Extra Terrestrial Intelligence-4: What if we get a signal?

One of the big problems with ETIs is that it is very unlikely that we can make actual physical contact with them. One reason is just statistics, as I said earlier. While the odds of life existing elsewhere in the universe need not be too small, the chances that any one ETI will cross signals or even paths with another is very small, due just to the immense size of the universe compared to the speed of our travel and communications.

But there is another problem working against an actual meeting between an alien life form and ours. Although we believe that the laws of physics and chemistry are universal in their application, the laws of biology are not believed to be so. All the life forms on the Earth have evolved in its peculiar mix of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, along with its abundance of water. Life on other planets would have evolved in completely different environments and are unlikely to resemble the forms we are familiar with except for the broad constraints laid down by the laws of physics and chemistry. It would be an absolutely stunning discovery if the life forms we encounter were also oxygen-breathing, water-drinking, cell-phone using beings like us. That would imply that the range of conditions under which life can occur is far more restrictive, and the laws of biology far more universal, than we had anticipated. It would also mean that the probability of life originating on other planets is even lower, since they would require environments similar to ours in many ways.

Even universal laws like gravity can cause problems. If an organism has evolved on a planet that has a gravity field much different from ours, that could pose problems for an actual meeting. Organisms that have evolved to survive in a field of a certain size would find it hard to move and maneuver in fields that are much greater.

In any event, even if the time-space-technology barriers are somehow overcome and an actual direct encounter takes place, any face-to-face encounter between an ETI and us will likely have to take place with either or both being encased in spacesuits that can simulate the required environment.

For an atheist, the discovery that ETIs exist, like any other scientific discovery, brings with it only wonder and curiosity. There is no dogma to be disturbed. But for religious people, questions about life and origins are inextricably bound up with religious doctrines and are bound to cause problems. Most religions, although making claims of universality, are really quite parochial, basing their entire theology on claims of what has happened here. There will have to be some scrambling to try and incorporate the new facts of the existence of other intelligences into an Earth-based theology.

Nowadays we tend to forget the fact that it was much easier during the pre-Copernican times to believe in a personal god with whom one was in direct contact. A finite and fairly small universe with the star-embedded heavens not too far away made it easy to think of god as a human-like entity keeping an eye on us from heaven. All such a god would need were heightened human powers, like extremely good eyesight to be able to see everything and some form of ESP to read our minds. Since the distance from heaven to Earth was not that great, it was possible for god to act quickly and easily everywhere.

The realization that the universe was vast and possibly infinite raised issues that were far trickier, and this has been dealt with by emphasizing more the notion that ‘god is everywhere.’ While this solves the problem of how god can know everything instantaneously, it also makes it harder to visualize a human-like personal god. The advance of science and the notion that everything must obey the laws of science has caused other problems for the idea of a personal, human-like god. For example, the restriction that no information can travel faster than the speed of light means that a god who is everywhere and knows everything ‘at the same time’ must be violating this law somehow, even if one overcomes the problem that simultaneity is no longer a universal quality under the laws of relativity. So we now have the conundrum of a god who violates his own laws. This is why religion needs to indoctrinate children into religious beliefs at an early age and surround them with communities where such questions are not raised, and where meaningless platitudes such as ‘god is everywhere’ are accepted as deep truths, beyond the reach of reason and logic.

It seems to me that if life were to be discovered on distant planets, and not just any old life but a society with vastly superior capabilities, surely the man-made nature of religion and god would be obvious to everyone?

But that may be just my prejudice. I suspect that the discovery of ETIs would cause theologians to put in overtime to come up with some rationale as to why this is consistent with whatever their respective religious texts say. Organized religion is too much of a profitable business for its beneficiaries to allow their cash cow to go under due to the emergence of inconvenient facts. They will dust off the writings of some previously obscure religious mystic whose words could be construed to mean that he had anticipated this discovery, and the mystic’s words would be used to show how the religious texts are correct and even prophetic and scientific. Thus the discovery of ETIs will be portrayed as a triumph for religion. This is similar to the way that St. Augustine’s words are now interpreted by some to suggest that he had anticipated the big-bang model of the universe.

I actually do hope that we receive a signal from outer space. To my mind, it will confirm what I have long held: that all the differences that we dwell on here such as ethnicity, religion, geography, nationality, are just tiny and superficial and largely artificial, not worth fighting and killing over. Furthermore, it should give us hope that societies can deal effectively with advanced technology and need not end up destroying themselves with it, either by blowing themselves up or by slowly strangling their own planet, the way we are currently risking things.

But while that is my hope, that may not happen. It is possible that while there may be a spurt of such forward thinking in the immediate aftermath of receipt of a signal, eventually that knowledge will become part of our background knowledge. When people realize that there is going to be no practical consequence to this discovery and that we will not be able to actually meet the aliens, they will go back to their usual ways, listening to their preachers explaining how all this fits in with god’s mysterious plan, and why their own group of people is still very special in god’s eyes, so special that killing people who are different is a virtuous act.

The only benefit we may get from receiving ETI signals might be if we could decipher the signals to get information that might provide some insights into new scientific and technological breakthroughs that might help us deal with some problems on Earth, such as global warming or the rapid depletion of energy and other natural resources.

That is not as exciting as being able to meet and chat with other intelligences, but it is not an insignificant benefit.

POST SCRIPT: The deep mind of George Bush

British comedians John Bird and John Fortune explain how everything is going according to George Bush’s grand plan.

Extra Terrestrial Intelligence-3: The most likely contact scenario

What is likely to be our reaction if we did receive an unambiguous signal that there existed ETI somewhere else in the universe?

The reaction would be hard to predict because it is not a topic that is not publicly discussed much. This is a bit surprising because it is not such a stretch to think that we could wake up one morning to find out that we have received some signal from an alien civilization. I suspect that the reason why we don’t speculate on this question is that any such occurrence might be extremely difficult for most people to absorb into their existing worldviews, so they avoid thinking about it.

Take religious believers. If there is life elsewhere, what does that do to the common idea that humans somehow have a special relationship to god? For Christians, if Jesus died on Earth as a redemptive act for all humankind, did a similar event take place with these other alien civilizations? Would Jews still be able to see themselves as some god’s chosen people? Why did the angel Gabriel not reveal this information of ETI to Mohammed during one of their chats?

I suspect that religious apologists would quickly get to work to come up with new doctrines that would keep the faithful loyal. After all, very similar theological challenges have been encountered before although they are not remembered now. After Copernicus’s ideas about a heliocentric solar system sank in and it became clear that the Earth was merely one of several planets, theologians worried that this meant that other planets could also have inhabitants and this would cause problems for religious doctrines.

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in book The Copernican Revolution:

When it was taken seriously, Copernicus’ proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God’s goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited. But if there were men on other planets, how could they be descendents of Adam and Eve, and how could they have inherited the original sin, which explains man’s otherwise incomprehensible travail on an earth made for him by a good and omnipotent deity? Again, how could men on other planets know of the Savior who opened to them the possibility of eternal life? … Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God’s Throne be located? In an infinite universe, how is man to find God or God man? (p. 193)

The Copernican model, once its implications were fully appreciated by the theologians, thus raised some serious problems. Fortunately for the theologians, no life was found on the other planets so they did not have to deal with the implications of original sin, of Adam and Eve as being created in god’s image, of the fall from grace, of Jesus as savior, and so on.

Similar problems were encountered with the early exploration of the world. Before the arrival of Europeans in the New World, for example, St. Augustine went so far as to argue that there could not be human beings already there because the Bible said that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve, and since there was no way that their descendants could have got to the other side of the Earth (what they called the Antipodes), that meant there could not be any humans there. Such was the typical approach of one of the Catholic Church’s great thinkers: start with a doctrinal belief and then use that to predict what the data should reveal. In science, we may start with a paradigmatic model to make a prediction but we never depend upon any revelation or a special text.

Of course, Augustine was wrong. But as always, the theologians managed to absorb the discovery that the New World was indeed inhabited and devise ways to incorporate these new and awkward scientific facts in ways to keep the faithful loyal.

Next: The potential benefit of receiving signals an ETI.

POST SCRIPT: But seriously,…

Our wise pundits start to discuss the really important issues.

Extra Terrestrial Intelligence-2: The chances of ETI existing

I thought of ETIs because of recent sudden reports of their appearance. About 40 residents of the town of Stephenville in Texas reported seeing a UFO a few weeks ago. And then the website Machines Like Us highlighted the reception of a mystery signal by a radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Nothing definitive has been said about the source of either signal, leaving the field ripe for speculation by ETI believers.

Now I think it is likely that there is life somewhere out there in the universe. The huge number of stars in the universe seem to imply that as long as the probability of life emerging spontaneously is not zero (and we know this is true since we are here), then we should not be surprised at it occurring in other places, perhaps in many places. The catch is that given the size of the universe, the probability of any one of these forms of life encountering another is very small. The most likely way that we will detect their presence is by accident, if they happen to send out a signal strong enough in all directions so that is it detectable by us even at these huge distances. Even then, although we would know the direction from which the signals came, it would be hard to know how far away they are. The premise of Contact was that a planet fairly close to us (near the star Vega just 25.3 light years away) containing ETI had received our old TV signals, thus discovering our existence, and then decided to reach out to us.

But although I think that it is likely that ETIs exist, what I am really skeptical about are the usual reports of UFOs and other sightings, where alien spacecraft dart hither and thither at high speed, playing peek-a-boo with us. If intelligent life evolved near other stars long enough ago that they could travel the likely millions of years necessary to get to Earth, they must be possessed of a vastly superior science and technology than us simply in order to even find us.

After going to all that trouble, why would they then start playing the fool, scaring the daylights out of rural Americans? And why is it that it seems like it is mostly rural Americans who get these visits? Why don’t they drop in on Central Park in New York City?

While it seems likely that the present kinds of UFO sightings are nothing more than misidentifications, the idea that we could receive a signal from ETIs is intriguing and worth mulling over. The most likely thing to happen is that we do get some sort of identifiable, non-noise, intelligently created electromagnetic signal from outer space, broadcast by the inhabitants of some distant planet without any specific intention of contacting anyone, just the way our own radio signals have been beamed out to the universe for the last 100 years or so and TV signals for about 70 years. Electromagnetic waves have some huge advantages as communication devices: they can carry detailed information, can travel through the vacuum of empty space, and travel at the fastest possible speed allowed by the laws of science, which is the speed of light. But that very fact shows how limited our reach is, since it would take about 100,000 years for these waves to just cross our own Milky Way galaxy.

Even if we did get such an unambiguous signal about the existence of an ETI from some source and could decipher it, there is little that we could do with it, just the way that a distant civilization would be baffled if, millions of years from now, they were to pick up the weak signal from a broadcast of American Idol. We would not be able to communicate back and the long times involved in sending and receiving messages would sap the enthusiasm of the most ardent believer in ETI. In science fiction, this limitation is overcome by invoking speculative scientific exotica like black holes and worm holes that enable space travelers to circumvent the speed-of-light limitation and somehow ‘tunnel’ to distant locations in very short times. But while that meets the plot needs of authors, there is no hard evidence that such things exist or, if they do, could be used for such kinds of travel.

But if we leave all these kinds of exotica aside, what intrigues me is what would happen if we simply experience the absolute minimum, which is the receipt of some signal that unambiguously indicates that somewhere out there, however far away and unreachable, there exists intelligent life. Would that change anything here? Would it influence the way we think and behave amongst ourselves, even if there was no possibility of actually communicating with that intelligent life? Or would the novelty soon wear off, and we go back to our usual practice of killing each other?

Next: How should we react to receiving a signal?

POST SCRIPT: Wisdom beyond any price

What would be do without our profoundly wise national commentariat?

Extra Terrestrial Intelligence-1: Getting a signal

In the years 2002 and 2003, during the peak of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement, I was invited to a few meetings of that movement to provide the opposing view. This was the time when the IDC side was promoting such debates as a means of increasing visibility for IDC ideas.

During those meetings I heard over and over again about the significance of the film Contact, based on the novel of the same name by astronomer Carl Sagan. This surprised me because I knew Sagan was a self-described agnostic. Why was the work of such a well-known skeptic being shown so much love at gatherings of religious believers? I was intrigued by this question but didn’t get around to reading the book or seeing the film until I did both last month.

I now understand the IDC people’s fascination with Contact. The book and film deal with extra-terrestrials making contact with people on Earth. The signal of their existence is that radio telescopes on Earth start receiving a series of pulsed signals from outer space that are the sequence of prime numbers, which are numbers that can only be divided by themselves or one. (i.e., the numbers, 1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19,23,…)

While prime numbers are a source of great fascination for mathematicians and are used by them in a wide variety of ways (cryptography being one), there is no naturally occurring physical process that generates those numbers. Hence the reception of prime numbers is an unambiguous signal of a real intelligence out there manufacturing these artifacts, unlike the earlier false alarms created by the detection of pulsars in 1967. Those earlier signals consisted of regular pulses of energy with very precise times between each pulse and initially were thought to be signals sent by an extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) but were later found to be caused by rotating neutron stars. But one would be hard pressed to find naturally occurring physical explanations for signals that had the pattern of the prime numbers

The IDC people used this idea from Contact to argue that the existence of certain biological systems could not occur naturally and hence were similarly unambiguous signals for the existence of an ‘outside’ intelligence. While this intelligence could also be extra-terrestrial (as postulated by the Raelians), the IDC people preferred to believe that it was caused by god. This was the Paley’s Watch and Mount Rushmore metaphors modernized.

I found both book and film interesting but mildly dissatisfying. Sagan’s weaknesses as a novelist show, though his knowledge and command of science help to make the book readable.

All books and films that deal with contact with ETIs suffer from the same problem, that the really exciting part is the thrill of discovering the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence and the anticipation of what aliens look like, are like, and their attitudes towards us. But we just do not have any data at all on which to base our conceptions of these alien beings, so any choice the authors make is bound to be seen as deficient. Whatever the creators dream up about the actual encounter cannot help but be a bit of an anticlimax.

All the novels that I have read on this topic (admittedly not that many) suffer from the fact that the plot’s dynamic requires a revelation of the ETI at the end but the actual realization of the concept is almost always disappointing. I don’t see any way around it.

Next: More on ETIs.

POST SCRIPT: How to become a New York Times columnist

All you have to do is be consistently wrong.

Anniversary reflections on this blog

Today’s post will mark the completing of three years since this blog began. Although I tend to ignore anniversaries of any kind, they do provide convenient points at which to step back and look at the big picture, to reflect on what was achieved, what was not, and where one should be going.

I have been on a regimen of writing five op-ed type essays a week, resulting over the last three years in over 700 essays and close to 900,000 words. The blog has registered about three million hits.

While it is not easy to produce this level of output, it is not that hard either, provided one is interested in what one is writing about. One of the consequences of producing this output is that I now have extreme contempt for most of the well-known columnists (david Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder, Richard Cohen, etc.) that occupy the pages of newspapers and magazines. Many of the better known ones are employed full time and have paid researchers to help them gather material for their columns. Given all those resources, it is remarkable how vapid and lacking in content their columns are.

Let me make clear that I am not saying that I am better than them. But given that I have a full-time job and have to do all my own research and edit my own work on my own time, I feel that these columnists should be producing far better output, instead of the superficial dreck they currently do that wastes so much newsprint. In fact, there are very many writers on the web (Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, Juan Cole, Stephen Zunes, Robert Jensen, the pseudonymous Digby, Justin Raimondo, Jim Lobe, Ray McGovern, Greg Sargent, Paul Craig Roberts, Alexander Cockburn, to name just a few off the top of my head) who produce far, far better political analyses than the so-called elite columnists, and many of them are also writing on their own and on their own time. These good web writers not only have sharper intellects and biting prose styles, they provide links to the sources so one can see if the facts on which they base their analyses warrant their conclusions. In contrast, the well-known op-ed writers tend to rely on Villager cocktail party chatter and unnamed sources, making their output more like political gossip columns

On the basis of the quality of the content, the traditional columnist should have long ago become extinct. But we must remember that these columnists serve a much more important purpose than informing readers and it is this that keeps them around. These columnists are like the goal posts on a football field, they define the boundaries within which the political game must be played, with the so-called liberals at one end and the so-called conservatives at the other end. To be considered ‘respectable’ and be invited to play, one must tacitly agree to stay within these defined boundaries. Step outside those boundaries, or even question the rules of the game, and you are out of the game and summarily excluded. You are no longer ‘serious’, just some kind of wild-eyed, irrational ideologue.

Furthermore, the so-called liberals and so-called conservatives are both part of the one pro-business/pro-war party that rules this country. They are all Villagers.

Writing this blog has been of benefit to me personally. The sheer discipline that it forces on me to write daily has resulted in greater productivity. Last year I had five articles accepted for publication, three of which started out as extensive blog entries, which meant that I had done much of the research and writing and editing long before I considered submitting it to a journal. The other two articles were also to easy to write because of the discipline that has been imposed on me by trying to meet the demands of the blog. The blog has made me a far more efficient writer, if not necessarily a better one.

There is one thing about the blog that I have still not quite come to terms with, and that is the personal exposure. I am by nature a private person and initially saw myself only writing about abstract ideas in a coolly analytical way, without revealing much about myself. But it is hard to maintain that level of detachment when one is passionate about something. Although I do not dwell on the details of my personal life (which is very boring anyway), I have discovered what writers know, that you cannot help but reveal things about yourself whenever you write about anything you care about. You inevitably reveal your attitudes and values.

I have tried to come to terms with the fact that regular readers of this blog must have a pretty good idea about what drives me as a person. I still find it disconcerting, however, when I meet someone for the first time and that person says “Oh, I read your blog”, because I realize that that person knows quite a bit about me while I know nothing about that person.

But that is a minor discomfort. The blog has been a source of intellectual stimulus for me. It has not yet reached a stage where I have run out of new ideas to write about and start repeating myself, although reading some of the old entries I find myself surprised at some of the things I had forgotten I said. But so far, I have not regretted anything that I have posted or found anything completely wrong, except for predictions for the winners of political contests where I am almost always wrong.

The blog is still fun for me, which I why I keep writing. Thanks for reading.

Review: God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

I finally got around to reading Hitchens’ book debunking all forms of religion. I must say that I found it curiously unsatisfying. It is hard to put my finger on the reasons since I agreed with almost all the things he said.

The book seeks to show that religions (he focuses mainly on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism) are basically frauds initiated by charlatans and con-men, perpetrated on gullible people, and perpetuated by huge religious vested interests that either make a lot money out of the religion racket and/or use it as a form of coercion to suppress dissent (both in thought and practice) often in collusion with corrupt governments.

The book looks at the sacred texts of these religions (Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon) and shows how they are riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies and downright barbarisms, are very parochial in their thinking, of extremely doubtful historicity, and the product of many writers and editors, polishing and changing to suit their own needs and to achieve largely self-serving political and social goals.

The book also looks at the founders of these religions (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith) and either finds little or no evidence for their actual existence (no evidence at all for Moses and little for Jesus) or if they occurred later enough that their existence could be at least partially corroborated (Muhammad in the 7th century) or fully corroborated (Joseph Smith in the 19th century), contemporaneous records indicate that they were likely self-serving con-men who founded movements and doctrines that conveniently coincided with their own interests and personal gain.

All this is well and good and I have no quarrel with any of it. I think that what bothered me about the book was the unevenness of its writing, coupled with a certain amount of pretentiousness. Everyone, including critics of his views, says that Hitchens is a brilliant writer and I get the feeling that this has gone to his head, so that he tries too hard to live up to that reputation, dropping esoteric references to erudite works and inserting unfamiliar phrases in French and Latin without translations. I find him to be a good writer when he is in good form but have never been overwhelmed by his alleged brilliance. In this book, there are some very good passages mixed with others that seem to lack coherence, a product of either laziness or bad editing.

He also has some annoying verbal tics. For example, he frequently refers to human beings (especially those he does not approve of) as ‘mammals’ instead of ‘people’. This is, of course, true but it is still jarring to read.

The book also flits from topic to topic, not going into much depth, and taking shots all over the place. It is a polemical book, which is fair enough. But it seems to be simply a collection of pot shots taken at religion. Let’s face it, religion is an easy target: it is full of internal contradictions, free of evidence for its preposterous claims, lacking contact with reality, riddled with barbarities, profoundly anti-science, and its history is awful. Taking broad swipes at it as Hitchens does is bound to hit the target somewhere, just like firing a shotgun at a dense flock of birds is sure to bring down something as long as one aims in the general direction. But it is not pretty.

I personally prefer the rapier skills of writers like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett or Victor Stenger. They are the authors of more tightly argued books, which carefully lay out the premises and claims of religion, and then proceed to systematically demolish them.

Perhaps it is no accident that these other writers are scientists while Hitchens is not, and I am partial to science-based critiques of religion. I believe that it is science that is steadily demolishing the case for religion and god and thus scientists are best situated to deliver these blows. Science is advancing all the time, explaining the previously inexplicable and giving ever more reasons to not believe in god. In contrast religious apologists have no new arguments and still trot out those proposed by apologist religious philosophers from centuries or millennia ago, people who could only plausibly claim make their cases at a time before Newton and Darwin and Einstein, when the world seemed a lot less comprehensible than it does now. Even then, these philosophers’ claims have to be reinterpreted and limited to take into account modern scientific developments.

So while Hitchens’ book is a quick and easy read (I finished its nearly 300 pages over a weekend) and I can recommend it, it is not a book that will be on my reference shelf to be periodically sought for fresh insights.

When reading a book I like to mark out for future reference good passages that make a point tellingly. There are some in Hitchens’ book that are very good and I have used them in previous posts. But sadly, he had only a very few passages that struck me as worth preserving.

God is Not Great is a good book, worth reading, but I expected much better. Perhaps that is my fault.

POST SCRIPT: Dan Savage in South Carolina

Dan Savage reports from South Carolina just before the Republican primary, and then has an amusing discussion about his experiences there with religion on Bill Maher’s show.

Our inner fish and other evolution fun facts

Even though I am not a biologist, I find evolution to be an endlessly intriguing subject, constantly throwing up intriguing new facts. Here are some recent items that caught my eye.

Stephen Colbert has a fascinating interview with evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, discoverer of the fish-land animal transitional fossil Tiktaalik, about how much of our human biology came from fish. In his 2008 book Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body, Shubin points out that although superficially we may look very different, many of our human features can be found in to have analogous forms in fish and thus probably existed from the time that we shared common fish-like ancestors with them. (Incidentally, Shubin was one of the expert witnesses in the Dover intelligent design trial in which he discussed the theory of evolution and the role that Tiktaalik played in clarifying the link between fish and land animals.)

For me, one of the most surprising things in learning about evolution was that whales, dolphins, and porpoises evolved from land mammals that returned to the sea from which their own ancestors had emerged. In fact, hippos are the animals most closely related to modern day whales.

Researchers have now discovered in the Kashmir region the fossils of a land-based ancestor to whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The fox-sized Indohyus, as it has been called, lived 48 million years ago and is an even closer relative to the whales than hippos, and sheds more light on how whales cam to be.

“The new model is that initially they were small deer-like animals that took to the water to avoid predators,” Professor Thewissen told BBC News. “Then they started living in water, and then they switched their diet to become carnivores.”

And then there was the New Scientist report last week of the discovery of a two million year old Uruguayan fossil of a rodent (Josephoartigasia monesi) that weighed about a thousand kilograms, which makes it the world’s largest rodent, about the size of a large bull. Of course, this species of giant rodent is extinct. The largest rodents now are the capybara, also found in South America, which clock in at a mere 50 kilos.

In reading the report, I discovered something else that I had not known, that North and South America had once split apart, and that this may explain how the giant rodent came into being. Later the huge landmasses joined again, causing the extinction.

South America saw a huge explosion in the diversity of rodents after the continent split from North America and became an island some 65 million years ago. Dinosaurs had just been wiped out and many animal groups were filling the void they left behind.

Without competition from other mammals which were diversifying on the other side of the water in North America, rodents of all sizes emerged in South America.
. . .
Around the time that the recently discovered J. monesi was alive, the two Americas were joined once more.

Sánchez speculates that the connecting land bridge may have helped bring about the demise of the giant rodents. Animals, among them the sabre-toothed cat, crossed the bridge in both directions bringing diseases, and competition for food and territory.

It is likely that changes in the climate will have also rendered the rodents’ home less hospitable. J. monesi was found in what is now an arid region, but was then lush and forested.

“Our work suggests that 4 million years ago in South America, ‘mice’ that were larger than bulls lived with terror birds, sabre-toothed cats, ground sloths, and giant armoured mammals,” say the Uruguayan researchers.

Of course, these explanations for the rise and fall of the giant rat are speculative and need to be corroborated with further research.

This is what I love about science: the constant discovery of exciting new findings, the challenge of fitting them into a theoretical framework while maintaining consistency with other scientific theories. All these things stimulate new research and ideas.

POST SCRIPT: Scott Ritter and Edward Peck

Scott Ritter is the US Marine who was a member of Hans Blix UN team that searched Iraq for WMDs prior to the invasion. He concluded that Iraq did not have any and repeatedly said so. For being correct, he was vilified by those anxious to go to war and almost completely banished from the media while those who were wrong on everything are still there, now pushing for war with Iran.

Scott Ritter and Edward Peck (former chief of mission for the US in Iraq) will speak tomorrow (Thursday) at at 7:30 pm at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. They have returned from a fact-finding mission in Iran.

Suggested donation: $10 general, $5 students. Trinity Cathedral is at 2230 Euclid Ave., across from CSU. Free parking is available in the Trinity Cathedral lot: entrance on Prospect Ave at E. 22nd.

Religion and gullibility

Here are some video clips of people claiming to have supernatural powers.

In the first, magicians Penn and Teller debunk a person who claims that she can talk to dead people. (Language advisory)

Notice how, when she interviews the black man at the end about whom she has no inside information, she resorts to inferences based on racial stereotypes and simple hereditary similarities in order to make her guesses. She is clearly hoping that he has a father, uncle, or other father figure who died from heart disease. Such ‘mediums’ often play the odds this way.

In the next clip, Penn and Teller take a look at someone who claims that she can talk to animals using telepathy

In the third clip, Penn and Teller and fellow magician James Randi debunk Nostradamus-based predictions.

In the final one Penn and Teller take a look at an exorcist at work. (Language advisory)

What do all these things have in common? They all share one feature and that is that unscrupulous people are taking advantage of people’s gullibility about the existence of the supernatural and using their emotional needs to con them. A lot of people would love to talk with their dead loved ones, they would love to talk to their pets, they would love to know what lies in the future, they would love to think that their problems are caused by demons that can be removed by a simple procedure. Thus they are only too eager to believe charlatans who promise them that they can do these things.

But all this rampant naïve credulity about the supernatural has to have a source. Why are there so many people who are so willing to believe things for which there is no evidence? I think that it is because religion has softened their minds up since childhood, weakening their powers of reasoning and logic. It has taught them that there are mysterious things out there that are beyond the reach of normal logic and evidence and science, and that one must simply believe in them. Such people are easy prey to all the charlatans out there, out to make a quick buck.

It is necessary for their very survival that religious organizations cultivate a deliberate naivete in their flock. They may say they appealing to the virtues of unthinking faith for noble reasons but they are effectively making their religious followers susceptible to fraud.

In Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, he describes how religions depend upon and take advantage of people’s credulity.

It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact. (p. 160)

Without people being indoctrinated early on by religion, these other fraudsters would have a much harder time making a go of it. They depend on the dulling of reason and the intellect produced by religion in order to ply their trade.

The later Martin Luther King

(Today is the official day to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am reposting (updated and edited) something I wrote two years ago.)

In reflecting on the life and message of Martin Luther King, I feel there is a need to resurrect an essential aspect of his message that he articulated during the last phase of his life. Over time, layers of gauze have covered this portion of his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard-edged and accurate vision that characterized the last years of his life.

Most people focus primarily on his “I have a dream speech” given at the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to realize that he did not retire after that oratorical triumph but went on to speak and act in ways that were often different from the emphases of his pre-1963 positions. His later emphasis on a class-based analysis of American society, his drive to unite the problems of black people with poor and working class white people, coupled with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, were a radical departure from a purely race-based civil rights struggle. All these moves cost him some support and alienated some former allies, and are what some believe precipitated his assassination.

Since his death in 1968, the mass media have increasingly portrayed King as primarily a visionary and a dreamer of a non-racial America, and some have even argued that that his dream has essentially come true, apart from some minor remaining problems. To read his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community is to be jolted by the piercing clarity of his wide-ranging analysis of the real problems, what needed to be done to resolve them, and the immense obstacles that lay in the way of reaching the goal of a free and fair society. It is also important (and rather chastening) to note that nearly everything that he said four decades ago is still relevant today.

What is particularly striking about King’s writings is his ability to keep in balance the tension between a hard-eyed and realistic appraisal of the problems faced in trying to achieve justice (derived from his study of politics, economics, history, and philosophy) and his deep-rooted optimism in the innate decency of human beings (derived from his religious faith).

He saw that the successful multiracial coalitions that formed in the civil rights struggles and which culminated in Selma and the Voting Rights Act were just the first phase of the struggle and that these focused around the issues of treating African-Americans decently but not necessarily equally. People of all races were appalled at the lynchings and beatings, and the legal remedies that were proposed to address these horrors did not cost anything and could be supported fairly easily. It did not cost much to repeal Jim Crow segregation laws either. “There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites.” But he pointed out that “the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the same thing as the presence of justice.”

King noted that when the issue switched to the second phase, from that of simple decency to one of equality, much of the multiracial support evaporated as the cost of the remedies for generations of injustice became clear. “The discount education given to Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions of people is complex far beyond integrating lunch counters.”

King praised the thousands who rushed to battle the brutalities of Selma, “heedless of danger and of differences in race, class, and religion.” But he also realized that they represented “the best of America, not all of America” and “Justice at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions. . .The great majority of Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price for eradicating it.” He realized that while equality was the common goal of everyone, even the word was interpreted differently by whites and blacks. “Negroes have proceeded from the premise that equality means what it says. . .but most whites. . .proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.”

It is startling to see how well King’s analyses of the status of African-Americans in US society hold up four decades later, despite all the other changes that have taken place during that time. King realized that generations of slavery and other forms of discrimination and subjugation had taken its toll on the financial, intellectual, and other resources of the African-American and thus required an enormous and concerted effort from within their own community in order to “overcome his deficiencies and his maladjustments.” But he rejected out of hand the suggestion (currently enjoying a resurgence) that the poor conditions under which they lived “can be explained by the myth of the Negro’s innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.).”

He was no sentimental believer that this appalling state of affairs would disappear by itself once the institutionalized roadblocks had been removed and a legally ‘color blind’ society had been created. He saw that the problems went much deeper than that. “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. . .They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agricultural operations using itinerant labor would suffer economic trauma, if not disaster, with a rise in wage scales.”

In other words, powerful economic and political interests benefited from the depressed state of poor people and would strenuously resist any attempts to improve things.

He realized that achieving equality for African Americans required a massive expenditure in education, housing, and employment for blacks, but always emphasized that this must be done within the context of a general anti-poverty program meant for all poor people, of all races and religions. It is a big mistake to think of King as a leader of only black people. When he was killed, he was becoming an outspoken progressive national leader of all people, which was what made him really dangerous.

The late 60s was a time of ferment and there was a divergence between those who called for violent action to combat repression and those advocating non-violence. The main criticism leveled against the non-violence movement led by King (by critics such as those in the Black Power movement) was that it reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as passive and meek. They argued that changing this perception required African-Americans to separate from whites and forge a more militant identity. King disagreed strongly with this analysis. In an interview, King said that “there is great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.” He pointed out that anyone who had been involved in the civil rights struggles would know that nonviolent resistance, far from being passive, was a strong, determined, and effective response to injustice.

He pointed out that violent resistance was futile because its ultimate goal, the total separation of blacks and whites in the US, was absurdly unrealistic. The power of the state was overwhelming and could brutally crush any serious challenge to its authority. If the general public, black and white, did not personally identify with the struggle for justice, then they would passively stand by while this power was unleashed to crush any opposition. He knew from the history of wars in general (and World War II and the Vietnam war in particular) that the general public could and would passively accept massive injustice and cruelty and horrific destruction on even innocent civilians unless they identified in some way with those at the receiving end of the violence. We see that even now with the way most Americans are unperturbed by the deaths, injuries and displacements of millions of Iraqis because of the invasion of the country by the US. He felt that you needed public opinion on your side and the only way “that the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause” was if they themselves were touched by the struggle, at some deep level.

King argued that while some notable victories had been won by violence (for example, the American revolution among many independence struggles in former colonial countries), such models were not applicable to the civil rights struggle because “those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out their oppressors.” King argued that blacks and whites had to live together in a post-racist US, and the only way they could do that with any sense of common community was if they joined together in the struggle to create such a just society. And he saw a united, non-violent struggle as the way to get everyone involved.

It is this firm conviction in the power of non-violence as an effective strategy, coupled with a basic sense of generosity and fairness in his outlook, his desire to see the best in even those who opposed him, that was the key to his success as a coalition builder. He was always inclusive in his thinking, trying to find ways in which to form a common cause with those who shared his basic belief in justice and equality. But he could also be scathing in his appraisal of those with whom he felt he had nothing in common, and fierce in his denunciation of the few deep-rooted racists who could not be won over.

Martin Luther King was always conscious of the importance of trying to maintain balance between the tensions pulling in different directions. He said that “a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist.” Even the subtitle of his book Chaos or Community shows his realization that the future of society lay in a delicate balance. King’s murder removed from our midst someone who could hold people and movements together while moving towards a common goal and thus take us towards community. While we have not quite reached chaos in his absence, there is an urgent and deep need for a new generation of leadership that can point us towards community again.

Martin Luther King seemed to draw his strength from two sources: his wide reading and scholarship, which enabled him to always place people and events in a deeper and more meaningful context; and his ability to see the best in people. After the march in Montgomery, observing the demonstrators who were crowded together in an airport terminal, he noted “As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.”

His vision of what a society should be and what must be done to achieve it is as relevant and vibrant as ever. His call to action is as compelling now as it was when he first made it.

The candidates that corporate executives like

In my two posts titled Meet the Villagers (see here and here), I argued that the oligarchy that runs the US decide early on who they approve of to be political leaders and then use the media to make sure that everyone else is eliminated from the race early. The high-handedness of the media in deciding what views we should be exposed to was on extraordinary display when MSNBC first invited Dennis Kucinich to appear in the Nevada debate because he had met their criteria, and then at the last minute changed their criteria to exclude him. (I suspect that when they first set the rule about including only the top four candidates, they assumed that the fourth would be a Villager-acceptable candidate like Biden or Dodd or Richardson.) They thus ensured that issues like single-payer health insurance and the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the closing of bases there (to name just a few issues) would not be raised in the debate.

Recall that I said that the Villagers want election campaigns in which there is a consensus amongst the candidates to support the issues that the oligarchy care about. We are almost there.

Now a January 11, 2008 Reuters article by Kevin Drawbaugh has actually asked corporate executives which candidates they like and fear and the results bear out what I said. Of the leading candidates, they like Clinton and McCain and Romney and think they can deal with Obama.

The corporate suits fear John Edwards most. In fact, the title of the piece is “Corporate Elite Fear Candidate Edwards.” Mike Huckabee is the most feared candidate on the Republican side. This is because although both their policy platforms are hardly radical, neither is strictly following the pro-business script that gets Villager approval.

The media has, as always, dutifully picked up on these cues, especially on the Democratic side. The Washington Post dismisses Edwards as “angry” (anyone who highlights and attacks the corporate control of US politics is almost invariably described as “angry” or as otherwise irrational) and insists that this is already a two-person race between Clinton and Obama. Unsurprisingly, the more overtly right-wing corporate mouthpiece Fox News also attacks Edwards.

But the best way to undermine a candidacy is by ignoring it, especially in the early stages, the way that the Edwards, Dodd, Biden, Richardson, Kucinich, and Gravel candidacies were largely ignored. If not for the televised debates, these people would have been largely invisible. Another way you eliminate those whom you don’t feel deserve to be in the race is to give extraordinary attention to trivial differences among the Villager-approved candidates so that all the oxygen is used up discussing absurdly unimportant issues.

For example, by focusing heavily on spats between Obama and Clinton (Did she ‘play the race card’?), and on trivialities (Did she really cry after Iowa? Is he secretly a Muslim?), and on topics like gender and ethnicity and Clinton’s ‘likability’ and even the way she laughs (!) rather than on policy issues, the media effectively avoid talking about other candidates and thus give voters the impression that this is now a two-person contest. This despite the fact that some polls suggest that Edwards is the Democrat most likely to beat any Republican in the presidential race, while Hillary Clinton fares much worse than Edwards and Obama.

As the pro-Democratic blog Firedoglake summarizes: “If Hillary’s the Democratic nominee, we could very easily lose to any likely GOP nominee. If Obama’s the nominee, he does OK so long as he doesn’t face McCain. But if Edwards is the nominee, we’re sitting pretty. Which, I suspect, is one reason why Big Media hates John Edwards so much and does everything it can to destroy him. (Speaking of which: KingOneEye at DailyKos pointed out this morning how the NYT is ignoring a key result of its own poll on the race — namely, that as more people get to know him, Edwards’ favorability rating keeps going up.)” Greg Sargent also notes a study that supports the contention that the media is underreporting Edwards.

On the Republican side the Villagers have not been able to narrow the contest as effectively, to focus just on McCain and Romney. Huckabee keeps bobbing up to the surface although they seem to have effectively buried Ron Paul’s candidacy, although the latter is doing as well as, or better than, Villager-approved candidates Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani who still get a lot of media play. It will be interesting to see if and for how long Huckabee can withstand the media pressure to disappear.

David Sirota tries to combat the “just a two-person Democratic race” narrative fostered by the Villagers:

For those of you who think the Democratic presidential nomination fight is just a two-way race between Obama and Clinton, check out this brand new poll from the Reno Gazette-Journal. Yup, that’s right – it shows the Nevada caucus race [which will be held on Saturday-MS] a three-way, dead heat with John Edwards right in the mix.

Interestingly, this poll comes right on the heels of the Establishment viciously ratcheting up its angry attacks on the Edwards candidacy. Late last week, we saw a Reuters story headlined “Corporate Elite Fear Candidate Edwards” detailing how Wall Street moneymen and K Street lobbyists are frightened about Edwards populist, power-challenging message against greed and corruption. We also saw self-anointed Democratic “expert” Lawrence O’Donnell pen a fulminating screed demanding Edwards get out of the race – not surprising coming from a man who made his name running the U.S. Senate Finance Committee – long the most corrupt, lobbyist-ravaged panel in all of Washington (somehow, running the U.S. Congress’s version of a pay-to-play casino now makes people credible “experts” in campaign strategy and political morality).

According to the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, Edwards has long faced a media blackout – one that at least some honest media brokers like Keith Olbermann have noted. As I said a long time ago, that Edwards has even been able to compete in such a hostile environment is a testament to the power of his message.

The question we should ask is what the hostility and media blackout is really all about? I’d say the media’s behavior is motivated by the same impulses that moves lobbyists to whine and cry to Reuters and self-important bloviators like O’Donnell to publicly burst a blood vessel on the Huffington Post – the people who have gotten used to the status quo are truly terrified by any candidates who they really believe will change things and threaten their power and status. Edwards is just such a candidate – one who threatens to muck up what the media and political elite want to be a race between two “nonthreatening,” Wall Street-approved candidates. Obviously, it’s a three-way race at this very moment – whether the Establishment likes that or not.

Incidentally, this is why efforts to broaden the base of voters are almost always done by grass-roots activist groups working independently of the major parties. These new voters are unpredictable and hence undesirable to the Villagers. The pro-business/pro-war single party is quite comfortable with the way the current political system works since it gives a huge advantage to the status quo.

POST SCRIPT: Religion and politics in the US

British comedian Pat Condell gives us his take on this topic, in a clip he calls “Pimping for Jesus.” Condell’s home page cheerfully describes his attitude to religion: “Hi, I’m Pat Condell. I don’t respect your beliefs and I don’t care if you’re offended. Cheers.”