Tag Archives: Science

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

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.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

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.

DISCUSSION 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?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.

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.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

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.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

  • 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: 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?
  2. COLONIZATION:
    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.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is the United Nations Worth Having?

Monday’s Mtg: The Transgendered in America.

Transgendered Americans historically have been among the most marginalized and persecuted among us, and they still are. Yet, slowly, the country is waking up to the existence of transgendered (TG) people and some degree of acceptance is geminating in the mass culture. The actions of a few, high-profile celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox (the Orange Is the New Black actress) have helped to ease the process forward.

Politically, change is in the air too. President Obama’s Justice Department has interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to apply to TG-Americans. Obamacare basically bans discrimination in health insurance. The Pentagon will lift the ban on trans soldiers. The LGBT movement is taking TG rights seriously, including them in the broader struggle. I’ve read articles that say transgender equality is the next frontier of civil rights.

But, it’s a tough sell to millions of Americans. The transgendered are a small, little understood, and historically despised and feared group. Discrimination is widespread and not at all a social taboo in many parts of the country. Bathroom use seems to freak out some people, especially.

My goal for Monday’s meeting is pretty basic, since I do not know much about this subject myself: A little education. Plus maybe it would be useful to discuss how our society traditionally defines gender and the challenge that TG people pose to this definition. The idea that a person has the right to define for him/herself which gender he/she (rather than have it defined for them by the shape of their genitals and society) is the core moral question, is my understanding. I also would like to get into the politics of TG equality, especially in California. I believe our state has been a controversial pioneer in adding TG to anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What does being transgender mean? What other terms are used these days to describe the spectrum of gender ID and sexuality?
  2. How many TG Americans are there, and where and how do they live?
  3. How bad is persecution? Why does it happen? Why does TGs’ existence bother so many people?
  4. How quickly are cultural norms of acceptance changing?
  5. What legal protections exist for the transgendered?  Are any of the political demands of the transgendered community unreasonable? What arguments are made in opposition other than just, “ew, it’s gross?”

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Why are so many people on govt disability programs?

Monday’s Mtg: Which Natural or Human-Made Catastrophes Should Most Worry Us?

This one is a fun albeit a bit dark topic idea from Bruce. Our meeting Monday is three days after 9/11, and a mass casualty terrorist attack is a real possibility. (ISIS is using chemical weapons as we speak.). Preventing another 9/11 or worse has been a necessary obsession of the national establishment every hour of every day for many years now.

But, what about other natural or human-caused catastrophes, Bruce asks? Which one(s) of them should also concern us a lot and which ones really just belong on overwrought History Network episodes or in Zombie Apocalypse movies? Obviously, climate change should be high up on the list. Many people think it IS the list. Others are long-standing fears, like nuclear war, pandemics, and mega-earthquakes. Still others are more cutting edge and speculative, like a disaster stemming from nanotechnology or out-of-control artificial intelligence.  We could all end up being Sarah Connor.

For Monday, I would like us to do better than a History channel episode by focusing on something more tangible than scary speculation: Disaster risk assessment and planning. Disaster preparation is a vast field, and was high priority long before 9/11. (Visit FEMA’s website to get a hint of the scale and scope of it.)  The first article I link to below summarizes a study that, I think, analyzes the risks of different big cats in a systematic way. I will read it and other basic stuff on disaster planning and try to open our meeting with some information on how the pros worry about these things.

We are discussing climate change on October 5, but the focus will be on ongoing international negotiations, not projected impacts. So, the links on climate this week are brief and concern the risks of not acting (which are often ignored, BTW).

Discussion Questions –

  1. Which ones: What are the worst natural or human-made catastrophes that experts fear could occur? What is the conventional wisdom on their probability and impacts?
  2. Assessing Risk: Whose job (in govt and the private and non-profit sectors) is it to assess these risks? How do they do it?
  3. Prevention I: Who is doing what? How do we know it’s enough?
  4. Prevention II: How willing are Americans to pay for disaster prevention and have their lives inconvenienced to prepare for them?
  5. Responses: How do you think Americans would react if a big catastrophe struck us? How would it change our politics?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Natural rights’ existence and implications.

Monday’s Mtg: Anti-Science Views of the U.S. Right and Left

Ali’s idea finally arrives! I imagine our immigrant from Iraq member suggested this topic because he has been shocked to learn how ignorant Americans are about science and how often those beliefs influence public policy.

Me, too. Public ignorance of basic scientific principles and facts is kind of legendary in this country. We have touched on it tangentially before, but not really since 2011 meetings on anti-intellectualism and the politicizing of science. We’re going to debate my pet peeve, political ignorance, on September 28. So, our summer of ignorance will be a long one.

As for science, we all can name a few big areas of illiteracy that make it into the news on a regular basis because it they impact politics and public affairs.

  • Climate change denialism.
  • Anti-evolution/creationism.
  • Vaccines.
  • Genetically-modified organism (GMO) food.

There are others. I’ve met people in recent years that believe the government and/or corporations are dispersing harmful chemicals nationwide in a deliberate effort to increase the rate of disease. Pro-life advocates believe abortions cause breast cancer and the pill is an abortifacient (the AMA and American Cancer Society disagree). Bruce, our neurologist, has mentioned before that a lot of his patients want only “natural” treatments, rather than those icky pharmaceuticals with their industry-bought scientific studies. Abstinence only education. Fluoridated water.

Anyway, I think we should start off on Monday by getting some facts of our own. I’m going to do some research on how many Americans actually believe the major scientific fallacies I listed above. Then, we can debate what to me are the really important questions, like who encourages people to believe this stuff, and why do some anti-science views end up influencing public policy while others do not?  Do “both sides really do it” equally?

Discussion Questions –

  1. How many Americans hold flat-earthly wrong views on the major scientific questions of our day? Has it gotten worse or better in recent decades?
  2. How do these opinions break down by Right and Left, politically? When is ideology/partisanship a driver of ignorance and when is it just coincidence?
  3. Who in positions of influence is abetting this scientific illiteracy? Politicians? Religious authorities? News Media? Bogus think tanks? People making money off the ignorance?
  4. Who cares? Which anti-sci views are hurting us all by influencing public policy (e.g., climate) or third parties (e.g., anti-vaccine)
  5. What can be done? Better science education? Better news media? Less craven politicians?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Wrongful Criminal Convictions.

Monday’s Mtg: Can Science Explain the Mind?

We have another, excellent learn-from-Bruce meeting this week. Our resident neurologist will lecture on what science knows about the human consciousness. How close is science to knowing whether our self-awareness/sentience is an epiphenomenon of the physical structures and functioning of our brains? Is there any room left for an incorporeal, human consciousness, either divinely-created or in some other way non-physical?

To most of us secular types, the answer is clear: Anything we don’t know about the human mind we someday will know. Everything that exists in our consciousness has a physical analog, evolving naturally. Evolution invented us and then we invented “us.” Many religious people seethe at this POV, considering it arrogant and, at most, unprovable. Hopefully, Bruce can help us seculars better understand what it is we’re so damned sure about.

I – whoever and whatever that is – am really looking forward to this one. Below are a few inks of general interest googled by me. I will add in any readings Bruce suggests later this weekend.

There is a small chance I won’t be there again. But, again, not for lack of interest.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Via Bruce:

From me (they just seemed a little easier)

Next Week:  Nuclear Negotiating with Iran.