Trans-humanist movement that has sprung up. The call is coming from inside the house.

Panning Trans-humanists types as over-the-top techno-optimists is easy and fun. But, I think Aaron’s topic ideas is a great one. The ethical, religious, and political implications of it are fascinating, IMO. I’ll be at the meeting. But Aaron will introduce the topic and preside and I look forward to a very interesting discussion of our possible Gattaca-like, Brave New World.


Next Week (Nov 7): Hillary Clinton and feminism’s successes, failures, and future.

Monday’s Mtg: Are Religion and Science Compatible?

We last did a version of this topic in 2014, led by Carl and Jim Z. If I recall correctly, we talked about the “New Atheism.” This is a moniker given to a group of scientists and public intellectuals that, starting in the late 1990s I think, took a very hard line in opposition to all religious faith. In books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith, New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others declared that science and religion are simply incompatible.

The New Atheists – and most atheists I know –  say that religion is irrational and un-empirical, a remnant from a pre-scientific time and the source of way too many human miseries. I think the conventional wisdom is that this movement was spurred to action by Islamic extremism and/or the U.S. religious Right. I have included in this week’s optional readings an article by Harris (“Science Must Destroy Religion” – Tell us what you really think), and a debate between Dawkins and another scientist who is a Christian and advocates mutual respect.

I’m not so sure that faith and science are incompatible.  But, I’m also not sure how best for Civilized Conversation to approach the matter. Not my area of expertise.  I’ve got lots of questions though.  Do science and religion inhabit two different realms? Are they answering different types of questions – or is there only one type of question or evidence, that of materialism and natural phenomena?  Is religion inherently magical; i.e., supernatural and thus only accessible by faith? Is science the only way to truly know the world – or our fellow humans?  Really?  If faith is irrelevant, why has it lasted long past the emergence of a scientific age?

Deep. I’ll skip the opening lecture thing on Monday evening and just ask for people to open our discussion with whatever is on their minds. Just remember the “Civilized” part.


  • Some good links at our 2014 mtg on this subject (none are repeated below).

Are Religion and Science Compatible, Y/N?

Next Week (Sept 19): Raise/Don’t Raise the Minimum Wage.


Monday’s Mtg: Are Californians Environmentally Over-Regulated?

This topic is one that political conservatives worry about a lot. Every time California experiences a recession or the mildest growth hiccup, and every time a high-profile business leaves California for another state conservatives say it’s all because of over-regulation. To me at least, their rhetoric often sounds ideological and a cynical cover for corporate self-interest.

But, not so fast. I think there’s something to this topic, even after discounting for rhetorical excess and partisanship. California has a very dense web of environmental regulations. They affect every aspect of living and doing business in our state. No one serious is saying we should not have clean air and water, safe consumer products, and wetlands. But, perhaps Californians can be said to be over-regulated, especially if “over-regulated” is carefully and specifically defined.

One definition of excessive govt regulation involves marginal costs exceeding marginal benefits. I will explain this basic concept briefly in my opening framing remarks on Monday night. But, basically, the more stringent an environmental regulation is, the higher the costs of implementing it and (probably) the smaller the additional increment of benefits it provides. You can think of the marginal costs and benefit curves as being non-linear to reflect this. At some point the lines cross, and the reg does more harm than good.

This sounds simple, but it’s very hard to compare costs to benefits in a way that gives us confidence we have assessed them right. C/B analysis is not my field, nor is environmental policy. But I’ll explain this basic idea within the level of my competency.

A second type f over-regulation involves the bureaucratic process. The enviro law permitting process in California can be very time consuming and expensive, especially for big projects that require the full Monty environmental impact studies. There is a lot of talk right now in Sacramento about streamlining the processes. Process is one of those boring-but-really-important aspects of government that separates good government from bad, even if it’s hard for non-experts to discuss and gets very little media attention.

A third type is more like mis-regulation. Like the rest of government, enviro laws/regs can and do get manipulated by private interests for their own benefit, usually at the expense of their public good. As the links explain, below, the third party litigation allowed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is vulnerable to this. (As is our initiative process, that big biz uses to bypass enviro laws they don’t like.)

Huge battles are brewing all over the country over the future of our environment and climate.  As always, Californians will be manning the front lines. At present, the Republican Party has virtually abandoned the environmentalism it used to embrace. That can’t last forever, though. Even if it does, it puts the Democrats in danger. Progressives risk getting too smug about their environmentalism and ceasing to listen to skeptics, businesses, and other good people who bear the brunt of good (and sometimes bad) policy.

I think an honest discussion of the limits of CA’s environmental regulation is very much needed now.


  1. What are CA’s main environmental laws? How do they get enforced?
  2. What is “over-regulation?” Can it have more than one meaning? How can we measure its extent and distinguish valid complaints from false/cynical ones?
  3. If we’re over-regulated environmentally, how did we get that way? How can we safely reverse any over-regulation?
  4. New areas: What do we think of the latest CA enviro laws addressing climate change, energy use, toxins, and groundwater?
  5. Is “technology forcing” regulation a good idea? How do we know if we’re overdoing it?


[Update – Climate Policy – CA is moving very aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Here is a (very supportive) description of what’s bee done, and here is what to expect in the near future.]

Are we environmentally over-regulated?

Next Week July 18: Are native-American interests being neglected?

Monday’s Mtg: Will Space Colonization Ever Happen?

Despite terrorist attacks and other dramatic day-today events, both life and the business of public policy go on. Zelekha suggested we talk about the future of space exploration, with an emphasis on one of its more intriguing (if highly speculative) aspects: The potential for human colonization of space. With any luck, we will have a very knowledgeable guest speaker on the topic.

NASA has been busy exploring Mars and other parts of our solar system in the past few years, and other nations plan to start doing so. A NASA manned mission to Mars is planned for the 2030s as part of a comprehensive plan for future space exploration that the agency issued just last month. A private sector consortium wants to send an 80-person 80,000 [tomato, tomahto] colony to Mars within a few decades, although its plans have been widely panned.

We may have a guest speaker for Monday who is very knowledgeable on space exploration. Robert Lock, Carl’s son and my old friend from high school, is an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Robert has worked on various deep space probe missions at JPL for decades. He will be able to fill us in on NASA’s future plans for exploring the solar system, as well as give us a basic tutorial on what makes colonizing space so difficult and expensive a proposition.

Carl and I are still trying to secure Rob’s presence on Monday.  In the meantime, here are some basic articles on the space program and the promise and peril of colonization.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHAT: What is planned in space exploration in the coming decades? By NASA? By the U.S. private sector? By other countries?
    1. Is anybody seriously studying colonizing space in our lifetimes?
    2. What has the research concluded?
  3. WHY: Why try to colonize space, anyway? Pros and cons.
  4. HOW: What are the big technical barriers to colonization? The biggest cost and political barriers?
  5. NASA’s future in general.


Next Week: Is the United Nations Worth Having?