Tag Archives: Science

Monday’s Mtg: Death – Are Westerners in Denial? What are we so afraid of?

Civilized Conversation does not ignore death. We have discussed legalizing assisted suicide (2014) and the right to die more generally (2018). We’ve done the death penalty several times (like 2014 ) and a year ago had a great debate about what religion provides that secularism does not, in which help with fear of death came up.

The old CivCon, back when it was led by Gary and had a different name and no website, did Monday’s denial of death topic. It was in about 2007 or so – pre website. So, this is my homage to those old days. That, and two days ago millions of U.S. children and adults spent an entire day essentially mocking death and laughing at violence on Halloween.


  1. FEAR:   What is known about the fear of death? Who suffers from it the most (age, culture, sick/non sick, religious/non, etc.)?
  2. CAUSES FEAR: Are the reasons for thanatophobia (death anxiety) known? What do you think? E.g.,
    1. Religion.
    2. Western culture; e.g.., its lack of family support
    3. Medical advances that prolong life.
    4. Media: Its fixation on crime, terrorism, and natural disasters?
    5. Lack of health care and high U.S. poverty.
  3. DENIAL: Instead, is the problem that we are in denial about death? Is denial the opposite of fear or its product?
  4. CAUSES DENIAL: Above, plus
    1. Modern society keeps Americans so far removed from directly witnessing death that we ignore it?
    2. Immortality sense that social media feed?
    3. Is denial healthier than fear? Evidence for this?
  5. BEST WAYS TO COPE: So, what is the healthiest way to think about death?
    1. Who do you know that has embraced their own or a love ones’ death in an admirable way?
  6. Has your attitude changed over time? Are you happy with your posture towards death?


NEXT WEEK: What are the legitimate functions of nation-states now? (on Veterans Day)

Monday’s Mtg: Causes and best ways of dealing with racism and other chauvinisms.

As we watch a president self-immolate by committing impeachable offenses on the White House lawn, it is hard to focus on the deeper roots of what’s happening. But, as we’ve discussed many ties, the forces that gave rise to Trumpism – and to chauvinistic feelings and political movements in other democratic countries – will not go away when/if he does.

(Disclaimer:   Support for Trumpism in 2016 was not all about racism, of course. But honestly, three years of hate-mongering later and the other explanations for his strong core support, like economic anxiety and anti-Washington feeling, are wearing thin. Studies have shown strong correlations between racist and other chauvinistic attitudes and core support for Trump and his policies. Still, we can still distinguish between those in Trump’s personality cult and other conservatives that support more traditional conservative moral and political values like small govt, competitive markets, etc.)

(Disclaimer II: It’s also not clear that there was any big increase in the prevalence in the population of racism before Trump’s election. One theory is that Trump’s election – for whatever reasons it happened – has since caused a “Great Dis-inhibition” in which bigotry has just become more acceptable to say out loud and act on and use as a basis for political organizing. The failure of centrist political parties to solve social problems might bear some of the blame for the rise of these phenomena, too.)

Discussing the forces of bigotry is not new for Civilized Conversation. We did a similar topic to this one in August: How tolerant we can afford to be of intolerance?   We also have debated specific kinds of bigotry, like anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, the paranoid political style, and the resurgence of hyper-nationalism/fascism abroad and/or here. But, we can still make Peter’s idea for this week’s topic work, I think, by adopting a different focus from August. Peter asks two questions:

  1. What causes people to think like this? and
  2. What are the best strategies for dealing with chauvinisms’ seeming resurgence?

I’m no expert, but I will open our meeting on Monday with a quick summary of what I know about the various theories of the origins of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other chauvinisms. I will also talk a little about what sociology has learned about what conditions lead people that hold these beliefs to become politically activated and electorally successful. Then I will turn it over to Peter to begin our discussion of that and how to combat the problem.

One idea: Maybe we can harken back to an old mtg we did on “how to talk to the other side” about politics. How might we discuss bigotry with people we think might be motivated (esp. unconsciously) by it without provoking a defensive response? Or, should we even care about such people’s tender fee-fees?


Old mtgs

Chauvinisms –

NEXT WEEK: Impeachment scenarios. How will this end?

Monday’s Mtg: How much intolerance should society tolerate?

Aye, what a week to do this topic! I don’t mean because of our latest racist-motivated mass shootings. I mean that, despite a tepid speech advocating mutual tolerance in society, the last month or two have made it crystal clear that President Trump is going to center his entire reelection campaign on fear and hatred of immigrants and, um, certain types of Americans. At least by their silent acquiescence Republican Party elected leaders and the conservative news media are along for the ride. The only way not to see it is not to want to see it.

Still, Trump et. al., are the most visible but clearly not the only guilty parties here. What has been called, “the Great Disinhibition” has been occurring throughout American society. Social media, political polarization, economic stagnation and anxiety, and other forces all play a part. Hate crimes are up. Latinos live in fear. Threats of violence and intolerant rhetoric aimed at Latinos and other people of color are commonplace. Even political conservatives complain about being treated intolerantly and discriminated against.

What can be done about the forces that have been released in the last two years? Tools available to us as a society include:

  • Nothing: Punish crimes, let free speech reign, and ride it out.
  • Use the law – Use existing or new laws to rein in hate speech. Private law suits.
  • Use politics: Rhetoric, campaigning, winning.
  • Citizen organized boycotts and public shaming.
  • Pressure on the telecom technology giants to deny access to hate groups.
  • You and me: Self-control, reaching out to family colleagues, become a political activist/contributor…

This will be a well-attended, multi-faceted meeting. I will keep my opening remarks short. Please keep your comments on-topic and be sure to update your Meetup RSVP if you cannot attend.


NEXT WEEK:  Climate Change – How can the truth start winning again?

Monday’s mtg (4/1/19): Does mental illness get the acceptance and attention it deserves?

Civilized Conversation has discussed many different aspects of health and health care. But we have never done a meeting on mental health and mental illness. After 15 years and 500+ weekly meetings, that makes such a meeting long overdue. Mental health is also a great issue for us because it intersects with all sorts of societal and political issues: Public health, criminal justice, the social safety net, education, etc. We also could get personal a bit, discussing lessons learned dealing with mental health issues in our personal lives should people wish to share them.

To open our meeting I will give a very brief portrait of mental illness in America, based on the broad numbers. In short, about one in five Americans suffers from some form of mental illness and about one in five of them are “substantially impaired” by their conditions in any given year. Common illnesses include depression bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety and panic disorders, and schizophrenia.

These are chronic, serious, but poorly understood and supported illnesses. They often require a lifetime of treatment and support from family, the medical community, and heath care providers. Nearly one-half of people with severe mental illnesses do not receive any treatment and many that do have gone undiagnosed for years and/or are undertreated. Many develop substance abuse or other social problems. All of this makes mental illness not just a personal and family tragedy, but an issue for communities and government.

Below are a few basic articles on the prevalence of mental illnesses, the stigma surrounding it, the difficulties in dealing with it, and related issues. This will be a good one.

This will be a large meeting, too. Let’s remember to keep our remarks on-point and relatively pithy.


NEXT: Will regional differences tear America apart?

Monday’s Mtg: What makes people happy?

“Happiness studies” is an academic field, it turns out. And an active and popular one. For decades bookshelves have groaned under the weight of endless self-help books full of strategies for attaining happiness, personal growth, and emotional well-being. Now we have on-line happiness studies scholarly journals and hundreds of popular websites providing advice on how to get happier, improve your emotional well-being, self-actualize, etc.

What do they say?  Interestingly, a lot of this literature claims that hard science is starting to reveal the keys to how happiness – much more so than did the old tools of philosophy or religion or personal experience. Last year we discussed a piece of th happiness puzzle: Whether a good life needs to have a purpose. We were pretty careful not to simply equate a good life with a happy life, so, our discussion was a bit different from and broader in scope than this one.  Moreover, in that meeting we got into our personal experiences a bit, which was very helpful, IMO.  As the group gets larger and more diverse I wish we did this more often. Maybe Monday is a chance.

What does being “happy” mean? Does it mean different things to different people? Is a tendency to be happy a character trait, a cultural trait, or a product of experience and wisdom? Can one become happier through effort? How important are the quality of our personal relationships with others? How does happiness relate to other components of well-being; e.g., success, respect, and physical/emotional security?

Beyond science and intellectualism, what about you? What have you learned about happiness by living your life, finding/losing love, raising your kids, working with other people, or through other experiences? Lots to talk about.


NEXT:   The future of national healthcare in America.

Monday’s Mtg: Are we in a “Sixth Mass Extinction?”

Environmental problems are almost completely ignored in the popular American press. Given our ongoing democratic crisis, this is kind of understandable. Yet, long-term damage is being done to the planet’s carrying capacity in a number of ways.

Scott suggested we discuss one of those ways that is even more ignored than most: Mass species extinction. Scientists say planet earth is in the midst of a sixth great “mass extinction,” a rapid die-off of very large number of animal and plant species. The five other mass extinctions that have occurred before (like the dinosaurs) altered natural history profoundly. This one will too, they say.

But, how much do we know about how mass extinctions occur and their consequences? Is #6 really happening? How much is known versus unknown and thus speculative? What can be done?

In DavidG’s absence Scott will preside over Monday’s meeting.  He also provided most of the optional pre-mtg readings. Enjoy.


  1. What is the history of mass extinction events on planet earth?
  2. What is known about the current extinction event taking place? How certain are scientists about what is going on?
  3. Up to 99% of this extinction is human-caused. How are we doing this?
  4. What evidence exists that we are heading toward a massive, 6th mass extinction event? How badly will humans be affected by it?
  5. What can we do about it?



NEXT: What if we end up with an all-White Republican party and a largely non-White Democratic party?

Monday’s Mtg: Our Opioid Crisis – Who’s to blame, what can be done?

The ongoing opioid crisis has been called the “epidemic of all epidemics.” It certainly is the worst drug overdose crisis in U.S. history. In 2017 alone 72,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, [update: …of which 49,000 were from opioids.]  up from 64,000 deaths in 2016. This is a greater toll than died in any single year ever from guns, car crashes, or HIV/AIDS.

It is not just prescription drugs that are the problem. Most addicts do start off with prescription drugs like OxyContin. But, after a decade of ridiculous increases the number legal opioid prescriptions has begun to decline. Most opioid deaths now are the result of people switching to fentanyl and heroin, much of it imported from China and Mexico.

This ravaging of Middle America has been extensively reported in the press for almost a decade. We’ve talked about it before.  What has gotten a lot less coverage is what to do about it. There is no single magic bullet that will “fix” the opioid problem. But there are a whole bunch of actions that if implemented intensively (and expensively) at all levels of government and within the health care industry that could start to contain the epidemic and reverse the damage it is causing.

Here are some descriptions of America’s opioid disaster, one major piece on solutions, and some reminders of major obstacles that prevent their being adopted. I will give a brief opening related to these readings.


Solutions –

Obstacles to / problems with the solutions –

NEXT: The new Supreme Court – How far right will it really move?

Monday’s Mtg: Is human nature best grasped by science, philosophy, or religion?

Everybody is all science-y about human nature these days. Insights into how and why people are the way they are gleaned from cutting edge neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and other hard sciences have captured the public’s imagination. Pop science mags/websites are chock full of articles on the latest findings about the biological basis of human nature. The social sciences keep plugging away on the matter, too, trying to untangle the role that environment and upbringing play and whether there is such a thing as a common human nature that spans different eras and cultures.

When CivCon discussed the existence of a universal human nature in 2015 our discussion focused mostly on the science, if I recall right.

The idea behind Monday’s revisit is to make sure we don’t shortchange the 3,000 years of thinking about human nature that came before 21st century cognitive science. There are the major philosophers like Plato and Hume and their heirs. Political philosophers, including Madison and Jefferson, rooted their theories in particular views of human nature.

There is also religion. Don’t all of the major faith traditions have a conception of basic human nature? What is the Ten Commandments if not a statement about how people naturally will act if not deterred by authority? Isn’t Jesus saying that human empathy is malleable and expandable? Buddhists claim our nature is to suffer because we crave too much. You get the idea. And, yeah, the science is pretty cool, too.  Maybe some of us know more about it than I do (It would be hard to know less).

Our meetings are getting pretty crowded these days. This is great in many ways, but maybe a bigger group needs to discuss a broad topic like this one within some sort of loose structure. So, after a brief intro I will ask sequentially about:

  1. You: What personal experiences have given you insights into human nature?  Education.  Family.  Marriage/relationships.  Parenting.  Work. Worship/spirituality?  Personal crises?
  2. Science: Anything cool you’ve read on biology etc. of human nature?
  3. Social science: Sociology, economics…
  4. Religion: What do religions assume about human nature and can faith/spirituality change it?
  5. Philosophy: Insights of major thinkers + different schools (like East/West or essentialist/nomological)
  6. Art:  I forgot this one.

Here are some (optional as always) background things to ponder.


NEXT WEEK: Hail Me! If you were our dictator what would you decree?

Monday’s Mtg (6/11/18): When I’m 164 – How will longer lifespans change our society?

This topic idea and its wording are blatantly stolen from a memorable 2012 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly. (In 2 parts, links below.) But, scientists all over the world are racing to find new ways to prolong the human lifespan. The idea that they could one day succeed has such enormous implications that a lot has been written on the subject in recent years. General interest magazines and popular science websites have been all over it, as have, obviously, more technical scientific publications.

We know that extending human lifespans by even another half-decade or so would have profound consequences for our society – because it already has. Since 1840, U.S. life expectancy has increased on average by about three months every year (source). Having longer, healthier lives (and far lower infant mortality) has vastly increased Americans’ health, wealth, and happiness. But, it also has required many changes to the way we live, work, and govern ourselves. What new changes will be necessary if Americans (and people around the world) one day routinely live to 100, or 125, or 164?

Here are a few general interest articles that discuss the promise and pitfalls of radically-enhanced lifespans. I also added an excellent one on how big a change it would be just to raise it to 100 years. Please see if you can read/skim/get the gist of at least the recommended readings. I will start us off on Monday with a brief overview of some of the major issues that are likely to arise if lifespans either continue their slow, steady rise or suddenly increase.


NEXT WEEK: Big Data – Privacy and Power in a Brave New Age.

Monday’s Mtg: Will technology make war too easy?

A technological revolution is coming to…everything, obviously, including warfare. We aren’t talking just about smart bombs and armed drones anymore. The future might bring us automated battles fought by robots with artificial intelligence, swarms of micro-drones that can replicate themselves, self-guided bullets, non-lethal weapons (that can be used on political protestors, BTW), particle beam rifles, gene-spliced bioweapons, and other armaments beyond our imagination.

This stuff is so important that in the next two month we will have three topics related to it. First up on Monday is the basics. We will learn about some of the wilder military technologies that are being developed to the extent we can know about such secret stuff; how their availability and employment could change how we get into/avoid wars, fight them, and finish them; and some of the broad ramifications for national defense, international relations, and our safety.

On May 28 we will consider the future of nuclear deterrence in particular, as suggested by James, focusing on whether nuclear war is going to remain as unthinkable as it is today. Finally, on June 18th we bring it all together and also tackle President Trump’ specialty: Brinksmanship and threatening war as a routine tool of negotiating.

Here are the usual discussion questions and optional readings. The reading focus on future gee-wiz weaponry under development and possible implications for war and peace. As you read, think about our basic topic question: Is war about to become too easy to wage? In my opening remarks I will list some of the technologies and some hopefully useful ways to think about some of these dilemmas.


  1. History: How has the world dealt with military technological revolutions in the past? E.g., nuclear weapons, chemical/biological, and earlier? Lessons learned?
  2. Future war: Which technologies are at issue and how could they make wars easier to start and harder to deter and end? Easier/harder for whom – USA/allies, adversary nations, terrorists and criminals)? What will “war” mean in 20-30 years?
  3. Implications: Tradeoffs (esp. reducing costs of war vs. lowering its threshold). Implications for deterrence and diplomacy? Ethics/morality.
  4. Uncertainty: What is the danger of us thinking future wars will be easier and being proven wrong, or vice versa?
  5. Options: What’s best – Develop capability, arms races, arms control, alliances, prepare the public to live with uncertainty?


  • Key point: Technological advances never made war unthinkable in the past.

New technologies –

War becoming too easy?

No, war will never be easy –

NEXT WEEK: Do atheists tend to be intolerant?