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November 26, 2002

Big Bang Belief

Astronomy magazine, to which I subscribe, asks on this month's cover: Do you believe in the BIG BANG? 5 reasons you should. I was initially a little confused by the cover, in that with the exception of a couple of unregenerate Hoyle-loving solid-statists out there, probably the entire of the magazine's 185,000-member subscriber base has probably already signed off on the whole Big Bang thing; it'd be like Parenting magazine having a cover story that asked if its readers believed in pregnancy.

But of course, the article is not for Astronomy's regular readers, per se. It has a two-fold aim. The first is to lure whatever Creationists might be lurking near the magazine rack into opening up the magazine and getting a point of view on the genesis of the universe without the Genesis interpretation. I think this is sort of sweet, since I don't really think most Creationists really want to challenge their beliefs; after all, Jesus didn't tell them to question, merely to believe. But you can't blame the Astronomy editors for making the effort.

The second aim is to give non-Creationist parents some reasonable ammunition at the next school board meeting, when some Bible-brandishing yahoo demands the science curriculum be changed to give equal footing to whatever damn fool brew of mysticism and junk science they've cobbled together this year to make an end-run around the separation of church and state, and someone rational needs to step in and point out what evidence exists to suggest the Big Bang actually happened.

In that case, the object is not to convince a Creationist of the veracity of the Big Bang; any Creationist who shows up at a school board meeting is already a lost cause in terms of rationality. The idea is to appeal to the school board members that the Big Bang is not interchangeable with the idea that God whipped up the universe in seven days or that the universe was vomited up by a celestial cane toad that ate a bad fly or whatever other pleasant, simple teleological shortcut one might choose to believe.

In this case, I again I appreciate Astronomy's intent; it's nice to know they believe a school board might be amenable to reason. Personally, however, I would skip the middleman preliminaries, which is what such an appeal to reason would be. I'd go straight to the endgame, which would be to inform the school board that if it went ahead and confused science and theology, I'd be more than pleased to drag in the ACLU and make it take all the tax money it was planning to use on football uniforms and use it to pay lawyers instead. I'm not at all confident of a school board's ability to follow science, but I'm pretty sure most of its members can count money. And here in Ohio, at least, they sure do love their football.

Astronomy notes that based on an NSF survey, less than a third of Americans believe in the Big Bang. Part of the problem comes from most people simply not paying attention in science class -- evidenced by the fact that only 70% of Americans believe in the Copernican theory, which posits that the Earth is in orbit around the Sun, and you'd have to be fairly ignorant and/or inattentive not to believe that. Another part of the problem comes from the idea that the Big Bang might somehow conflict with religious beliefs -- that the end result of accepting the Big Bang as a theory is an eternity of Satan cramming M-80s behind your eyeballs and cackling, "You want a Big Bang? I'll give you a Big Bang," before lighting the fuse with his own pinky finger. But a large part of it also has to do with language itself, and how it's used to confuse.

For example, the word "theory." Commonly speaking, "theory" equates to "whatever ridiculous idea that has popped into my head at this very moment" -- so people have theories about UFOs, alligators in the sewers, the Kennedy Assassination, the healing power of magnets and so on. The somewhat debased nature of the word "theory" is what allows Creationists and others to say "it's just a theory," about evolution or the Big Bang or whatever bit of science is inconvenient to them at the moment, implicitly suggesting that as such, it should be paid little regard.

However (and Astronomy magazine has a nice sidebar on this), the word "theory" means something different to scientists than it does to the average Joe. In the world of science, the initial crazy idea that you or I would call a theory is a "hypothesis"; it's not until you can provide strong, verifiable evidence that the universe actually conforms to your hypothesis that you're allowed to say it's an actual theory. So to recap: Crazy idea = hypothesis; crazy idea + independently verifiable facts to back it up = theory.

The Big Bang is a theory not because it's just this zany idea a bunch of astronomers thought up one night while they were smoking dope in the observation dome; it's a theory because of a preponderance of evidence out there in the universe suggests this is how the universe was created -- to the near exclusion of other hypotheses. It's a theory to the same extent that gravity is a theory, and be warned that if you don't believe in gravity, you'll probably fall right on your ass.

"Believe," incidentally, is another problem word, since its common usage is synonymous with "I have faith," and faith, by its nature, is not particularly evidentiary. Someone who says "I believe in Jesus," is declaring faith in Christ, whose nature is ineffable. One wouldn't say that one has faith in the Big Bang -- and rightly so.

Fundamentally, one doesn't "believe" or have faith in much of anything as it regards science, since as a process science isn't about believing at all. It's about testing and verifying, discarding what doesn't work, and refining what does work to make it better describe the nature of reality. For a scientist, a belief functions at the level of a hypothesis, which is to say, it's an idea that requires testing to determine whether it accurately models reality.

Even at their current stage of understanding about it, it's probably not accurate to say that scientists "believe" in the Big Bang theory, to the extent that there are still holes in the theoretical model that need to be plugged and scientists working to plug them (Astronomy magazine points out these holes, as it should, since doing so doesn't expose the weakness of the Big Bang theory, but the strength of the scientific process). If it turns out that the Big Bang theory is ultimately incompatible with the data, it'll have to be thrown out and something more accurate created to replace it.

Asking whether one "believes" in the Big Bang doesn't really answer any questions -- it merely suggests that the Big Bang is itself part of a faith-based system, equivalent to a belief in Christ or Allah or Buddha or whomever. This is another piece of semantic ammunition that Creationists and others like to use: That science is just another system of "belief," just another species of religion. Not only is science not just another species of faith, it's not even in the same phylum. Faith is a conclusion. Science is a process. This is why, incidentally, the two are not ultimately inherently incompatible, just as driving somewhere is not inherently incompatible with having a fixed home address.

If I were putting together a poll on the Big Bang, I wouldn't ask people if they believed in it. I would ask them, based on the evidence, what model of universal creation best described its current state. I'd make sure I left space for the "I have no idea" option. I believe -- and this is just hypothesis, not a theory -- that the data from that question would be informative.

Posted by john at 08:20 PM | Comments (2)

November 25, 2002

Flags and the Confederacy (Again)

I'm still getting a lot of mail from Confederate partisans over my recent posts on how the Confederacy was evil, and so are its flags. Most of these apologists are spieling out lines suggesting that, yes, yes, fine, the Confederacy did institutionalize slavery. But today its flags mean entirely different things, like pride and heritage and (inevitably) states rights over federal rights. Why can't we (meaning, presumably, the folk not in the states of the former Confederacy and the descendants of the people the Confederacy explicitly enslaved) just get over it? My God, haven't the decent white folk of the South suffered enough? They lost their country, after all.

Well, let me make a counter-suggestion, which is that I'll start trying to forget that the Confederate flag is fundamentally evil, if the Confederacy-pushers will acknowledge that the Confederacy was in fact, a big fat loser, and therefore any of its symbols are less than fertile ground for positive associations.

Loooooooooooser. And it isn't just a loser in war. Although it is that, let's not forget -- and it lost that war big. Sure, they kept it close in the first half, but after that it was a blowout. The North had a deeper bench. Even a post-game late hit on the North's general manager (while he was in his luxury suite, for God's sake!) couldn't change that fact. But even tossing aside the war, the Confederacy is a loser in so many other ways it's hard to know where to begin. But let's begin anyway, shall we?

States' rights: Loser. The Confederacy so bungled the states' rights issue that it ended up establishing the primacy of the federal government over states, and additionally ensured that no other state could ever secede from the Union again. Oh, and then the former Confederate states were subjected to a rather unfortunate period of time (it's called the Reconstruction) where they had about as many state's rights as the District of Columbia. So, in all, not a particularly shining example for states' rights.

This where Confederate partisans grumble that yeah, but technically the Confederacy was right on the constitutionality of secession. Well, kids, two things: One, nuh uh. Clearly that was a matter open to interpretation, which is why you had to fight a war about it (which -- did I mention? -- you lost). Two, even if the Confederacy were technically right on secession, this is a really stupid argument anyway. What, like the United States is just going to go, "Gee, okay, what we'd really like is to have a hostile neighbor to the south of us, competing with us for land on this here North American continent?" I mean, Christ, people. Get a grip.

Clearly we think the Colonists were in the right when they drafted up the Declaration of Independence and suggested that we and Britain had to go our own ways. But they still had to fight a war regarding the matter -- and win it. I don't recall the Colonists being shocked, shocked when Britain didn't exactly roll over and cheerfully lose a few thousand miles of North American coastline. They knew what they were getting into. So it's a little silly to suggest that the Confederates, either then or now, should feel otherwise. It's just whining.

When it comes to things like land and constitutions, being right is half the battle; the other half of the battle is the actual battle you have to fight to enforce your claim. The Confederacy lost that part, which is just as well, because they were way off base with that whole secession thing to begin with. Bad premises, bad results.

Heritage: Loser. Let's be honest here. There is almost no truly Confederate heritage, if only because the Confederacy in itself didn't last long enough to generate any while it was an ongoing concern, and while it was around, it was too busy trying to survive to do much of anything else. There is of course a rich heritage of Confederania now, but it exists entirely as the fly-blown leavings from the Confederate corpse, rather than the fruits of a living tree, and that's not entirely the same thing.

Confederate partisans try to backdate Confederate heritage to before the Confederate era, but I don't think that is something we should cede to them. There is indeed an antebellum Southern culture, but the participants of that culture did not equate their culture with the political entity known as the Confederacy, since that entity didn't exist. If they didn't I don't see why the rest of us should make that equation, either.

Part of the whitewash campaign of the Confederate partisans is to try to sell the idea that Confederate symbols somehow encompass the entire history of the South, and they don't, neither prior to the Confederacy nor after. Let's remember that Confederate and Southern are not synonyms. Southern heritage is a fine thing; Confederate heritage is not. Using the symbols of the latter to represent the former is presumptuous.

Pride: Loser. Proud of what? Of the fact the Confederacy precipitated a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of men on both sides of the battle? Which -- let's never forget -- it lost? Of constitutionally enslaving black people? Of being the cause of the devastation and occupation of the Southern states by Union troops and carpetbaggers?

Oh, yes, Confederate friends, that last one was your fault. We know all about that whole "War of Northern Aggression" line you've got going down there, as if you were just sitting there minding your own business when all of a sudden Sherman popped up and started, like, burning things. However, allow me to suggest that from the point of view of the United States, trying to make off with half the country, as you did, seemed like a fairly aggressive maneuver at the time. I'll be happy to know if you disagree, since then you won't mind if I come over and take over half of your house, preferably the half with the hot tub.

Individual Southerners feel pride in ancestors who went out and fought (and sometimes died) for the Confederate side of the war, which as I've mentioned before is just fine. But I don't see how one can ignore the fact that all those Johnny Rebs would have been safe as houses had the Confederacy never existed. Prior to December of 1860, it's not as if the armies of the north were perennially massed at the Mason-Dixon line, champing at the bit to torch the south, and the poor southerners had no choice but to hoist grandpappy's musket and slug it out at Antietam.

Many of the Confederate apologists with whom I've corresponded maintain that their ancestors fought and died to protect their homes, not for the ideals of the Confederacy, and I suspect that in many cases that's probably true. It still stands whatever their personal reasons for fighting, they fought because of the fact of the Confederacy, which was an evil institution, for reasons I've outlined before. Essentially, these people fought and died because an unnecessary and wholly evil entity invited trouble to their doorstep. Someone needs to explain to me why one should feel pride in that.

(Anyway, I do think there needs to be a line drawn in terms of responsibility. Not every Confederate soldier was fighting simply to protect the homestead; at least a few here and there had to believe in the principles of the Confederacy or at the very least the right of the Confederate states to go their own way. These people were wrong, however bravely they may have fought. It's well and good that they were defeated, since the "independence" they would have bought was rotten to begin with.)

The only real pride one should have as a Confederate partisan is Loser Pride, in which one invests one's energy in a perennially losing entity primarily as an exercise in existential humility; i.e., Cubs fans. But even Cubs fans have the possibility for glory in that the Cubs are an ongoing concern. The Confederacy, on the other hand, is deader than a gay bar in Branson and will stay that way. It will never be anything but a loser.

Useful Flags: Loser! Look, the Confederacy was so screwed up that it couldn't even get its flags right. The first official Confederate flag was the Stars and Bars, which was rather too similar to the flag of the United States; it made things even more confusing on the battlefield than they already were. So, the Confederacy decided on another flag, which was largely white. The problem with this flag was that it pretty much looked like a flag of surrender -- it was that whole "field of white" thing it had going. Obviously this was problematic if in fact you weren't trying to surrender, or alternately, if you were, since the Union folks wouldn't be able to tell right off whether you were giving up or fixin' to stab them with your bayonets, so they'd be better off shooting you just to be sure.

So out comes a third flag, which, unfortunately for the Confederacy, came out just about the time the Confederacy was imploding from total loserness and teetering on the cusp of non-existence. Shortly thereafter, another flag flew at the Confederate capital, Richmond, and other points south: The flag of the United States of America. And personally I'm hard-pressed not to see that as a vast improvement.

Given the voluminous evidence of the total loser-osity of the Confederacy, you'll understand why every time I get a letter from someone proclaiming the Confederate flags to be a positive symbol, I just get flummoxed. Frankly, it's difficult to think of any flags anywhere at any point in time that are as steeped in complete failure on as many social, cultural and political levels as these are. It's just so damn sad that people are still out there trying to delude themselves otherwise.

The only explanation I can come up with that makes any sense is that certain people from the south simply cannot think rationally about the Confederate flags, much in the same way that certain otherwise totally rational Christians freak out about the fact they're descended from stooped, hooting proto-primates just like the rest of us. It's a blank spot in their brain in which they choose not to allow thought of any sort.

Fine. As I've said before, if you want to believe that the Confederate flags represent anything but an evil and ultimately pathetically inept institution, and all the consequent stupidity that followed through its use by segregationists, morons and demagogic flag wavers who'd rather rile up the easily excitable than actually make the South a better place for all its citizens, then by all means go right ahead. We'll agree to disagree.

But please don't write to me saying that the meaning of the Confederate flag has changed or should change. Short of wiping out the history of the Confederacy itself and pretending it never existed, this isn't going to happen. The Confederate flag a symbol of evil, and like most symbols of evil it's much better used as a reminder of the damage evil can do, than it is as a misplaced symbol of pride.

The Confederate flags are the symbols of losers, and those who glorify losers. I really wouldn't have it any other way.

Posted by john at 08:24 PM | Comments (15)

November 04, 2002

Vote, Independent

If you are over the age of 18, a US citizen, and you're not voting on Tuesday, you are a stinky stinky moron, and my response, should I ever hear you bitch about the government of the United States, will be to laugh like a drunken horse right in your face. If nothing else, taking a few minutes out of your day to vote will entitle you to two to six years of unmitigated kvetching about your system of government. Talk about a return on your investment.

If you are under the age of 18, not a US citizen, and are voting on Tuesday -- well, that's just no good for anyone. Go shoot some pool or something.


I vote. Almost as important, I am politically independent. I've always been registered as an independent. Part of this is due to my contrarian nature regarding joining any organization; once you join something, the people in it start wanting you to do things with them. The next thing you know, your weekends and Wednesday evenings are given over to bake sales and irritating rallies and stuffing envelopes until your fingers are sausage-shaped agglomerations of paper cuts. When I die, I can guarantee you that my list of regrets won't include not spending more time doing any of those things. Probably the only organization I see myself joining at some point is the PTA, although that will be exclusively a preventative measure, to head off any attempts to ban Huck Finn or the Harry Potter books before someone has to haul in the local branch of the ACLU, and my tax dollars go to pay lawyers rather than to educate my child.

But part of it is due to the fact I dislike political parties. This is usually for one or more of the following three reasons: Their overall platforms, their tenuous relationship to the actual principles of democracy, and their general emphasis on getting an agglomeration of their kind elected rather than finding the best representatives of the people that those representatives are supposed to elect. Some parties set me on edge more than others -- I've never made any secret that I distrust the GOP to such an extent that I tend to think that people who register Republican have some sort of unfortunate brain damage that keeps them from thinking clearly -- but to be clear, I don't like any of them. Ultimately political parties are about someone else telling me how I should exercise my franchise, based on the idea that they've got so many other people planning to vote the same way. Or to put it another way: "50 million Dubya fans can't be wrong!" Well, yes, they can.

The one fly in the ointment here is that generally speaking enough people do register for and support political parties (specifically the Republicans and the Democrats) that here in the US those are the flavors you get when it comes to election day; indeed, over the history of my voting, I don't think I've ever voted for someone who wasn't of one or the other party (despite my general paranoid suspicion of the GOP, I have voted for Republicans in the past and would do it again in the future if -- as in the past -- there were compelling reasons to do so. See, that's what being independent is all about). Certainly tomorrow I'll be voting for candidates from those parties. But as is often the case, it's not so much that I'm voting for a particular candidate as voting against another, and putting my defensive vote into a bin where it can do the most good. This set-up is hardly my fault. The problem isn't that I'm not part of a political party, it's that so many other people are.

Look at this way: If you registered as an independent, more candidates would have to think independently and focus on what actually works for their constituency -- an actual representative democracy rather than one where the parties offered their candidates just enough leeway from the party platform not to alienate the voters in their district. Political races would get proportionately less "soft money" from the outside world, meaning the would-be politicians would have to actively engage in grass-roots campaigning, which again means the candidates would have to be more responsive to the needs of the constituency.

There'd be less political triangulation in the primary season, in which moderate editions of political party candidates get the bounce to appease the hard-line nutbags that constitute the political baggage of both parties -- or are bounced through the maneuverings of the other party, which is hoping to for an opposing candidate that alienates the maximum number of moderate voters. Party politics would also enter far less into the sausage-grinding process of law-making, since the concern the lawmakers would have is whether they're pleasing the people back home, not the party. We'd see ever-shifting alliances of politicians, based on specific issues, rather than an inflexible platform that grown men and women have to be politically "whipped" into adhering.

Where's the downside here? Is there a real downside to the end, not only of the two major political parties, but to all political parties altogether? Certainly not for the individual. You can still have your own political beliefs, you know. You can still be a "pro-choice" card-carrying member of the ACLU without being a Democrat; you can still be a "pro-family values" gun-toting member of the NRA without being a Republican; you can still be "pro-polyamory" Ayn Rand-worshiping dateless freak without being a Libertarian. And you wouldn't have to put those little cardboard signs on your lawn every two years.

Just think about it the next time you go to register. If you really want better political discourse in this country, do it by making the politicians listen to you and your neighbors, not your party affiliation. Vote independent. Hell, the reduction in political junk mail as you're taken off the party mailing list will be worth it alone.

Posted by john at 08:32 PM | Comments (6)