27 July 2012

Book reviews, Part 2 of ∞ : The Rational Optimist (continued)

It’s not every day that one reads a review in which a fan of a book pillories that same book. Alas, that’s what I find myself doing here. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is a wonderful read and I can’t argue with its central thesis, to wit: when ideas are left free to interact (‘have sex’ as he colorfully puts it), they create a wonderful synergy that leads to ever-increasing rates of innovation. This thesis in turn supports his optimism that the human race’s condition is steadily increasing and can be expected to continue improving at ever-faster rates, as long as we don’t stifle innovation.

Stifling innovation is where the stickiness begins, though. Conveniently enough, everything that happens to conflict with Mr. Ridley’s worldview and political philosophy, just happens to be exactly what is worst for innovation (and, by extension, humankind). Anything that runs afoul of his philosophy, which might best be described as an admixture of libertarianism, laissez-faire economics and neo-liberal approaches and attitudes, is perforce bad for innovation and thus quite deadly, to be eradicated as quickly as possible (though apparently not before pausing briefly to subject it to scathing sarcasm and dismissive ridicule). I get the impression that his political beliefs were changed sometime in adulthood and following a period during which he held very different positions, because usually only the converted show such rabidity in their attacks.

But again, despite his flaws and flashes of anger, I think Mr. Ridley is on the right track here, and I fully support his basic theses. But that doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to his work’s many, many flaws and inconsistencies. They need to be addressed, not to refute but rather to strengthen his overarching argument, because it’s one I wholeheartedly support. We need more optimism in this age of doom and gloom. All this defeatism is just leading to more defeats. We need a reason to look forward to what is in fact a brighter future. I hope that by pointing out where his arguments break down, the central thesis may be more solidly supported in future by employing sounder arguments.

Most of Mr. Ridley’s problems fall into a half dozen of categories: 1) straw-man arguments; 2) deception by averages; 3) self-contradiction, arguing one way to support a point here, then arguing the opposite way to make a different point, creating contradictions along the way; 4) glaring inaccuracies and oversights; 5) conflation/guilt by association used to attack positions (e.g. ‘Hitler was evil and a vegetarian; you are a vegetarian; ergo, you are evil'); 6) blind spots (moral, political, logical) caused by the dogmatic nature of this beliefs. Covering all of these in detail would require that I write a book of my own, but I do want to flag a few of the more egregious issues.

Straw Men of the World Unite! Mr. Ridley needs you! To refresh the memory: a straw-man argument is an oft-employed tactic in rhetoric in which one creates some absurd version of one’s opponent’s position, then attacks that absurd version, without ever having to address the real, original version of the argument, then using that sleight of hand to convince the audience of the absurdity of the opponent’s position. An exaggerated example: I say to you that it’s a good idea to include apples in school lunches, and you refute this position by say something like, ‘So I guess now all our kids are going to be vegetarians! What do you have against the meat industry? Do you realize how many jobs would disappear if you put the meat industry out of business? Why are you anti-jobs, Mr. Hughey?! Stop pushing your radical job-killing agenda on this community!’

Mr. Ridley most often employs this tactic when discussing environmental regulation. He argues against many green initiatives by taking them to the most extreme possible versions, then attacking those extremes. For example, he notes that to move completely away from fossil fuels, the UK would have to take measures that indeed sound absurd (e.g. covering 10% of the land with wind farms and areas the size of Lincolnshire with solar panels). His decision to focus on the UK in isolation makes his arguments even weaker, since the UK is unusually highly densely populated AND is a high energy consumer (giving an energy usage/land area ratio of 1.25 w/sq meter). Folks like Ridley speciously use this outlier as an example of why too much energy per square meter is required to make something like biofuel possible, as it only yields .5 p/ sq meter. If UK is the outlier, why is it a valid example? Yes, if we shut off fossil fuels tomorrow (an absurd notion) and used only current technology (equally absurd given the time frames for transitioning away from fossil fuels) and chose the mix of solutions that would work only in isolation (e.g. don’t put panels on buildings, but take up land dedicated solely to the panels), then yes, that would be nutty….so clearly the entire environmental movement is absurd and can be safely dismissed! Yay fossil fuels! How silly and juvenile. These scenarios he describes remind me of the old adage about current trends: if current trends can’t be maintained, they simply won’t be. If ‘at current trends’ the mile will one day be run in ten seconds, then clearly the current trend won’t prevail! So if with current technology we would one day have to tear up all green spaces to make way for alternative energy production, clearly that will never happen! He’s also rather absurd in his assumption that land area taken up by production of renewables is land area lost to people. It’s not a zero sum game: solar panels can occupy roof tops, for example; wind farms can be put offshore; ocean wave energy plants can be put in areas not readily accessible or even necessarily desirable to people.

      His stance on alternative energy also assumes no progress will ever be made in the efficiency of these sources, so, he seems to argue, why bother with them? By similar reasoning, we should never have bothered with oil or gas, because only deep-sea drilling, advanced extraction methods and (in the case of gas) hydrofracking have yielded the volumes we’re able to achieve today. But none of these techniques existed when we first started getting fossil fuels out of the ground. Only by investing in fossils over many years did we come up with these new techniques.

Inaccuracies. Any book sufficiently dense in facts and figures will inevitably contain some innocent mistakes. To make too much hay out of innocent oversights/errors is to descend into pedantry. But there are cases in Mr. Ridley’s book where one gets the sense that the oversights are almost willful attempts to prop up arguments with convenient lapses. For example, Mr. Ridley is very dismissive of theoretical scientific research and apparently finds it quite the waste of human effort and resources. He claims that all the useful technology in the world has come from practical research carried out with profits and gain in mind. What utter nonsense and bunk. And one needn’t look outside Ridley’s own work to find examples to support that opinion: he talks about the usefulness of the laser, but that device would not have come to be without a solid theoretical basis of work done by people who had no industrial applications in mind. And the modern world Mr. Ridley loves would scarcely even be possible without the breakthroughs of Michael Farraday, a man Ridley conveniently ignores but whose whole life was dedicated to work that can pretty fairly be described as theoretical. Without his work, without his discoveries, we’d have few of the modern marvels we take for granted.

Being a Libertarian, Mr. Ridley also conflates the amorality of market mechanisms with the amorality of its players. I'm a firm believer that markets are among the most efficacious means of achieving goals, but they rarely address the negative externalities  associated with them, so leaving them entirely to their own devices means too many people often get hurt in the process. So by all means, let markets do their magic, but where they fail to address human needs, apply corrective incentives (as opposed to punishments) to encourage better outcomes. Mr. Ridley sees that as too much of an encumbrance to free markets; I say markets aren't infallible gods and we shouldn't worship them as such.

Unemployment is a perfect example of this. The way our market system is set up, there simply can't be zero unemployment. If there were, inflation would soon spiral out of control. So if this imperfection of the market system is undesirable but also necessary, may we not mitigate its impact by helping the poor and unemployed? After all, we owe our prosperity to some percentage of people unable to get work. So why not address this negative externality associated with inflation control? 

I also take issue with Mr. Ridley's view that all government is just some stone around our necks. Through government we can accomplish greatness and handle tasks the market simply won't solve, such as roads, police, education, etc. And despite his silly statement to the contrary, no, 'some rich guy' wouldn't have gone to the moon without there first being a massive public investment in NASA. That was a perfect case of the groundwork needing to be laid by the public so that the private sector could follow. 

Finally, I take issue with Mr. Ridley's anti-tax extremism as it ignores the role taxation plays in leveling the playing field. (Leave aside for the moment the fact that there is simply no evidence that cutting away taxes and regulation creates jobs.) Unfettered capitalism in low-tax environments is leading to ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor that won't just go away and that are holding us back, meaning the optimistic world Ridley inhabits simply can't be maintained if people like him get their way and the gaps keep widening between rich and poor. Mr. Ridley would counter that 'on average', we are all getting richer, but that's meaningless if that average moves up only because the top 1% are gaining much more even as the poorest lose out. If I have 100 apples and you have one apple, and I get two more apples while you lose yours, then on average our little group has gotten richer (going from an average of 50.5 to 51 apples per capita)....but under the circumstances, do you care? Mr. Ridley would say huzzah, we're all richer! I don't buy it. 

So, in conclusion, I think Mr. Ridley's overall message is a sound one and I fully support the idea that innovation is the driver of our better tomorrow. But he is too blinded by partisanship and ideology to see that there are limits to the model he describes and supports.

09 July 2012

Why I Don't Believe

A friend of mine posted a link the other day to an article about so-called 'Out-of-ordinary experiences' (e.g. religious epiphanies) and why they shouldn't be dismissed as kooky, why indeed they should be fêted and cherished. I read the piece with mild interest, then moved on. But I couldn't get the article out of my head. For some reason it just nagged at me. Why did it bother me so much this idea that, whatever their provenance, such experiences should be embraced? Forced to confront the idea consciously, I had to spell out to myself what was wrong with this line of reasoning. Finally, it boiled down to this: treating 'Out-of-ordinary experiences' as something to be validated and embraced is dangerous not because of the value they serve to the person experiencing them, but for the harm to which they lead for everyone else. If my belief that the Almighty is whispering career advice to me ends with me trying harder at work, then fine. But it rarely ends there, does it? It usually leads to things like 'well, if God wants me to do this, and God's will is supreme, then anyone standing in my way must be evil; ergo, I am divinely mandated to remove that person from my path at any cost.' Eventually, your experience of divine communication almost always ends up hurting someone else. We don't hear a lot of stories about God saying, 'hey, just stop being such a jackass, be nice to everyone and leave them be', do we? Invariably, God always communicates something that, sooner or later, gets translated into bad news for someone else.

All this gets me to thinking about why I am a non-believer. I didn't start out my life as one. Quite the contrary. I grew up in the American South, the Bible Belt. As a child, I attended a very strict, conservative, Southern Baptist church. And it suited me just fine at the time. I was fervent in my beliefs as a child. I saw Satan as a very real enemy, someone who used things like rock music to bend sinners to his will.* I even wanted to be a preacher at one point. But starting at about age 15, I started to question things. The first impetus for questioning came from my sense of justice, combined with a growing sense of history. I remember being horrified when I realized that, for example, according to the logic of the church, all people born outside the Middle East before Christ, and outside of Western Asia, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East up through the 15th century, were all burning in hell for the crime of having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time (since they couldn't possibly know Christ). I also began wondering about other accidents of birth: given that most people in the Middle East grow up to be the same religion (Islam) as their elders and given that most people in my country did the same with Christianity, then had my soul been saved only because I was 'lucky' enough to have been born here v there? What a random way to decide the fate of a human soul. How could a just God allow this?

Terribly conflicted but desperate to conserve my faith, I finally sought out the advice of my religion's equivalent of a pope: Adrian Rogers, the president of the American Southern Baptist Convention and, as it happened, the pastor of my church (Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, where I grew up). He kindly made time in his busy schedule to meet with me at his office at the church in midtown. I posed all these questions to him, expecting that this font of Christian wisdom would put all my doubts to rest and I wouldn't have to keep lying awake at night thinking about 10th-century Native Americans burning in hell. He had no answers. He spouted some clichés, gave stock answers that addressed none of my concerns, then sent me on my way with the words, "I know God has great plans for you, young man."  With those patronizing words - he practically patted me on the head - religion started to die in me. It took a lot longer (about another 15 years in fact) before I self-identified identified as atheist - after all, life is not a TV drama wrapped up in 44 minutes after one meaningful epiphany - but that was more about labels and exhausting other possibilities than holding out any real hope that I could un-lose my religion. The last nail in the coffin of my faith came from living outside the South for many years, experiencing things that caused me to question my belief system even more.

So why don't I believe? There are many reasons, some to do with the nature of deities, others to do with the nature of belief itself, others to do with how Christianity works in practice.

The nature of eternity. I don't think believers really think this through. One hundred years is a very long time to live. Many people who live that long get frankly bored with life and are ready for death. Now multiply that times a trillion. Then multiply that by a trillion a trillion more times. Add more zeros than there are stars in the sky. And you're still no closer to the infinite amount of time that eternity entails. Eternity is temporal infinity. Can you imagine existing that long? Imagine getting to understand the internal structure of every atomic particle that has ever existed or will ever exist and STILL having eternity to look forward to. Sounds maddening to me. I can't imagine any loving deity would subject anyone to such torture. So when Christians talk about their castles in heaven (as though heaven were just prime real estate for churchgoers), ask them how many trillions of trillions of centuries they could stand to live in even the most beautiful chateau before madness set in.

Polytheism that masquerades as monotheism. Dance on the pinhead all you want: if you step back and really look at the whole Jesus thing, it just doesn't make any sense at all for a religion claiming to be monotheistic. Christians were desperate to follow the monotheistic tradition of their parent religion, but still allow for this 'blood of the son' thing. So - and mind you, this was a sophistry added several centuries AFTER the fact - they came up with the Trinity, a bizarre logical morass in which there is only one god, but 'he' (more on that pronoun later) has a son - but no wife...single dad? - and a holy spirit. Now, I kind of get the logic of the holy spirit, since one could argue that it's just a question of god having a soul himself (though that particular approach doesn't seem to be the one taken by Christians). But a son? Really? Did he create this son himself, in which case Jesus was not eternal? If Jesus is eternal, then how did his dad beget him? And if they are one in the same, how is it one is the son of the other?**

Killing a son who isn't a son to pay a price that you made up yourself. Wait, what? So god is an all-powerful, supreme overlord who created the universe AND wrote the rule book. And into these rules, he decided to put a clause stating that things like knowledge and sex are bad. And when humankind discovers these things (from a snake, mind you, and a snake that he created himself to boot), he punishes them and sends them out into a cruel world.***  To pay the price for doing a thing that an omniscient god must have known they would do in the first place, humankind has to make all sorts of weird animal sacrifices for the next few millenia. But then one day, to pay the price god himself established to begin with, he has to make humankind kill his only son. Seriously, if you came from another planet and somebody told you this story, you'd laugh out loud at the sheer silliness of this tale. But since you grew up hearing it from such a young age, it all makes sense. But if some psychopath murdered his son and claimed it was to make up for something he made you do to begin with, that man would end up in jail, and rightly so.

What does god do with a penis? This one is one of the craziest of all. We refer to god as a male, as a father, and one after whose image men were fashioned. So given that what makes a man a man v a woman are his male genitalia and male hormones, are we saying god has a penis and testosterone? What does he do with those things? The penis is used for waste removal and sex. Which of these two things is god doing? Both? Neither? If neither, in what sense is he a male (and why the penis)? If he isn't a male, is the bible false and in what sense is he a father? If you're going to espouse Christianity as a story of literal truth, you aren't allowed to dismiss these questions. They require answers. And if you are a Christian who dismisses the literalness of the stories, then in what sense are you really Christian? And how do you decide which stories are literally true v just allegorically useful? Doesn't elevating yourself to editor of holy scripture seem rather arrogant?

If Christians truly believed, they'd go around sobbing in horror all the time. If I really, truly, honestly believed that my spouse or child or parent or even acquaintance was going to spend all of eternity in searing agony, I simply couldn't cope. If I truly believed for one second that some or all the people I loved had that kind of future ahead of them, I simply couldn't function. I would have to spend every minute of every day doing everything humanly possible to stop that fate, and nothing else - not work, not play, not money, nothing - would distract me from that goal. After all, who cares about my 70-odd years on this planet compared to an eternity of agony for everyone I care about? Since few Christians behave in this way, I doubt the sincerity of their belief.

If Christians truly believed, their suicide rate would be higher. If I am meant to endure for eternity and life here on Earth is under a century - and a tough century at that - and I am 100% convinced that my death will bring me to blissful communion with a god, why not just kill myself? Yes, it's a sin, but committing this one sin would keep me from committing a lifetime of sin, so the net effect will be less sin, not more. And if Christians are willing to overlook things like getting tattoos and failing to stone their neighbors to death for working on the Sabbath, then surely they can overlook this one sin as a small price to pay for being with god sooner? But of course they do not behave this way  - and I am glad they don't as I'd miss my Christian friends terribly. This tells me they can't believe all that fervently in the future that awaits them after death.

I don't need to believe to be a good person. In fact, not believing is what makes me a morally centered person. There is a very twisted rationalization for belief that says that one must believe in order to be good, the reasoning being that only god can confer morality. What silliness. In my experience the exact opposite is true. If I know that god will forgive me for every horrible thing I can think of, just by me asking him for that forgiveness, then I can commit any sin I want! I can rob, kill, pillage, whatever I like, because god will just forgive me with a simple prayer. And anyway, who cares, because what really matters is eternity, right? I mean, killing is bad, but if that person is going to heaven anyway, I have done him a favor, and god will forgive me. But if I reject the idea of god-given forgiveness and I believe life ends with death, then I must do everything I can to ensure I lead a good life, because it's the only one I (and those around me) will ever get, and no one will remove my guilt if I do something evil. If this life is all there is, I must work hard to make it the best I possibly can, and since humans tend to feel worse when they commit bad acts and cause suffering around them, being good just makes sense. This is my response when Christians say that without a god there is no morality, or when they make silly claims like, 'well, if there's no god, why don't we all just go around murdering, raping and pillaging?!' I also want to ask them: what kind of person are you if the only things stopping you from doing horrible things are a god and an ancient text full of contradictions and its own slate of horrid acts? Bottom line is that if fears of retribution and promises of eternal rewards in the afterlife are the only things keeping you from being a horrible person, then I have bad news for you: you already are a horrible person. 

So that in a nutshell is why I don't believe in a Christian god. If you do believe, I don't begrudge you that and I won't try to dissuade you. If it works for you, go with it. Just make sure your faith makes you a better, not a worse, person, and don't use god as an excuse for doing harm to others. Stick to that common-sense rule and we'll get along just fine!

One final note. On the rare occasions I discuss my (lack of) faith with people, I hear a lot of 'well, I don't believe in the literal truth of the Bible, just its message of love and God's mercy.' To that I say, 'then you clearly haven't read this book.' Unlike what I suspect is the vast majority of Christians, I have in fact read the Bible cover to cover. I would say its ratio of hatefulness and bigotry to its goodness and forgiveness, is pretty staggeringly high. And if you don't believe in its literalness, what do you need with the book anyway? Why can't you just be a good person and, if you think it's really necessary, commune with your deity without all the added fairy tales? (Admittedly, I think the god is part of the fairy tales, but the point stands.)


*There was an upside to this. Since I avoided popular music until the age of about 15, my entire musical world consisted of classical music. So while the churchiness didn't stick, I can at least be thankful to religion for my lifelong love of Beethoven and Wagner.

**These are exactly the kinds of questions children are smart enough to ask, before adults bully this logic out of them. Kids can smell bullshit much better than adults can, but they lose the ability to do so as they age because adults keep telling them the bs is actually caviar. You can see this when you hear kids asking quite reasonable (but superficially silly) questions of logic such as, 'Can God microwave a burrito too hot for him to eat?' This may seem like a childish question, but the logic it employs is quite valid and the underlying question deserves an answer that you can't provide. So you tell little Timmy to shut up and read his bible that for some reason still uses a translation done  in archaic English. Oh, dear.

***And then they found the human race from just two sets of DNA. Then magically a bit later in the same story, they suddenly have all these other people around. So....were their children coupling with each other? Or were the children reproducing with Mom and Dad? Either way, some serious incest going on there. So much for genetic viability.