Sunday, July 21, 2013

I can't stand it, anymore!

Where shall I begin with this rant?

Civil liberties

 I don't care if  you are a pro-rights person or an anti-rights person. Okay. That's a little unfair. I don't care if you advocate for more and increasing freedom or if you think current and increasing restrictions on liberty are okay, I am pretty much done discussing things with people who lie, impugn the motives of others and call names in the name of "truth."  Here's a newsflash: The truth does not need that kind of help. It has always done quite well on its own and there is every reason to believe it will continue to do so. It might take a while, but that's okay. If you believe, that since truth is found in the encounter between a hearer/reader and the narrative, it's okay to twist the facts in the interest of a "greater truth" (the one endorsed by your narrative), it doesn't matter what position you occupy on any issue. You are a liar. It doesn't matter if I agree with your basic position or not. You're still a liar. Got that? You...are...a...liar. Calling other people liars does not make you less of one. If you are convinced someone else is a liar, though your only evidence is that he or she doesn't agree with your position or analysis, you are also an idiot appear to be frightfully unaware of what constitutes evidence, proof, sound logic or awareness of your own bias.

It's a conspiracy/plot

Chem trails. Stop. Please, just stop. You make my head hurt. We have ample evidence that wing tip vortices and other contrails are not only naturally occurring events, but that they also do last longer than a few seconds or minutes in the absence of any scheme or plot.

No. There is no individual or organization that has the ability to control your mind and thoughts with nanotechnology. Nor can they see through your eyes and hear through your ears. They cannot retrieve your thoughts.

Yes, we did (successfully) send men to the moon...and brought them home. I know it offends you. It happens to be true.

The world is not flat. Feel free to ignore the pictures taken from space. Ask the ancient Greeks. Ask the royal navigators of Columbus' day. Consider the Viking hoards that contain items from China.

The world, financial or otherwise, is not controlled by: the "Illuminati", Jews, Nazis, Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, space aliens, George Soros, George Bush or any combination thereof. Incidentally, every American President has not been a member of Skull and Bones

Now, some people only embrace a few of these ideas. Some, however, because we know governments do lie, cheat and deceive citizens, seem to feel compelled to believe everything is evidence of one conspiracy or another. If that describes you, please try to remember that if all the things of which you accuse our government/business/religious institutions were true, there would be no need to hide them.


In spite of frequent comments to the contrary, you actually can prove a negative, universal or otherwise. People make a mistake and confuse data with logic. The scientific idea of functionality and the philosophical ability to prove something are not the same thing. Some things may be functionally difficult to prove but philosophically far easier. For instance, I can say there are no fish with fur. If your objection is that I can't prove it because I haven't collected every fish in the world, that's a functional difficulty. Philosophically, I can say there is no evidence of currently living fish with fur and that, therefore, fish do not have fur. In some cases, that is as close to proof as we can come. It's dependent, in part, upon the size of your universe.There are a lot of fish in the world, but relatively few people living in most houses. So, let me give another example. There are five people living in my house. No one in living in my house is a Muslim. Therefore, there are no Muslims living in my house. In this case, it is far easier to test all the members of the set.  However, the philosophical argument remains the same. To insist that for something to be proven we must know everything about every member of a set is to be content knowing and accepting very little at all.

"Common sense" is an adequate substitute for neither logic nor research. Is it easier? Much easier. Is it faster? It is faster by far, especially if we are talking about research that uses the scientific method. It's also far more prone to being influenced by our individual experiences and beliefs. For instance, as an RN I know a lot of other RNs, many of whom work in Labor and Delivery (L&D). Virtually every L&D nurse I know insists more babies are born on the full moon than on any other single day. The weight of the research, though, does not support such a belief. There are a number of reasons given for the persistence of the idea, but most of them come down to experience and belief. The same thing is true in other areas. A person who insists that he or she prefers common sense to logic and research is far more likely to be influenced by his experiences and pre-existing beliefs than he might be if he used logic and research. I am the last person to deny that research can be tedious, or that it can be biased or misinterpreted. But to reject research because all research isn't perfect, or because it is slow, painfully detailed and lumbering,  is silly. Such an attitude denies us the benefits of research and the possibility of learning something new (and possibly challenging, which I suspect gets to the heart of the matter).

"You can prove anything with statistics." Actually, not true. I've spoken with a number of statisticians. Every one of them has said statistics prove nothing. In fact, when used in properly designed research, they are designed to disprove the hypothesis being tested (the "null" hypothesis). What people often mean is "since statistics can be misused I don't like them and refuse to have anything to do with them." Statistics are a tool. Like any other tool they can be used properly and they can be misused. So can research. So can logic. And, yes, so too can common sense. If I am to be consistent, if I reject statistics because it can be misused, I must reject these other three as well.

"I don't care what you say." That may be true. If you spend a significant amount of time and energy reminding me of how little you care about what I say, allow me to suggest that Shakespeare was correct about someone protesting too much. Likewise, if you publish a blog and insist that you don't care if anyone reads it, your veracity is...suspect. If you don't care if anyone reads it, why not simply write a private journal?

"You're too stupid/foolish/uneducated/blind to understand the truth of my arguments and the foolishness of  yours." Socrates would have had this person for lunch. "You are correct" he might say. "How shall an old man such as I learn or see my way out of this darkness if one such as you will not teach me?" It's still a valid response. I like Socrates, at least when he argued. He played to win.

This concludes this rant.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Trial by jury

I have no idea how the trial of George Zimmerman will turn out.  Meaning,  I don't know what the jury will decide.  I haven't been watching it that closely, but I have been somewhat deluged by comments from several people who have strong opinions regarding both Zimmerman and the trial.  It's those comments and the beliefs they seem to reflect that interest me far more than the Zimmerman trial.

At the start, let me be clear.  I don't know or pretend to know what happened the night Zimmerman killed Martin.  Nothing I say here should be construed as indicating my opinion as to whether Zimmerman is guilty or not guilty. The only living person who knows is Zimmerman.  The rest of us can only, at best, form opinions based on the facts.  For those of us not in the courtroom, those facts are, by definition, filtered and received secondhand if we're fortunate, or after passing through even more people and more individual filters if we're less fortunate.  This means that a majority of us, or a sizable minority of us, may form an opinion of Zimmerman's guilt or innocence that differs significantly from that of the jury.

I've read a lot lately about the right to a "trial by a jury of your peers."  This is a phrase found nowhere in the Constitution.  We do have a right to trial by jury.  We do not have a right, as expressed in the Constitution, to a trial by a jury of our peers. Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution requires all criminal trials be heard by a jury and that the trial be heard in the state where the crime was committed.  The 6th Amendment adds the requirement that the jury be impartial.  The 7th Amendment requires that certain Federal civil trials be heard by a jury if the amount exceeds twenty dollars.

The right to a trial by a jury of one's peers comes from the Magna Carta, which gave nobles the right to be judged by their peers (the "peerage" referring to the nobility) rather than by the king.  A trial by a jury of one's peers, then, requires that there be a peerage.  Since we don't have a nobility, we have no peerage, at least not in the truest sense of the word.  The American ideal is that we are all equals regardless of our differences.  So, then, any voting citizen is my peer.  I say voting citizen because suffrage and jury service have always been closely tied.  The point of this is that a person need not be judged by a jury of people who are as much like him or her as possible for the jury to be impartial.

The right against self-incrimination is found in the 5th Amendment.  It's importance can't be overstated.  We cannot be compelled to incriminate ourselves.  Following from this basic civil liberty, we get the idea that refusing to incriminate oneself is not an admission of guilt and that it should not be viewed as an indicator of guilt.  It's disturbing to hear and read comments from people who clearly view the refusal to speak as evidence of guilt.  Frequently, the comments suggest that "an innocent person would have nothing to fear if he or she spoke."  This might be true, if history didn't provide us with examples of people wrongfully convicted based, in part, on their decision to speak.  Also, the burden of proof is placed squarely upon the shoulders of the prosecution.  It is their job to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  It is not the job of the defendant to prove otherwise.

Related to the above is a concept that we sometimes fail to understand.  When a jury finds a person "not guilty" that is not the same as "innocent."  It means that person's guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The prosecution has not made it's case.  In most cases we are simply unable to have access to nothing but perfectly clear, complete and unequivocal fact.  This means that juries must make a decision as to whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof based on the facts as they are presented.  As a result, "not guilty" is the best they can do.  Now, "not guilty" may mean the jury thinks the defendant is innocent, but remember, at some point a grand jury found sufficient cause to believe the same person was likely guilty.  A good example is the first OJ Simpson trial.  I had one defense attorney, two prosecutors and one LEO of almost twenty years experience all tell me, early on in the trial that (in the words of one of the prosecutors) "if that's the best the state can do, he will walk."  After the verdict I saw an interview with some of the jurors.  Each of them said they were concerned that they had released a murderer but that the state had not met its burden of proof.  Things were not made better by having the lead prosecutor disagree using the "I did too!' defense.  In the case of Zimmerman, if the jury finds him not guilty, that will not mean he is innocent.  Harvard Law professor and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz had this to say about both Zimmerman and the concept of "not guilty."

I think it likely, regardless of the verdict in the Zimmerman case, that there will be a significant number of people who find the verdict an example of a gross miscarriage of justice or even some sort of right wing/left wing plot.  You can, of course, believe whatever you want.  I prefer to believe juries really do the best job they can, often in difficult cases in which the evidence is less than clear.  While I may agree or disagree with the decision handed down by the jury, I think I'll stick with that belief.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cling to this day...

Happy Independence Day!

One of the best quotes I've found regarding American Independence Day is this one, taken from a powerful speech by Frederick Douglass.  All Americans would do well, I believe, to become familiar with this speech and the story of the man who delivered it.  And now, the quote:

"I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day—cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight."
-Frederick Douglass

I fear that we have now reached the point at which many Americans, perhaps even most Americans, no longer cling to this day and its principles.  Years ago, a term was coined for a morality that has been separated from religion.  The term is "cut flower morality."  Some readers of this blog may disagree with the premise behind the term and I'm not planning on discussing that today.  Instead, I want to take the term and modify it for my own use, here.

I've spent time reading and commenting on some other blogs.  It amazes me to find people, especially Americans, who profess a disdain for the Enlightenment.  Presumably, they find the Scottish Enlightenment worthy of particular scorn.  What I find even more amazing are those who dismiss Enlightenment principals as valid or valuable, but who insist they love liberty.  Liberty, at least in the sense that it has long been experienced (albeit imperfectly) in this country, cannot be separated from Enlightenment principles.  What is not surprising is to learn that someone who denies the Enlightenment's positive influence on freedom is not all that supportive of liberty in general but is, instead, willing to dispense with one individual right after another in the interest of statism and social utility.

We still call America "the land of the free and the home of the brave."  Sadly, I believe that in many cases that is no longer as true as it once was.  The reason for that I want to lay at the feet of "cut flower freedom."  That is, a freedom that has had its ties to the basic principles, ideals and philosophies that made it possible, severed.  What we are left with is a freedom that looks pretty...for a while.  It provides the benefits of liberty...for a while and in ever lessening amounts.  But, with each successive assault, with every casual (or studied) disregard for its underlying principles, it dies a little more and bears increasingly little resemblance to the living and vibrant freedom that preceded it.  

So, too, with bravery.  Regardless of their failings (and being human, they had many) the Founding Fathers had a love of liberty that many people today simply do not share.  We can weasel about on the particulars, but history is clear, I believe, that they found freedom to be alluring enough to risk all they had and all they were in its pursuit.  They knew, beyond doubt, that they were traitors to the English Crown.  They knew of England's overwhelming power compared to theirs.  Yet they were convinced that their cause was just and because of that they were willing to risk all.  One does not stand and defy the world's greatest military power of the age for no good reason...or with impunity.  There was good reason to believe that one or more of them or their co-conspirators would pay for his defiance with his life.  And, still, they revolted.  Still, they insisted that freedom was that important and that the right of the individual to be free was of greater significance than any "right" of government.

We have, sadly, lost much of that.  Instead, we cling to the remnants of our liberty as if these tattered rags are the things for which so many have "stood in the gap."  We embrace the concept of group identity as the basis for liberty, leave individual freedom wanting for support and then are surprised when we see another erosion of our rights.  Where is the will to declare "no more?"  Where is the courage and the moral outrage to inform our servant, the government, and its agents that we will no longer surrender our rights, no longer accept another disregard for our liberty?  When will we tell our elected representatives that they have one chance, and only one chance, to do our will or we will send them packing?

As I've noted before, there are those who see this as proof of a need for armed rebellion.  Regular readers of this blog know I oppose such a thing and think little of those who promote it, for we are still far better off than the rest of the world and armed conflict is a terrible thing.  So, if you think I am promoting such a thing, you are wrong.  If you read this blog on anything approaching a regular basis and suggest I am promoting such a thing, allow me to suggest that you are, quite simply, a liar.  Instead, I suggest we simply do the easiest thing that can be done by a free people.  We hold our government, more specifically its agents, accountable.  If they won't do what we elected them to do, we fire them.  Further, we should teach every generation to do the same.  Many of them may be arrogant, they may think they are beyond reach, they may view themselves as a ruling elite, but I promise you, if we send enough of them home quickly and decisively the others will get the idea and fall in line.

Douglass would end his speech on a hopeful note.  I will do the same, for I can hardly presume to compare my circumstances and experiences with his.  The principles in both our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are powerful and ennobling.  If we will re-embrace them I am convinced we can experience a rebirth of both individual liberty and individual responsibility.  The American Experiment will always be incomplete.  That's okay because it means we will always find ways to expand liberty and freedom if we will but look.

Now, if  you'll excuse me, I have to go read my kids a short document that begins "When in the course of human events..."