Mike Kueber's Blog

July 31, 2011

Book of the Week #40 – Believing Bullshit, by Stephen Law

Filed under: Book reviews,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 2:48 am
Tags: , , , ,

Don’t let the title turn you off.  Believing Bullshit is a serious book.  It is subtitled, “How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole.”  That’s what persuaded me to give it a gander.  I wanted to read something that might improve my critical thinking skills, which many consider to be suspect.

Believing Bullshit aims to reveal the tricks used by charlatans to induce millions of people to accept beliefs that are utterly unbelievable.  According to Law, those beliefs include homeopathy, Christian Science, conspiracy theories, UFOs and alien abductions, psychic powers, prophecies of Nostradamus, certain political/economic theories, evangelical beliefs, and sophisticated theology.

Although Law goes to great pains to deny an intent to show that religious believers (theists) have been duped, he repeatedly returns to them as victims of the eight key strategies for getting people to believe the unbelievable:

  1. Playing the mystery card (beyond human reasoning);
  2. “But It Fits!” and the Blunderbuss (Young Earth creationism and the shotgun
    approach);
  3. Going Nuclear (all belief systems are based on faith, not reason);
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts (shifting definitions);
  5. “I Just Know!” (it has been “revealed” to you; religious experience tends to be
    culturally specific; Bush-43 acting on his “gut”);
  6. Pseudo-profundity (fluffy jargon);
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes (post hoc fallacy; coincidence; anecdotes should never be
    considered as significant evidence in support of a claim); and
  8. Pressing Your Buttons (brainwashing – isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition, and
    emotional manipulation).

Coincidentally, my youngest son is returning tomorrow from a Christian retreat.  I will be interested in talking to him about his experience and comparing it to the book’s chapter on brainwashing.

Law’s apparent problem with theism is that it can’t explain why God/god has allowed so much evil, pain, and suffering in the world for millions of years – not just to humans, but to all sentient inhabitants of our planet.

Before my son left for his retreat, he engaged me in a conversation about my religious beliefs, which are closer to agnosticism than Christianity.  My son was troubled by this and couldn’t understand how I could question the existence of God despite his first-hand evidence that Jesus was having a profound influence on his life.

I suspect this conversation will continue.

July 30, 2011

Moral relativism

A few weeks ago, I blogged favorably about secular humanism even though it is a term that most conservatives view suspiciously.  Earlier this week, the NY Times had an article on moral relativism, which is a similarly suspect word, and I wondered if it, too, has an undeserved bad reputation.

Regarding my blogging on secular humanism, I posted the following definition of the term:

  • A philosophy that espouses human reason, ethics, and justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.  Secular Humanism is a comprehensive life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead happy and functional lives….  Fundamental to the concept of Secular Humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith.  Along with this, an essential part of Secular Humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.”

Based on that definition, I concluded that those values strike me as imminently reasonable for America, especially as our nation becomes more diverse religiously.  Although an Archbishop of Canterbury had warned that Christian tradition “was in danger of being undermined by a Secular Humanism which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith,” I didn’t think that was a significant criticism of the philosophy.  In fact, the criticism reminded me of the term “cultural Jew,” and Judaism has been able to deal with that.

In my blog, I also noted that “theologians have blamed Secular Humanism generally for moral relativism and specifically for the prevalence of drugs, sex, feminism, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality,” and that brings me to today’s subject – moral relativism.

According to the NY Times article, “The Maze of Moral Relativism,” by Paul Boghossian:

  • Relativism about morality has come to play an increasingly important role in contemporary culture.  To many thoughtful people, and especially to those who are unwilling to derive their morality from a religion, it appears unavoidable.  Where would absolute facts about right and wrong come from, they reason, if there is no supreme being to decree them? We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.”

When I first read this passage, I thought the concept of moral relativism sounded akin to secular humanism, but further examination and closer readings reveal critical differences.

The website “moral-relativism” defines the term as, “the view that ethical standards, morality, and positions of right or wrong are culturally based.”

The website “gotquestions” uses contrast to provide a definition:

  • “Moral relativism is more easily understood in comparison to moral absolutism.  Absolutism claims that morality relies on universal principles (natural law, conscience). Christian absolutists believe that God is the ultimate source of our common morality, and that it is, therefore, as unchanging as He is. Moral relativism asserts that morality is not based on any absolute standard. Rather, ethical ‘truths’ depend on variables such as the situation, culture, one’s feelings, etc.”

My personal bible Wikipedia describes three types of moral relativism, none of which is appealing to me:

  • Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:
  1. “Descriptive relativism describes the way things are, without suggesting a way they ought to be. It seeks only to point out that people frequently disagree over what is the most ‘moral’ course of action.
  2. Meta-ethical relativism is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective. Justifications for moral judgments are not universal, but are instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people. The meta-ethical relativist might say “It’s moral to me, because I believe it is.” 
  3. Normative relativism is the prescriptive or normative position that, because there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.

Because I found moral relativism unappealing, I decided to consider moral absolutism or moral universalism.  According to Wendy Connick in TailoredContent.com, moral universalism is:

  • “… the philosophy that argues for the existence of a universal ethic. Certain behaviors are simply wrong regardless of the circumstances….  Universalism is based on the idea of a ‘rational test’ that can be applied to any ethical dilemma. The exact nature of this test varies widely among different factions of universalists. For example, utilitarianism states that the correct rational test is ‘Does my action create the maximum good for the maximum number of people?’ If the answer is yes, then a utilitarianist would say that the action is morally correct.  Moral universalism in the form of human rights has become widely accepted in the past several decades. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions (which define fair treatment of prisoners of war) are based on the theory of moral universalism. In other words, human beings all have certain rights and to deny those rights is always immoral.”

PhilosophyBasics.com says:

  • Moral Universalism is the meta-ethical position that there is a universal ethic which applies to all people, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality or other distinguishing feature, and all the time. A universal ethic is a moral system that applies universally to all of humanity, and thus transcends culture and personal whim. The source or justification of this system is variously claimed to be human nature, a shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, common themes among existing moral codes, or the mandates of religion.  It is the opposite of Moral Relativism, the position that moral propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.”

Based on these descriptions, I believe the differences between secular humanism and moral relativism are greater than the similarities.  Secular humanism is a quest for ethics, justice, and human fulfillment. Moral relativism doesn’t bother with the quest because it’s all relative.

The import of last line in the quote from the NY Times article is what I missed during my first reading – “We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.

I disagree.  Some moral codes are better than others, and the better ones will prevail over time.

July 29, 2011

Is San Antonio ready for the major leagues?

The lead article in the San Antonio Express-News this morning concerned the release of a feasibility study on the prospects of San Antonio obtaining a major-league baseball or NFL football franchise.  The 250-page, $50,000 study, which was commissioned by Bexar County and the city of San Antonio, concluded that the prospects were unlikely.

I am not one of those people who overrate San Antonio because of its status as the sixth most populated city in America.  People who understand how things work realize that the key demographics for attracting sports franchises are (1) population for its media market (not the city), (2) average income for the metro area, and (3) a strong corporate base.

The San Antonio metro area has never been close to the top-20 in those demographics, and the Express-News article on the feasibility study goes to great lengths to re-state the obvious:

  • The average NFL metro area has the 18th ranked media market, $53,800 median household income, and 18 Fortune 500 companies.
  • The average MLB metro area has the 13th ranked media market, $71,800 median household income, and 17 Fortune 500 companies.
  • The San Antonio metro area has the 37th ranked media market, $48,000 median income, and six Fortune 500 companies.

Based on these numbers, the article concludes, “The study shows San Antonio lags behind major sports markets in critical areas.”  And Nelson Wolff, the chief executive for Bexar County, concedes, “Clearly, the matrix of this (study) shows that it would be difficult to get it.  Instead of us talking about getting something in the MLB or the NFL, it makes more sense to look into the future a little more.  In 10 or 20 years, what might be available then?”

Although I am not recommending that San Antonio aggressively pursue an MLB or NFL franchise, I believe the conclusion reached by the Express-New and Wolff is incorrectly based on a faulty analysis.

There is an old saying that when a group of campers are attacked by a hungry grizzly bear, you don’t have to be able to out-run the bear, but rather you have to be able to out-run at least one other camper.  The same thing applies to potential MLB or NFL franchises.  We shouldn’t be comparing San Antonio to the average NFL or MLB franchises (including monster cities like Dallas, Houston, LA, Boston, or NYC), but rather to the other second-tier cities that are competing for a franchise.

The NFL has 32 teams and MLB has 30 teams.  I would be interested in comparing San Antonio’s demographics against the demographics of other metro areas without NFL or MLB franchises.  Then throw in the indisputable fact that the San Antonio demographics are increasing as rapidly as any large metro area in the nation, and I think you have a strong argument for locating a franchise here.

The growing wealth gap between whites, Hispanics, and blacks

Outside of the debt-ceiling dispute, the hot topic on talk TV this week is the report from the Pew Research Center that was headlined – “Wealth gaps rise to record highs between whites, blacks, and Hispanics.”    The report, which was based on an analysis of newly available government data from 2009, revealed that the median net worth of white households was 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.

I have recently complained about misleading statistics in the media, and a similar charge could be lodged here.  Technically, the wealth gap is not at record highs because whites actually lost more wealth between 2005 and 2009 than did Hispanics and blacks.  But I think the percentage change is more relevant and Pew and the media were correct to focus on that.

The underlying numbers that serve as the basis for the report:

Group                   2005              2009                 Percentage change

Whites             $134,992         $113,149                -16%

Hispanics          $18,359            $6,235                -66%

Blacks                 $12,124            $5,677                 -53%

Those numbers are shockingly low for Hispanics and blacks.  Not so shocking, 35% of blacks 31%
of Hispanics, and 15% of whites have zero or negative assets.  The authors of the Pew Report suggested that Hispanics and blacks have suffered such a large financial setback between 2005 and 2009 because a much larger percentage of their assets consisted of their houses, whose values have been crushed by the real-estate crisis.  Hispanics were hit especially hard because they were concentrated in the real-estate hell-holes of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida.

The signal misrepresentation in the report was its failure to discuss the third-leading minority in America (5%) – i.e., Asians.  Only by drilling down into the executive summary will you learn that in 2005 the net worth of Asians was $168,103 (higher than whites) and that by 2009 it had dropped to $78,066 (lower than whites).  The Pew authors suggested that Asians dropped so much because (a) they are concentrated in California, which suffered some of the biggest declines in house values and (b) there were a large number of recent immigrants without significant wealth.  When immigrants were factored out of the results, the assets of Asians and whites in 2009 were roughly equivalent.

The Pew report focused on wealth, not income, but as Melissa Harris-Perry pointed out last night when subbing for Rachel Maddow, a family with assets/wealth is much better positioned to take advantage of opportunities in America.  Conversely, those without assets/wealth are much more vulnerable to serious setbacks.  That is a valid point.  Although America does not stand for economic equality, it does stand for economic opportunity and our government should ensure that that is not an empty promise.

July 28, 2011

David Wu’s pension

Filed under: Issues,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:55 pm
Tags: , , ,

Just yesterday, I posted an entry about misleading statistics, which are especially disturbing when propagated by the mainstream media.  Today, I was confronted with another example.

USA Today reported that disgraced Congressman David Wu, who was forced to resign because of charges that he had an unwanted sexual encounter with a teenage daughter of campaign supporter (Wu claims it was consensual), would be entitled to more than $1 million in retirement benefits.

Obviously, the article will inflame the fiscal conservatives in America who already have pitchforks in hand because of public-employee pensions.  Only those who read the fine print of the article will discern that the 56-year-old, 13-year congressman’s pension will be only $23,871 a year.  This is less than one-seventh of his current salary of $174,000, and while it is certainly a nice pension in an America where pensions are becoming the exception instead of the rule, it is not the princely sum suggested by the $1 million headline.

This sort of exaggeration reminds me of the marketing of the Texas lottery.  Although the advertisements proclaim a $1 million prize, the fine print reveals that the winner only receives a fraction of that amount unless they agree to accept annual payments over 20 years.  That is the sort of fudging math you expect from marketers, and you might even expect it from the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), which is publicizing the Wu pension numbers to further its special interests.  But I expect more from USA Today.

Not only did USA Today emphasize the total probable payout instead of the more understandable annual amount, it relied on NTU to provide some additional so-called perspective on the situation:

  • Some perspective: Congressional pensions are two to three times more generous than those offered to private-sector workers who earn the same salary, the NTU says.”

Why would the article’s author, Catalina Camia, rely on NTU for such a subjective assertion?  Based on my understanding of pensions, I question the accuracy of the claim, and obviously, NTU is not a disinterested party and is the least likely to provide good perspective.

Come on, Catalina, let’s do better.

America – love it or leave it

As I was driving along Loop 1604 a few days ago, I was passed by one of the ubiquitous vehicles in San Antonio with Mexican license plates.  I have also noticed that, during my morning workouts at Lifetime Fitness, most of the women working out communicate in Spanish.  These observations suggest to me that news reports of well-to-do Mexicans deserting their country en masse for America are true.

America must be doing something right because it has been, and still is, the destination of choice throughout the world.  But there are signs of trouble in paradise.

Back when I was a kid, the phrase, “America – love it or leave it,” was thrown by conservatives at people who were protesting in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War.  In fact, many draft-age kids did leave America for Canada to dodge the draft.

It’s ironic that today it is the conservatives who talk about leaving America.  Texas governor Rick Perry has famously suggested, mostly in jest, that Texas may rely on some illusory treaty power to secede from the union if America continues its leftward tilt.  And I have a well-connected conservative friend who says the same thing – i.e., when the people looking for government handouts attain majority status in this democracy, it will be time to begin looking for another country that is less of a welfare state.  When I ask him to name that country, he says he’s not sure – maybe Australia.

My friend is no more serious than Governor Perry (or Alec Baldwin, who threatened to leave if Bush-43 were elected), but I wish people would be more willing to accept the democratic notion that we have elections to determine the will of the majority and that losing an election is not just cause for wanting America to fail (as Rush Limbaugh comes close to doing).

July 27, 2011

Aphorism of the Week #5 – Lies, damned lies, and statistics

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is of uncertain origin, but was popularized by Mark Twain.  The phrase came to mind earlier this week when I read conservative chain letter by an old geezer claiming to being shortchanged by Social Security.

The geezer argued that a person who paid into the system for 49-years, like he had done, would receive only a fraction of what he was entitled to.  Specifically, he said:

  • Remember, not only did you contribute to Social Security but your employer did too. It totaled 15% of your income before taxes. If you averaged only 30K over your working life, that’s close to $220,500. If you calculate the future value of $4,500 per year (yours & your employer’s contribution) at a simple 5% (less than what the govt. pays on the money that it borrows), after 49 years of working (me) you’d have $892,919.98. If you took out only 3% per year, you receive $26,787.60 per year and it would last better than 30 years, and that’s with no interest paid on that final amount on deposit! If you bought an annuity and it paid 4% per year, you’d have a lifetime income of $2,976.40 per month. The folks in Washington have pulled off a bigger Ponzi scheme than Bernie Madoff ever had.”

Although those numbers may sound reasonable to a person unschooled in statistics, a closer analysis would suggest that average people didn’t make $30,000 in 1962.  The average job in 1962 probably paid about $5,000, not $30,000.  In fact, the maximum income that was taxed by Social Security in 1962 was $4,800, and the SS rate at that time was 3% combined for employee and employer, not the current 15.3%.  Thus, the geezer’s example should begin the compounding process with only $144 in 1962, not $4,500.  Obviously, the results will not be in the same ball park.  I think most people accept that Social Security has been actuarially too generous for many years and that the generosity will have to end soon.

Because statistics are so easy to misuse, I am especially careful accepting any statistics that from someone without established credibility.  Although I have traditionally treated the mainstream media as credible, that is beginning to change.  Too often, journalists use statistics inaccurately to advance their story.

For example, last night Rachel Maddow’s substitute host, Melissa Harris-Perry, reported on a lady in Los Angeles who lost her job at UCLA and is now facing financial devastation because her replacement job pay $40,000 less and her house has lost $200,000 in value.

My skepticism concerns the value of the house.  The number we are given is the value of the house at the height of the real estate bubble.  What is the relevance of that number?  A more relevant number would be the cost of the house when the UCLA person bought it.  For all we know, the house is worth more than what the person paid for it.  But such information would detract from the plight of the UCLA person.

I remember thinking the same thing when I read about the Enron collapse and its effect on past and present employees whose 401k consisted almost entirely of Enron stock.  In all the stories that showed employees and retirees lamenting the loss of 90% of their 401k value, the comparison was always based on the value of their stock at the height of the Enron bubble.  Never once did a journalist ask what the employee had paid for the pre-bubble stock, which is obviously the more relevant number.  Once again, the journalists were using misleading numbers to advance the drama in their story.

The moral of this story – caveat emptor, or buyer beware, is the best policy.

July 26, 2011

President Obama as a work in progress

The ongoing negotiations over the debt-ceiling problem remind me of President Kennedy’s negotiations with Soviet Premier Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis.  Both situations involve an inexperienced, charismatic American president dealing with a savvy veteran of backroom deals.  President Kennedy faced a potentially irrational, existential threat to America, while President Obama is merely facing a potentially irrational, existential threat to his second term.  Kennedy proved his mettle in dealing with Khrushchev, and we will soon see how Obama does with
Boehner.

In hindsight, I am beginning to think that President Obama’s inexperience has resulted in some serious missteps in his presidency, just like Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs fiasco.  Although many would put ObamaCare in this category, I do not.  Universal health insurance is something Democrats have campaigned on for decades, and this was their best opportunity to push it through.  They have done what they promised, and now America must decide whether to keep it.

The best example of President Obama’s inexperience has been his inconsistent position on multilateralism.  He campaigned against unilateralism and Bush-43’s cowboy mentality of going it alone, and the new war in Libya is a paragon of multilateralism, with virtually every governmental entity (including France, Germany, and the United Nations) endorsing the intervention.  A key difference is that these other entities had vital interests in Libya, but the United States did not.

But following the economic crisis of 2008, when President Obama concluded that there was a dire need to stimulate the world economy, the other major countries disagreed and said that, instead of stimulus spending, they thought it was a better idea to get their fiscal houses in order.  So what did President Obama do?  He went Lone Ranger on the stimulus spending, all to the benefit of America’s economic competitors.  In fact, our TARP and AIG bail-outs did the same thing – i.e., they bailed-out not only American firms, but also foreign firms.

As George Friedman pointed out in his new book The Next Decade, the world is a dog-eat-dog sort of place, and each country needs to take care of itself.  President Obama is a life-long idealist, but America needs him to learn to be more pragmatic.

Campaign bundlers

Federal-election law provides a personal limit of $2500 on presidential campaign contributions.  The limit is designed to prevent an individual from buying influence with a candidate by making a larger contribution. Sounds good.

The problem with the federal-election law is that candidates and influence-buyers will work overtime trying to circumvent it, and that is what has happened.  They have developed a concept called bundling in which an influence-buyer collects $2500 contributions from an assortment of colleagues and associates and then presents the collected bundle to the candidate for appropriate credit.  How scuzzy is that!

According to a recent editorial in the Washington Post, the law doesn’t require presidential candidates to reveal the identity of its bundlers, but most candidates (Bush-43 and McCain) have voluntarily disclosed this information.  In 2008, President Obama disclosed that he had 27 bundlers who raised at least $500,000 for him.

The Post editorial was concerned, however, that Mitt Romney was refusing to identify his bundlers, and it recommended amending the law to require this.  I agree, but think we should go one step further.  While we can’t stop a person from urging colleagues or associates to contribute to a candidate, we can and should prohibit the campaign from accepting or recognizing bundled contributions.

Some will argue that no matter how often you fix the law, unethical people will find a way around it.  But I think it is like insider stock-trading – i.e., even if it is impossible to eliminate, we must take a stand against it and root it out whenever we find it.

A balanced approach to the debt-ceiling problem

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:25 am
Tags: , ,

I agree with President Obama that there should be a balanced approach to resolving the debt-ceiling problem.  I think a good analogy is my approach to losing ten pounds.  Sure, I could lose the weight either by reducing my eating or by exercising more, but most people understand that a balanced approach consisting of eating less and exercising more is the most effective.  By making moderate changes to both factors, you don’t have to make any radical changes to a single factor.

I understand that the balanced approach goes against the principles of the TEA Party because they believe that we are Taxed Enough Already.  But the TEA Party doesn’t control American government.  Although the TEA Party has significant influence in the House, the Democrats control the Senate and the Presidency.  Thus, it is unreasonable for the TEA Party to impose their will on American government by attempted blackmail over the debt-ceiling extension.

The responsible thing for the TEA Party to do is drive a hard bargain – secure as many spending cuts as possible and minimize the tax increases – and then attempt to gain control of the Senate and Presidency so they can build on their successes.

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