Wednesday, September 30, 2009

If you're gonna be sure, be right

Ignorance mixed with smug certitude is not a pretty thing.

I went to the local Chabad house this past Friday night (I may have grown to dislike religion, but I still love Shabbos food), and I happened to sit across from another student who I hadn't met before. We got talking about our respective studies (he's an English major), and when I mentioned that I am studying physics he said (paraphrasing), "I hate it that scientists think they are so much more objective than everybody else, especially when they believe in things like atoms, which there are no evidence for."

I went on to explain to him that in fact there is (and has been for a long time) overwhelming evidence for the atomic theory of matter, even including images of atoms on the surface of materials (in my department there are experimentalists who even manipulate one atom at a time using lasers).

How a college student (in a good university) could be so unaware of stuff they teach in high school chemistry is mind-boggling enough, but what really annoyed me was how obnoxious he was in his assertion. If you are going to be smug, at least make sure that you are correct! (Was that too smug of me? I was very polite to him in person.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cosmos: The Musical

I saw this on Pharyngula and really liked it. Note that MC Hawking (the original one) makes a short appearance.

I saw Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" as a kid (my parents were BTs and let me watch such nureshkeit) and I think it's one of the things that first inspired me to become a scientist (that and "The Magic School Bus").

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is Your Holy Book Racist?

In response to my previous post about giving health-care to illegal immigrants, the Jewish Philosopher (JP) in our midst left the following comment:
People naturally take care of their own; that's taken for granted. According to the Talmud "love your neighbor" means "love Jews".
I don't agree with JP very often, but here I shall agree with his statement, if not his implied intent. Yes, it seems people do have a natural inclination to favor those who are similar to them over those who are different. There was a cover story in Newsweek about that a couple of weeks ago, which mentioned the following experiment:

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup's mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.

The kids didn't segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. "The Reds never showed hatred for Blues," Bigler observed. "It was more like, 'Blues are fine, but not as good as us.' " When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they'd answer, "All of us." Asked how many Blues were nice, they'd answer, "Some." Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.

So it would appear that JP is correct that there is a natural tendency to develop "in-group preferences." But we have two choices: we can either try to overcome this tendency, or we can succumb to it. Modern liberal morality demands that we should attempt to overcome this in-group preference and make a concerted effort to treat all people equally, while JP's Torah morality dictates that we succumb to this tendency and treat people in our group (Jews) different than those outside it. So which is more moral? Should we surrender to this natural tendency or try to overcome it? Personally, I think this is one tendency I would like us to fight against. It seems that once we succumb to this nature that it's a short step to outright racial discrimination.

(Although he didn't say so clearly in the comment, it would seem that JP is endorsing the Talmud's view that we should embrace our natural inclination towards in-group preferences. I don't think I'm being unfair in assuming this, considering the views about the origins of morality that JP has espoused in the past.)

Incidentally, I find it sort of telling that in chassidus shiur we were always hit over the head with the idea that we should fight against our natural tendencies, especially the "animalistic" sexual taivos, but fighting the natural tendency towards in-group preferences was never mentioned. In fact such preferences were encouraged ("You are the best of the best, hand chosen by the Rebbe RaShaB to be in his heiliker Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim.") As is often the case with religion: masturbation is tantamount to murder, but bigotry is just fine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I'm Back / Health-care

Sorry (to nobody in particular) that I've neglected my blog. I've spent the summer working almost nonstop, but now that the school year is starting again I'm going to try to post somewhat regularly.

I guess the big news this summer (at least in the USA) has been the debate over health-care reform. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the relevant issues; my general feeling is that I'd like the government to make sure that every citizen has health-care (a single payer system like they have in many European countries sounds good to me, but maybe there are other methods that would work better). It's not that I'm pro-socialism in general, in fact I think that capitalism provides people with the necessary incentives to go out and do the things they need to do so that we can have a functioning society, but I think we should try to at least make sure everyone has access to food, shelter, education, and health-care, if at all possible.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out one thing that bugged me about the response in the media to congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during the President's address to congress a couple of weeks ago. Wilson shouted "You lie" at the President's assertion that his proposed reforms would not apply to illegal aliens. Much of the media coverage that I saw pointed out that in fact there were no proposals to cover illegal aliens, and furthermore that Obama was simply stating what reforms he would support, so Wilson really was factually inaccurate in saying that the President was lying. It was also pointed out that Wilson was simply being inappropriate by yelling at the president during a speech to congress.

What I didn't see pointed out was the inappropriateness of Wilson's (and many of his countrymens') underlying anger that some poor brown people that sneaked in to the US so they could afford to feed their families might get health-care! Wilson was so angry that these people would actually get treated when they are sick (heaven forbid!) that he just lost it on the floor of the House. I mean, would it really be so bad that some non-Americans got free health-care? Does he want anyone without citizenship papers to be denied life-saving care? Remember, these are many of the same people who were more than willing to spend a trillion dollars to "liberate" the Iraqi people (and don't give me that national security bullshit - they still supported the war after it was clear that there were no WMD). I'd rather spend my tax money saving some non-citizen lives than spending it to send more people to die in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I realize that it would be political suicide for Obama to say that he wouldn't mind if some illegal aliens got health-care, but I just wanted to point out the lack of compassion and empathy that is needed to be so damn angry about the possibility that some non-citizens might get some free health-care.