The disaster that is the Trump White House, and why he will be impeached: Part I

I can't write about the Trump Whitehouse in one blog post. There is way too fucking much information out there to discuss. So, I'll try and set up a more detailed post with this one first:

I want to state a few things regarding my expectations of Trump and the potential for cooperation and coordination with Russia. 

1) I didn't like Trump then, and I sure as hell don't like him now. I voted for Hilary in the general, and Bernie in the primary. Neither candidate would be my ideal candidate, but I don't know anyone who would be. In any event, I was never on board with Trump being president. Having said that...

2) ...I hoped like hell his campaign didn't do anything regarding collusion and/or cooperation with Russia, nor did I hope Trump would fail as president. Either of these scenarios are damning to America's reputation, and the average American certainly doesn't win when its president fails. Expecting him to fail because he is utterly unqualified and clearly unfit, isn't the same as hoping and/or wanting failure.

3) I really thought the Russia story would never directly link to Trump, even though I believed Russia was doing nefarious things (DNC and RNC hacks for example). I honestly and sincerely thought in the run-up to and the days following the election, that the story would be Russia tried to interfere, but didn't directly coordinate or collude with Trump's camp. Don't get me wrong, I was on board with the analysis of our intelligence agencies at the time that concluded that Russia was behind things like the DNC hack. What I didn't think would be true is that Trump and his gaggle of wannabe mobsters would actually be stupid enough to try and con America right before the very eyes of the entire world, not to mention while right under the noses of the best intelligence agencies in the world who are literally looking around the clock for such nefarious activities from our enemies.

Life, as it turns out, is very often stranger than fiction, but I am getting ahead of myself. I am going to make this first part of the Trump Camp/WH/Russia story in 3 points. But, to start:

What were the first glimpses of something being amiss with respect to Trump?

The evidence came rather early in the whole process as it turns out. After all, it's pretty obviously interesting and noteworthy when someone begins to vehemently deny that which they were so proud of only a short time before and had been bragging about wanting to do for literally decades (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-business-sought-deal-on-a-trump-tower-in-moscow-while-he-ran-for-president/2017/08/27/d6e95114-8b65-11e7-91d5-ab4e4bb76a3a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1498dd88dd04). In fact, lies just like this regarding his business deals in Russia appear to have been the onus for Glen Simpson and Fusion GPS hiring Christopher Steele to put together his infamous dossier (and was also the reason he hired a second contractor who pursued Manafort's Ukrainian and Russian ties). You can confirm that if you like by reading through his testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-business-sought-deal-on-a-trump-tower-in-moscow-while-he-ran-for-president/2017/08/27/d6e95114-8b65-11e7-91d5-ab4e4bb76a3a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1498dd88dd04). These are extremely important points to get out of the way first, because people like Devin Nunes peddled the conspiracy for the longest time that the only reason the FBI's investigation into Trump's campaign began was because of the potential for a politically-motivated conspiracy started by the Democrats via the Steele Dossier. But the infamous memo that Nunes himself released, torpedoed that excuse when it admitted that the initial reason the FBI started its own investigation was because of a drunken campaign aide who couldn't keep his mouth shut (Papadopoulos tells Australian diplomat that Russia offered him dirt and emails on Hilary: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/30/us/politics/how-fbi-russia-investigation-began-george-papadopoulos.html). Furthermore, one can confirm via the Glenn Simpson testimony already linked, that Fusion GPS was contracted initially by GOP groups when it contracted Christopher Steele. The Democrats don't seek out the dossier until much later in the story, but it never had anything to do with the FBI starting or not starting an investigation anyways. 

 

So, to spell out the 3 initial important facts in part I of my Trump blog post:

1) Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS saw serious reason for concern with respect to Trump after even only a few days of searching for publicly-available news online when they first started their opposition research. This led Simpson to seek out contractors to pursue leads and rumors to verify what was and wasn't likely to be true. And this all starts because GOP groups were seeking out opposition research on Trump while he was still only one of several GOP candidates. There is absolutely nothing odd about a political party doing opposition research on their own candidates. Anything that they find, their opponents are likely to find too. So, if you know what you're getting into in advance with respect to a specific candidate in the event that they win your party's nomination, all the better. The GOP doing this was a smart move, but only if they took the information and warning signs seriously. Hopefully it is clear that many of us do not believe that they did, but there may be an unfortunate explanation for that too (blackmail anybody? Quick power grab? Arrogance? I'll discuss later on and more in a subsequent blog post). 

2) We already have listed confirmed evidence of lies by specific members of the Trump campaign and the GOP. For example, Nunes knew it was untrue that the FBI started its investigation because of the Steele dossier, his own memo confirms this to be a lie because his memo acknowledges the actual reason was a drunk Papadopoulos. Trump and his camp initially denied any and all contacts with any Russians, but we have 4 people directly connected with Trump who have either pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about having met with Russians or people directly connected to Russians (Flynn, Papadopoulos, Pinedo, Van Der Zwaan: https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/national-international/Guilty-Pleas-Muellers-Probe--475015953.html), or have later admitted to having "forgotten" about these conversations and/or the subject of the meetings/conversations (Sessions, Trump Jr., Manafort, just to name a few). Trump Jr and the NY tower meeting, is probably the best and most well-documented example with a well-documented follow-up that implicates Donald Trump in obstructing justice. We know Trump Jr knew that what was being offered was "dirt on Hilary" for that meeting with a lawyer directly connected to the Kremlin, and we also have confirmations that his initial lie about the meeting being about "Russian adoptions" was constructed in the presence of his father, if not dictated directly by him at least in part (this would be Trump engaging in obstruction of justice by helping dictate and/or encourage Trump Jr. to lie). Let's make a very generous assumption and assume that the reason that they all lied about all of these things was because they were afraid that their truly innocent conversations were for the benefit of all Americans. If this is the case, then why the hell would you hide and lie about it? Yes, I realize that the fear of being judged might be the excuse, but that is the reason for transparency and not covering things up. At the very least, it is stupid because getting caught in such situations will always lead people to assume the worst. Secondly, there is likely no way that they don't directly benefit from any of these lies with Russians and those connected to vast quantities of cash that they'd like to get their hands on (or already had gotten their hands on since Trump and Trump Jr. have acknowledged in the past that they get a lot of money from Russians and Russian banks: http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-jr-said-money-pouring-in-from-russia-2018-2). So, keeping it a secret was something they probably knew they would have to do in order to profit off of their political power, and that necessarily meant retroactively denying things they had previously mentioned, like having a lot of financial ties to Russia and mob-connected Russians. They thought they were smart enough to get away with it? I think so. I think that they believe that as long as they have enough support, and generate enough division, and generate enough distractions, the in-fighting among the American people will keep them distracted. I don't think Trump planned on firing Comey becoming such a big deal, and I certainly don't think he expected Mueller and the investigations to begin and progress so quickly. I don't know if the Trump camp thought they would get away with it in the long term, but I certainly think they believed they'd have a longer window to do whatever they wanted than they got.

3) One potentially extremely important detail mentioned casually thus far, is that the DNC were not the only ones hacked. The RNC was too. We know of no public disclosures from the RNC hack, which leads one to assume that information from it could still be used as blackmail. In addition to this, we know from video evidence that Cambridge Analytica (a firm hired by various GOP candidates, including Trump) is perfectly fine with illegal, unethical, and immoral tactics. They regularly collect and entrap politicians into blackmail for extortion purposes (admit this on tape: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/21/595470164/in-hidden-camera-expose-cambridge-analytica-executives-boast-of-role-in-trump-wi). Add onto this the growing list of Republicans and republican-leaning people in power who are retiring at the height of conservative power in the US (and maybe even in the western world considering the shift to the right in places like the UK with Brexit and the EU in general in the wake of the Great Recession. Brexit, as it turns out, may have also had its own Russian meddling and interference: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/10/russian-influence-brexit-vote-detailed-us-senate-report). People retiring isn't news in and of itself, but when people like Paul Ryan are retiring when they are in the 2nd most powerful position in the US government and their party has control of the House, Senate, and Whitehouse, one begins to wonder what would cause them to abandon the power that they have so desperately pursued over the course of their career? To me, the circumstantial evidence suggests that the core of the GOP is scared, and demoralized. Maybe it is in part because some of them are being blackmailed and directly extorted? Self-preservation is a strong instinct. Maybe some of them are afraid of what is happening to their party now that someone like Trump has assumed control? Maybe they realize that this spells political doom for them if they can't stomach backing Trump? Maybe some of them are sincerely trying to stand up for what they believe, and figure the best way of doing so is to remove the possibility that people will assume that they are only standing up and speaking out in order to get re-elected? Again, one can speculate wildly in the absence of direct evidence to validate one of these hypotheses, or some alternate explanation. People will assume the worst in the absence of direct evidence and with an abundance of circumstantial evidence. Patience may be a virtue, but it can also drive one mad when waiting on an explanation for such important issues. 

The last point I want to make in Part I, is why I think Russia is doing any and/or all of this. For the moment, I will not assume direct conspiracy with Trump and his camp. Let's make the assumption (the very generous and likely not true assumption) that Russia was acting purely on its own without the direct knowledge or willing participation of any Americans of any political affiliation (in fact, revelations from investigations into ads and posts on social media sites, show that the Russians did indeed seek out and sow division among the general population as a way of exerting influence too). What does Russia gain from any of this? Was the goal to install a Russia-Friendly (even if not Russian-controlled) government and/or president? I think that would have been too optimistic for Russia, but even more importantly, Russia would certainly have settled for much less because they can still win in various ways. Allow me to explain.

If I asked to you list off the most powerful countries and international organizations in the world, you and I would likely list the same countries and organizations. We might differ on how we rank them, but we are likely to be mostly in agreement. The US, China, the EU, the UN, NATO, Russia, the Middle Eastern States, and the former Soviet States, all have more power and wealth (and military) than the vast majority of nations and organizations not listed. Because of this, anything that improves the relative ranking of Russia on the lists of the most powerful groups and people in the world, is a win for Putin and Russia. What I mean to say is that the primary way that countries like the US lose to Russia in the pursuit of international politics, is to become more divided and chaotic. Even over the last decade, Russia has continued to find ways to place itself in important and powerful positions related to the Middle East and North Korea, but now (thanks to Trump and Brexit) there are even more serious threats to western power and authority as even trade and defense agreements with our allies (NATO, NAFTA, etc) have had their futures cast in uncertainty. This was probably beyond Putin's most realistic dreams for what he could achieve. My guess is that Putin would have settled for Hilary being elected with a Republican-controlled Congress to maintain the do-nothing approach that the GOP adopted under Obama. Even in this scenario, Putin wins. Anything that maintains, or exacerbates, the division in the US and results in less progress on political and international issues, is a win for Putin.  Putin didn't need someone like Trump to win in order to benefit, all he needed was to keep driving a wedge between the left and right in the US with the continued proliferation of propaganda. Putin and Russia have won a lot of victories in this ideological war if I am correct. The way to combat it, is to stop the stupid division and to get back to basic decent human civility.

Being a male feminist means doing what?

It seems like I see a new spat on twitter every single day related to people trying to police feminism. It is no longer a surprise to come across, but it remains frustrating. 

One thing I have not explicitly mentioned as part of my blog or bio, is that I consider myself a feminist. I don't discuss it much because as a dude, there isn't a lot of perspective I have in this conversation. I can't speak to what discrimination and stereotypes women face. In fact, I can't speak with any experience, authority, or expertise about the discrimination anyone who isn't a white male atheist wouldn't face. 

I can't tell you what it's like to be black in America. I've never been black.

I can't tell you what it's like to be a trans woman/man in the America. I've never been anything other than a cis man.

I can't tell you what it's like to be Latino/Chinese/Taiwanese/Norwegian/Italian/Nigerian/etc. I've never been anything other than an American. That's the perspective on life I possess. Literally nothing more. 

That doesn't mean I can't play a role in the feminist movement. It does not mean I can't be an ally. It does not mean I can't be part of the solution instead of the problem. But it absolutely does mean that I need to be more conscientious about what role I play.

As a man, I'm not someone who can or should be a leading voice in the feminism movement. Why? Because I am not a woman. Yes, I know that it shouldn't matter in a truly equal society, but part of the point is that our society isn't truly equal. That means that I shouldn't be looking for my voice to be the one amplified or promoted across the world in support of feminism. Instead, I need to be the one doing the supporting and the amplification. 

I want to tell 2 stories that explain why I came to this conclusion about my role in the feminist movement, and then I want to take the time to list some people, projects, and organizations that do great work for women and feminism.

The first story, was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Like a lot of people, I've been quite enraged by the way that this movement has been mischaracterized. There are so many things I can and do want to say in support of it, but that would be another blog post and again, it would be so much better for you to go read something by a black lives matter member than me. 

What the BLM movement made me realize was that I needed to stop and listen more to the people in the heart of the movement. When I did, it became apparent to me that the people criticizing it and trying to dismiss it, were not listening...at all. If I wasn't listening and was instead too busy trying to put my voice in the middle of it, I was clearly going to miss the message too. That was when it dawned on me that in my fervor to voice my opinion on any given subject, I did less listening and more talking than I should have. 

There is a deleted scene that can be seen in the director's cut of "Pulp Fiction" where Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) is recording Vincent Vega's (played by John Travolta) answers to various questions before they go out for the evening. One of the questions she asked that has always stuck with me is: "When in conversation, do you listen, or do you wait to talk?"

Vincent Vega answers the question honestly, and in a way that I realized I would also have to answer that question if I too were being honest. He says: "I wait to talk, but I'm trying to listen."

Far too often, we aren't listening and are instead waiting until people pause so we can inject our own opinions into the conversation. We assume we have something important to add, instead of asking questions to make sure we aren't about to stick our foot in our mouths. We should listen more and ask more questions.

The second story I want to tell is closer to the topic at hand. A colleague of mine was searching for jobs last year, as was I. She and I are in different fields, so we weren't competing for jobs. That made it easier for us both to discuss and voice our concerns and frustrations with the whole process.

A constant stresser for her, was how to present herself without putting too much information out in the public sphere that might be used to discriminate against and/or stereotype her. We shared a lot of similarities with respect to our personal lives in that we were both married with offspring, and we were both seeking academic jobs, but her worries were not the same as mine. What she stressed about was primarily centered around how she would be viewed as a woman and as a mom. She worried about how expectations might be different for her if she were to make too much of her personal life known. Would anyone even hire her if she dared indicate to them that she planned on spending a fair amount of time with her family? We'd love to say "no," but the truth is that some places want people to be more dedicated to the job than anything else. And yes, one might have similar worries as a man and a dad, but it would be a false equivalence to say that the discrimination and judgement men have faced in this regard is comparable to that which women have and continue to face.

At first, my reaction was to try and think of my concerns to voice to her in response. What I wanted to do was to try and say something about my experiences so as to show that I could be sympathetic and empathetic to her situation. What I realized when I started to do that though, was that it seemed condescending, patronizing, and dismissive. Those were not my intentions, but I've no doubt that is how it came across. I mean, I too worried about how I would be judged about having kids. I too worried about how I was being viewed on a personal level, but my concerns were not centered around a systemic bias against my gender identity and/or race. 

So, instead, I tried to do more listening. My colleague absolutely voiced the same concerns to other female colleagues, who could directly relate to her with similar stories of their own. I couldn't and pretending I perfectly understood her situation was more about me fooling myself than me actually understanding. The only way for me to really understand, is to listen. She wasn't asking me for advice. She wasn't telling me her concerns so I could solve any of her problems for. She wasn't stressing out and using me to bounce her concerns off of because she wanted me to be her therapist. She wanted me to listen as a friend and colleague and fellow human being. What she wanted was for me to know the bullshit she and other women have to face. This is valuable information that has helped me realize when to say something in the conversation on feminism, and when to shut the fuck up and listen (or maybe try and make supportive statements and/or jokes). 

Being an ally to a cause, does not mean being front and center of it. Would it make sense for me as a white dude to be the one promoting the Black Lives Matter movement? No, but I absolutely can support it and I can listen. I can call out the people who are erroneous about it as well as those the BLM movement is directly addressing and calling out. It isn't a movement that is about me. It is a movement that is about helping the black community attain true equality. The best way for me to help in achieving that goal, is to listen and support it and not stand in the way. That does not mean I have to blindly accept what anyone is telling me as gospel, but the default shouldn't be to assume someone is lying. When the same stories, concerns, and situations continue to arise over and over and over, that's a good sign that whatever is happening isn't just random and that people's concerns are legit.

It is literally the same for feminism. I cannot be a leader in the feminist movement. Women are the leaders of it and women need to be the leaders of it. I can support them. I can listen. I can endorse more female candidates for office, and stop pretending that their gender is relevant at all with respect to their ability to be a politician and lawmaker. I can endorse the good scientists out there who also happen to be women, but not make their science about their gender. If I want to help the feminist movement, there are 2 ways I see myself being helpful:

1) promote women and organizations that support feminism and equality

2) call out the sexists and misogynists when I see it

What I shouldn't do, is try to:

1)  make feminism about me

2) say "but not all men are like that." We know. There are almost always exceptions to the rules. If you're not one of the guys being criticized, then the women are not talking to you or about you. If you can't help but say "not all men do X" in response, then they are talking about you because YOU made it about you. (this is also a more general pet peeve of mine. If I am talking about brachiopods and I say "well, brachiopods are mostly epifaunal" and some jackass says "but they're not all epifaunal," I am always tempted to throw things in the direction of their head. I know, I actually have a fair amount of expertise with respect to brachiopods and, check this, women have a pretty damn good idea about what it means to be a woman. Ain't that something?)

So, since I am not a person to look to for leadership or help with being a woman in the US, the best thing I can do is point you to people and organizations who are. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is what I see as the best way to end this blog post:

There are the obvious people and organizations that hopefully most of you have heard of (various congresswomen like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Duckworth, Planned Parenthood, The View, etc, etc). What I want to do is list those you may not be aware of:

The Bearded Lady Project (http://thebeardedladyproject.com) From their site: "The Bearded Lady Project" is a documentary film and photographic project celebrating the work of female paleontologists and highlighting the challenges and obstacles they face.

Women in Science and Engineering (WISE; https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk) From their site: WISE enables and energises people in business, industry and education to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG; http://www.awg.org). From their site: There are thousands of women in the geosciences today, both students and professionals, who are looking for ways to enhance their experiences as a geoscientist! AWG provides financial support, professional development and leadership opportunities, and advocates on behalf of women geoscientists across the globe. Join or renew your 2018 membership today and help AWG SUPPORT you.

As for people, I am going to list those who have either mentored me, and/or those who you can easily find on twitter who are part of the intelligent conversation about feminism and science in general (note, I can't list everyone. I'll list those I am the most familiar with and/or have interacted the most with, which includes my academic and research advisors for my professional career):

Dr. Ann Holmes (Stratigrapher and professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)

Dr. Linda Ivany (Paleontologist and professor at Syracuse University)

Dr. Lisa Park (Paleontologist, professor, and director of the Center for Integrative Geosciences at the University of Connecticut)

Dr. Phoebe Coehn (Paleontologist and professor at Williams College; @PhoebeFossil)

Maggie Haberman (New York Times Journalist; @MaggieNYT)

Dr. Sarah Myhre (Climate scientist; @SarahEMyhre)

OnNoSheTwitnt (twitter user; @OnNoSheTwitnt)

Rabia O'Chaudry (Attorney and host of the "Undisclosed" podcast; @rabiasquared)

Jaynie's Got a Bun (twitter user; @FreeGirlNowNYC)

Courtney Heard (the Godless mom twitter user; @godless_mom)

Dr. Danielle E. Lee (Mammalogist and maintains a blog at Scientific American; @DNLee5)

Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (Ecologist and professor at the University of Maine; @JacquelynGill)

Dani Rabaiotti (PhD student at UCL and co-author of "Does it fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence; @DaniRabaiotti)

Sofia Rune (twitter user; @sofiarune)

Julie Blommaert (PhD student focusing on evolution; @Julie_B92)

 

Listen to women. Listen to people of color. Listen to trans people. Listen to those who are not like you. Listen to understand. Don't just sit there and wait to say your piece. It isn't about you. If you honestly listen to them to try and understand and help, they will respond in kind. Trust me.

10 questions an atheist can't answer?

I saw someone post their own responses to these questions on Twitter this morning, and I thought that it could be a good idea for a blog post of my own. So, I'll tackle these questions that originate from this youtube video titled: "10 questions an atheist can't answer." (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvJyHD2sF4g).

 

Let's dive right in.

1) Does science answer everything?

One thing I am obviously going to have to keep saying as I look through the questions really quickly, is that a big issue here is (surprise, surprise) the person asking these questions makes a lot of assumptions rather than actually seeking answers to these questions. In fact, it becomes painfully obvious from reading even just this first question, that this is a person who would rather make incorrect assumptions based off of poor understanding of the definitions of words.

Science is one of 2 things. First and foremost, it is the method/process of inquiry you learned as the "scientific method" in school. The scientific method is a bit more complex when actually employing it, because things often don't go exactly to plan. A method/process doesn't answer anything. It can't. It is something that is done by a human who seeks to use the method/process to answer specific questions. You can't ignore the role humans play in the scientific process.

Secondly, science is also used to refer to the collective body of knowledge attained via the scientific method, and this must be what the question is trying to base itself off of. In that sense, science is a body of knowledge about what is and isn't evidentially supported, as well as which ideas have been shown possible and which have effectively been disproven. Science as a collective body of knowledge, is never and has never been static. As a result, one should never expect "science" to answer any and every question out there. Humans answer questions, and one way of trying to do so is to use the scientific method.

Why? Well, for starters, there are such things as stupid questions. Your teacher lied to you when they said there are none, but it was a white lie intended to encourage students to ask questions and participate in class. In reality, there really are stupid questions and they are almost always stupid because they display a profound lack of knowledge about a subject such that the question is either nonsensical, or displays an incorrect assumption within the question that would need to be addressed first. This list has a lot of stupid questions, because a lot of these questions would have very obvious answers if the person asking them would even look up the definitions of words they use within them. 

To stick with this question as an example, the list is "10 questions atheists can't answer," but being an atheist does not mean that someone is a scientist or even an admirer of science by default. What then is the relevance of the question with respect to atheism? 

Furthermore, I've never seen an atheist or a scientist ever claim that scientists (and the collective body of scientific knowledge) answer every question we (humanity) have asked. So, why even ask this question? Who is claiming science has all the answers? If science didn't exist as a process, that doesn't make any other answer/response to a question/problem correct by default. That's not how logic works.

I'll give you an example. Let's say my car doesn't start one morning. Frustrated, I storm back inside and mention it to my wife as I grab the keys to the other car to go up to the auto parts store and have my battery tested.

My wife says to me: "I bet it won't start because of gremlins."

I dismiss this because, it's fucking nutty. I grab the battery, drive up to the auto parts store, and they test the battery and it's fine. My hypothesis that the battery is the issue, is now incorrect. Does my wife's hypothesis of gremlins become any more likely by default now that I have ruled out my battery being the issue? 

Hell no. In order to assert that gremlins are the likely culprit, I still need actual evidence or reason to conclude that gremlins are even possible to exist in order to be able to find evidence or reason that they are the culprit for my specific problem. I can't simply assert or assume another response to a question/problem is true because I currently lack the evidence to prove what the actual answer is to said question/problem. There are so many other things that could cause my car to not start that I know are possible and plausible because we have evidence that they can inhibit a car from starting (my starter motor, a seized engine, no gas, bad fuel pump, the electronic control module, etc, etc). 

So, even if science as a method/process can't answer a given question, that doesn't mean anything with respect to whether or not religion is or isn't true, or whether or not a god(s) does or doesn't exist. 

What does the color "purple" taste like? Science can't answer that question. Does that mean science is flawed? Or does that mean the question is stupid? In this case, the question is stupid. 

There are other questions that we don't have answers to within science that are theoretically things we might be able to answer. In many cases, the lack of answers is due to one or more of several different factors. In some cases, we simply don't have the technology to answer the questions, or we may not have the samples we need. For example, it is possible life exists elsewhere in the universe, but our ability to explore space and seek answers to the question of life elsewhere in the universe, is limited by our ability to traverse it.

Another example would be the origin of life on Earth. We have hypotheses about how it could have originated, but finding samples of rock and minerals from the earliest portions of Earth history has proven difficult, and in some cases impossible because of how the minerals and rocks have been altered over the course of the last 4.5 billion years. This is because the Earth recycles rocks and minerals via plate tectonics. The rocks and minerals from the earliest portions of Earth's history, have mostly been destroyed. That makes it very difficult to answer questions about the early Earth and the potential for life on it. So, we can't always ask and answer the questions we want due to a lack of samples needed to sufficiently answer the questions. This isn't the fault of science as a method, it is a consequence of how the universe works. The universe does not operate in a manner that is intended to make it convenient for us to live in. The universe is indifferent to us. In fact, it isn't a conscious entity with the capacity to give a shit about us. The universe wasn't made for us, and it wasn't made with us in mind. We adapted to the universe because we evolved in the universe.

What people need to remember about science is that it is a process that was constructed by and used by humans. It will always be limited (as a process) by whatever limits us as a species.

2) Why do atheists care if people worship God?

This is another good example of a question with a bad assumption in it. Whatever you consider yourself (theist, atheist, christian, buddhist, etc), can you answer for all members of that group? No? Well, of course you can't.

One thing you can do, if you are part of a religion, is point to a holy book, dogma, laws, customs, and traditions that are part of your religion. This allows people to understand at least some of the basics of your belief system, and allows for some generalizations about the beliefs of people who adhere to this religion. Someone who tells me they are a christian, for example, has given me enough info for me to safely assume they believe the Bible is accurate and worthy of being followed. I may not know their specific beliefs on a given topic, but I know enough to make some assumptions.

What then can one assume about an atheist by knowing they are an atheist? Well, we have no dogmas. There are no atheist traditions. Nor are there atheists rules, laws, or customs. There is no set of beliefs or ideas that atheists share. Nor are there life experiences we all have in common. Some of us are formerly religious, some of us were never introduced to religion. There is literally no way for an atheist to tell you why another atheist does or doesn't care if anyone worships a god. If you want to know that, you need to ask the specific atheist you want to answer the question. That atheist most definitively can answer the question though. To prove that, I'll answer it.

I don't give a shit if people do or don't worship and/or believe in a god(s). It's of no consequence to me what other people do or don't believe. What is an issue, is when people believe that they have a right or mandate to coerce others to believe as they do, and/or force others to abide by their religion's rules, laws, customs, and traditions. If you are a Catholic and you truly believe that the wine turns to blood and the hostia (the Jesus cracker) literally turns into Jesus' body when you take the sacrament, that has no effect on me. I don't care. It has no bearing on my life.

If you believe that a fetus is the same thing as a viable human being and you therefore consider yourself to be pro-life (in this case, I explicitly mean "anti-abortion"), then I expect you'll avoid having an abortion if faced with that choice. Again, this would have no direct impact on my life, only your own. BUT, if you think that your religious reasoning for your pro-life (anti-abortion) stance is something I, or anyone else, should adhere to, and therefore you think that your religious beliefs are something that other people should be required to adhere to, you have now crossed a line. What you do with your life, is your business as long as you are not involuntarily forcing your life and beliefs on other people. You do not have the right to tell other people what to do or how to believe. 

So, why do some atheists (like myself) choose to speak out against some christians in the US? Why do we appear to care about their beliefs? Because people are always trying to force us (and others) to adhere to them. I'd be just as outraged if a Muslim tried to make me adhere to Islamic traditions, or a Jew told me I had to adhere to their dietary laws. In the US, Muslims and Jews aren't often the religious groups trying to force their religion on the rest of us (but it does happen: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/534/a-not-so-simple-majority).

I don't care what people do or don't believe. I do care if people want to force their beliefs onto others. If you are a christian, and you choose to lead a christian life, I truly don't care. By all means, go ahead. I wish you the best and hope you'll be happy. What I won't do is accept you trying to coerce others to believe as you do or act as you do. 

3) Can nothing create something?

We find ourselves with the first truly redundant question in this list. How does this question differ from the first? If we can't answer this question, that does not mean a default religious answer is possible.

What we do know about the universe and the origin of it, is that there has never truly been "nothing." As long as there has been time, everything that exists has existed. Not in the same state as it exists now, mind you. In fact, experiments show that the earliest portions of the Universe's history are very bizarre indeed. 

The simple truth about the origin of space and time (the origin of the universe as we know and understand it), is that there is a lot about it we will never know with 100% certainty because we can only look backwards at the evidence and the range of possibilities the evidence suggests. 

I once heard being a paleontologist described as "like being a detective, except the evidence has been left out in the rain for millions of years."

This is the same issue that astronomers and physicists face in trying to learn about the early universe. The evidence we have, is limited, as is our ability to collect and interpret it. Not knowing definitive answers to a question, does not mean that we can never answer them, nor does it mean that anyone else claiming to have an answer to the question is telling you the truth. Sure, religions typically proclaim to have an answer to the questions about how the universe originated, but these attempts to answer the question are not evidentially substantiated. They are assumptions based off of their religious beliefs. Someone assuming their religion is correct about the origin of the universe, doesn't actually mean they are. Even if science doesn't have a definitive answer to the same questions.

4) How do you know that God doesn’t exist?

The same way I know Big Foot doesn't exist, I have no evidence of it despite all of the claims made by those who truly believe it exists. Every time I have been shown "evidence" for a god claim, it has failed to actually be evidence that the god claim is valid. 

What typically happens is that people will give me evidence of what they believe, but not that what they believe is true. You might believe that mushrooms are the perfect pizza topping, but telling me that doesn't make it so, nor does it mean I will accept your opinion as fact. 

To pick a religious example, people often cite miracles as "evidence" of their god(s). When someone cites a miracle, they are literally saying "here is a phenomenon that happened and no one knows why it happened, but because I believe in a god(s), I choose to believe it was a supernatural occurrence and therefore a miracle." In order to cite something as a miracle, you'd have to actually show me that it is a suspension of the natural order and could only have occurred if a god(s) exist(s) and is capable of interfering in our universe. Assuming that must be true because you and/or others can't conceive of a natural explanation for something, is the definition of an argument from ignorance. (which is something I have already described, but didn't formally name. Not knowing an answer to a question, does not mean any given assumption is true by default)

The reason this is a logical fallacy, is because one cannot prove the nonexistence of something that does not and has never existed (nor could one prove that a nonexistent event didn't occur). By definition, something that does not exist (or an event that did not occur), will have no evidence to demonstrate its existence. So, all one could do is point to a paucity of evidence for its existence in support of an argument rejecting it. You can't find positive proof of nonexistence, that is a contradiction. What evidence would prove Big Foot is impossible? I mean, we can point to people who have clearly fabricated evidence and show that the only "evidence" of Big Foot is suspect, but that doesn't disprove the concept of Big Foot. It might very well still exist because an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are a lot of species (both extant and extinct) that have certainly not yet been described by scientists. They must exist, even though we've no evidence of their existence. All we can do is discuss them once we have the evidence of them. Until then, they remain unknown and therefore appear to us to not exist. I have never seen any such evidence to show a god(s) is even possible. I have seen evidence that there are species that exist that we don't yet know about, because we literally describe new species every single year. No evidence has ever been put forth to show any gods are possible.

5) What is the origin of life?

Our second redundant question. This does not differ from questions 1 or 3. Again, atheism is not synonymous with science.

6) Where does our morality come from?

Morality is a fascinating subject and probably should have its own blog post. So, I'll be brief here. Morality is something I see as subjective, and something that evolves at both the individual and societal level. I'd define morality as a social behavior similar to altruism where people collectively agree upon a way of living with one another without harming others involuntarily so as to attain a mutually beneficial relationship. We obviously don't all agree on everything, nor do our morals remain static through time. This doesn't make an action in the past immoral by default for that instance in time it occurred, even if we'd deem it to be immoral by today's standards. That's what makes certain examples so interesting, because we can clearly see examples where people are pointing out the immorality of an action or belief, but society isn't ready to give it up yet. Slavery is one such example. It's pretty easy today to find people who agree that slavery is immoral, but you'd have found people on both sides of the fence in the mid-1800's. By today's moral standards, those arguing in favor of slavery would be deemed wrong. By the moral standards of those advocating against slavery at the same time, they would have been deemed wrong. The defenders of slavery saw themselves as being morally just, but their arguments were not universally convincing, nor were they objectively correct. As such, that immoral practice has been left in our past. 

7) If you had evidence of God, would you become a Christian?

Let's assume that I have evidence that shows that the Christian version of god, specifically, exists. Sure, I'd probably become a christian again. As I have said previously, I've never seen such evidence and as a former Christian, I have certainly looked. 

8) Why are there no observable transitional forms in the present?

As a paleontologist, this question almost infuriates me. Literally every species that has ever existed, is a transitional form between its ancestors and descendants (unless it is a species that left no descendants because it went extinct). Some are more obvious as they contain adaptations and morphological structures that demonstrate direct ancestral relationships, and subtle evolutionary changes. 

I could list a ton of fossils here, but I'll limit myself to 3 examples

1) Tiktaalik: a lobe-finned fish that shows the transition from fully aquatic fish, to increasingly more terrestrial habitats as the ancestor to amphibians, reptiles, and mammals is a fish. In a certain sense, we are all still fish.

2) The evolution of horses from small (dog-sized) forest-dwelling animals with 3 toes, to larger 2-toed species, to the modern single-toed horse that prefers grassy plains (although interestingly, modern horses still have the remnants of those toes: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/laelaps/long-lost-horse-toes-found/)

3) Whales show a transition from a terrestrial/semi-aquatic ambush predator (similar in shape and strategy to an alligator) with 4 legs that could walk on land, to fully marine species with severely reduced hind limbs and no ability to walk on land or even support their own weight out of the water. 

9) Do you live according to what you believe or what you lack in belief?

I live according to what I believe, and that has nothing to do with my atheism as "atheism" only describes what I don't believe with respect to god claims. The label of "atheist" has become necessary due to the commonness of religious beliefs. This is a subject I discussed in my "Why atheist?" blog post. 

10) If God does not exist, will you not lose your soul when you die?

Since souls are also not real things, no. Nothing can happen to something that doesn't exist. When I die, I will cease to be. My body will persist for some amount of time after my death, but it too will eventually be completely destroyed and the elements that comprise it will be recycled back into the surrounding environment. No part of me will survive my death, because that is how death works.

Guns and statistics

A few years ago I started another blog titled "Scientosis," but I didn't keep it up for very long. In that short time, I wrote an article about guns based around a video from a pro-gun advocate to highlight how statistics are used and misused in the gun debate, and how bad logic flourishes because of it. In light of the recent renewal of the gun debate, I have opted to post that blog article again, with some alterations to update and improve it.

 

Mark Twain once said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."  Twain is someone I greatly admire but this one of the few times a quote of his fails.  It is certainly true that people use statistics to mislead, manipulate, and...well...lie.  But the point is that if you know what to look for and what question is being asked, it is possible to tease out facts from opinion and separate poor from good ideas.  The statistics don't lie, but the people using or misusing them might.  

There is another reason why I want to discuss statistics, and it is due to the issue of polls leading up to the 2016 election. The majority of these polls showed Hilary Clinton (D) with a strong lead for much of the lead-up to Election Day, and her loss caused quite a surprise to those of us who watched the polls. Polls are indications of what a subsample of the population believes at a given point in time, but are not actual predictors of the future. In addition to this, polls of public opinion will also necessarily have some amount of error because these polls are conducted on small sample sizes. Meaning that a 1,000 randomly chosen participants should (if truly random) reflect more or less the sentiments of the population at large, but polls are often not truly random. There are a variety of reasons for this, and most of them are benign. For example, if one conducts a phone survey for a poll, this relies upon the people you call to have a phone and to answer calls from unknown numbers. Internet polls can easily be manipulated by people voting numerous times. And often times the pollsters may select a targeted demographic or region to poll, and that region may not reflect the country as a whole. If you want a good recommendation for a blog/website to get more information about statistics and polls in general, try Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com. 


I have pondered how to best present my argument on guns and statistics and I realized it might be best to do it with this video on gun rights.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ooa98FHuaU0


I'll start off by saying that whatever your opinions and views are on this issue, the point is to analyze what he is saying and how.  You can make up your own mind as whether or not to amend our current set of laws, but using arguments like those he makes are going to put you in a position of being a manipulative and dishonest individual arguing partial truths so as to further an agenda. (I'll add to this as I update the post to say that in the wake of the Parkland, FL school shooting, I don't think we can sit back in good conscience any longer and do nothing. We must start standing up to these bad arguments and let facts inform our decisions.)


So, here are the basic points of what I have found wrong with what he is saying, and I recommend you watch the video before reading my blog post that follows as I will directly address things said therein.


First off, he starts off with points I can agree with. That there are other factors that must be considered, but he digresses quickly.



Comparing 2 years, rather than trends. He compares 1992 and present. Only comparing 2 years worth of data is misleading because crime rates can spike and drop on a year to year basis. What matters is the overall trend over the course of several years. There is a reason no one just looks at 2 years worth of data when making comparisons between other countries and between states.  The same is true for comparing other sets of data like temperature and climate in the climate change debate.  If you only compare averages, and/or maxes and mins for any 2 years of your choosing, you could make an argument for stasis, decreasing temperatures, increasing temperaures or indeed anything you want.  The point is that longer term trends must be evaluated over more than what would equate to 2 data points (2 years worth of data).



Metropolitan areas are high concentration areas of people where crime rates should be expected to be higher.  It is not just gun violence and it is not just the US where this is the case.  Or indeed only modern times.


This is for 2 reasons: First, increased frequency of people interacting with one another means more opportunity for a crime to occur. Basically what I am saying is that when there is more opportunity, there are more occurences of some rare thing. If you only go out into the forest for an hour looking for a rare species, you may never see it. But if you set up a camera and leave it out for a year, your chances increase exponentially.

The second is poverty level and average incomes. Low-income areas are also larger and more populated in Metropolitan areas, and cities have an overall greater disparity between income levels. In rural areas, there are fewer high-income families and fewer low-income families overall. The differences between rural and urban America is also connected to the overall wealth of the areas, and things like the price of basic commodities, such as housing costs. Basically, your money goes farther in rural areas than in metropolitan areas because things are almost always much cheaper there. A $20,000 salary in New York City is very low income and not feasible to live off of because of the price of commodities like gas, milk, bread, transportation, rent, etc. In rural areas (like where I grew up in TN), the price of these commodities is much lower. Getting a cheap car is pretty easy. Wal-Marts are frequent for low cost shopping. So, living off of $20,000 is much more reasonable (rent is ridiculously low in areas like that whereas you may not be able to find an apartment in New York for $20,000 a year)


The "true trouble spots" when looking at a neighborhood by neighborhood basis is also not surprising. Bet it is highest in low income areas. And there are more of those in metropolitan areas. These are ignored by everyone because there is no quick fix for them. It can only come from improvement of those areas from within. One thing these areas need is better access to education. Part of solving that problem means investing in the school systems in these areas, a plan that is contra to what the current Secretary of Education (Betsy DeVos) wants to do. This is why so many people highlight her plans as being inherently racist because her policies would favor taking resources away from schools that are disproportionately diverse compared to the US population at large. 


"Who is working on improving that." That is why people want universal healthcare in the US. Reducing the cost of basic commodities is highly valuable to these communities and improving the quality of the education can have a big impact too.


How do you improve the lives of the lowest income portion of the population? Man that's a tough question. I have already said education twice, but what else could you do? I don't know the answer to that.


Can you even do it in the short-term? Quick-fixes rarely work for any extended period of time, and we need long-term fixes.


Education is key. Improve education overall and you improve the ability for people to access a wider array of stable career opportunities. What people want aren't just good paying jobs, but jobs with stability and benefits. It is not unreasonable to ask corporations (making record profits) to pay their employees enough money to live off of such that the taxpayer isn't the one subsidizing their basic cost of living. To make this clear, I'll give an example: someone who works and is on food stamps is not being paid enough by their employer. What that means is that your tax dollars are going to feeding that person so that they can go to work at a job where they are underpaid. You are subsidizing corporate profits via your taxes so that someone can eat.


I don't know of anyone that has said the US has a lower crime rate than England. He is cherry-picking what he is saying here and building a bit of a straw-man.


The murder rate is still lower in the UK. He seems to want to dismiss this. Isn't that what he is criticizing everyone else of? He is not giving a suggestion as to why their murder rate is lower, but I have a guess I will get to in a second.


Gun crime is lower. I think this is what most people are saying instead of just crime overall.
Yes, the UK has more violent crime, but that may be due to something I have already mentioned, and that is that the UK has fewer metropolitan areas, but it also has a lower population:
Percent of Americans living in Urban and suburban areas = 82%
Percent of UK residents living in urban and suburban areas = 90% http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/...ing-cities

Crime occurs in metropolitan areas at a higher perceived rate than rural areas (something he said too) and more UK citizens live in metropolitan areas, so it would be expected for crime rates to be higher, regardless of gun laws. But murder rate is lower even though that too should be higher in metropolitan areas. So, the UK seems to have that figured out. Basically, less access to highly efficient murder weapons means lower murder rates. So the total number of metropolitan areas is not what is important, he is cherry picking again.

Crime rates in European nations have dropped too over a similar time frame. That means that the global economy is likely a major contributor, so nothing happening in the US is unique as far as dropping crime rates.


Gun crime has gone up 4-fold since they amended their gun laws, but that is a false positive in a way.  It is true that those numbers have gone up, but they have gone up in the same way you would expect to see crime rates go up because you hire more cops.  There is not really more crime, just more people getting caught.  Think of it like this, you live on a road where the speed limit is and has been 35 mph for as long as anyone can remember, and then one day it is changed to 15 mph.  Are the number of speeding tickets going to increase or decrease?  They will increase because the restictions have been tightened making it easier to be considered in violation of the law, and you have a generation of people who are not comfortable with the recent chances yet.


Another part of the puzzle that needs to be addressed is the frequency of mass shootings. The US is a statistical anomaly there too with a rate higher than other European nations.


Yes, the politicians have an agenda. So do the politicians on the pro-gun side. The point is that it is important to look through that agenda. I don't have cable. I don't watch the pundits. I would have been right on his side pretty much right up to the Newtown incident. Having a kid and being an hour away from something like that will quickly change your perception of such issues.


When has the media been honest about anything anyways? They oversimplify on pretty much every issue because the people watching are not smart enough to understand all of the metrics. What is even more important (perhaps) about modern media is that we are so focused on speed when it comes to reporting, that people often fail to continue to follow news stories to see what may or may not have changed. What is reported first, is not always accurate. If you couple that with the blending of fact-based news reporting and political opinion, you get a television program that conflates opinions with facts. This makes it exceptionally tough for those consuming the information to differentiate between the 2, and that may be nearly impossible for people to do if they rely on a singular media organization for their news.


He cherry picks data at the very end of his own video, committing something he is accusing everyone else of. He uses 2011 only, not the 2000's or some longer period of time. Using one years worth of data is misleading (again). He also only uses rifles in homicides. The point is not that just rifles are a problem.


Solving violent crime? Who is under the delusion that they can solve violent crime? Better education can help, but it won't eliminate it.  He is building a pretty big straw-man here.  I don't know of anyone who is saying that better gun laws will cause violent crime rates to drop, but if murder rates drop and mass shootings drop, that will be a huge step forward.

Basically, he makes all the same mistakes he is accusing everyone else of. None of his arguments actually support less or no gun restriction. The US does not have a crime rate or murder rate that implies more guns equals less crime. So, what exactly is he trying to say? It can't hurt to have this many guns and this few laws? The mass shooting statistics and murder rate say otherwise.



So perhaps Twain would have been better off having said that there are three different ways of lying: saying nothing, telling an untruth, and telling only the partial truth.  This last part is concurrent with statistics in his original quote.

The Partisan Divide in rural America; Lawrence County Tennessee

Recently I began to consider how my own political opinions have shifted over the course of the last decade or so, and it caused me to wonder how my native county (Lawrence County Tennessee) has trended as well. When I first looked up the information (which one can find easily on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_County,_Tennessee), I was honestly a bit surprised by how close the 2 parties have been in sharing the vote totals in rural Tennessee. When I started looking a little closer, some interesting things began to stand out. While this is only information for 1 rural county in the Southern US, I suspect one could find very similar trends in a lot of rural America over the same timeframe. In fact, I hope this encourages people to start looking to see how their native towns and counties have trended.

 

First, I’ll start with what data I pulled and the basic statistics for Lawrence County. I only considered presidential election years, and only pulled data relevant to how people voted for president from the Wikipedia page listed previously. This will skew the data a bit because people don’t tend to vote for president in the same way they vote down ballot. In fact, even the placement of the candidates on the ballot can have an appreciable effect on how people vote (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/04/opinion/04krosnick.html). The reasoning here is that people are (hopefully) more informed about who they vote for when it comes to president than they are when voting for other positions (and also because these other candidates may run unopposed, but this isn’t an issue for the presidency). Or to put it another way, people tend to pay attention to the presidential candidates and the issues being debated but they may have little or no idea what separates candidates for other positions (how many would know the policy differences between candidates vying for City Planner for example, or some other such local position?).  

 

I only used data that extended back to 1968; this choice was based primarily on how political leanings began to shift post-Nixon (Nixon’s Southern Strategy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy; A story in the Atlantic on how the shift was felt by the Democrats: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/10/how-democrats-killed-their-populist-soul/504710/). I also picked this because of the current political climate around Trump and the fact that he may end up being one of only a few presidents to face potential impeachment.

 

The basic stats first. In general, the total number of people voting each year in Lawrence County has increased since 1968, a reflection of the growing population. In the 1968 election, there were 10,527 votes total and in 2016 there were 15,666. The population of Lawrence County in 1970 was ~29,000 and was ~42,000 in 2010 (also from the Wikipedia article). In addition to this, I made the basic assumption of a roughly linear increase in population since 1960. The reason for this was to allow for me to calculate estimates for the approximate population for each election year to use in my statistics to look at changes from election to election. The maximum of votes as a percentage of total population was in 2004 when George W. Bush (R) defeated John Kerry (D) for re-election (~41% of Lawrence County residents voted), and the minimum was ~30.5% in the in the 1972 election where Richard Nixon (R) won re-election over George McGovern (D). The average proportion of the population voting in presidential elections for Lawrence County residents is ~36% (median is ~36% as well). I also wanted to know what the change in votes (as a proportion of total population) was from election to election (how many more or how many fewer voted from one election to the next). The maximum increase was in the 1976 election where Jimmy Carter (D) defeated Gerald Ford (R); there was approximately a 7% increase in the number of people voting in that election year compared to the previous. The biggest drop in voter turnout was in 1984 as there was approximately a 7% drop in the number of people voting from the previous election; this was the year Ronald Reagan (R) won re-election over Walter Mondale (D).

 

The basic stats are pretty interesting in their own right. They tell a story of how voter enthusiasm (or lack thereof) is fairly consistent in Lawrence County as ~36% of the population turns out regularly to vote (this isn’t based on eligible voters only, this is out of the total population). What struck me as odd when I first looked at the data (prior to calculating any of these statistics), was how much of a shift there has been in the partisan divide since the 2000 election. This partisan divide reached its maximum in the 2016 election where 79.3% of the vote went to Donald Trump (R), with rival Hilary Clinton (D) garnering only 18% of the vote.

 

The reason I was interested by this initially, was because if one looks at the partisanship of Lawrence County voters prior to the 2004 election, it’s roughly evenly split with a slight bias in favor of the GOP. The GOP garners an average of ~50% of the vote from 1968 to 2000, while Democrats averaged ~43%. Compare the stats from the 2016 election again to these pre-2004 averages (calculated from the 1968 election up to and including the 2000 election). The 2016 election saw a nearly 30 percentage point increase in votes for the GOP, while the Democrats dropped ~25 percentage points. This was staggering to me. Why was the change so significant, and why did the trend seem to start post-2000? This is where I want to get into some of the more interesting trends and add in my speculation and observations about what has happened to drive this partisan wedge between rural voters.

 

Of the 9 presidential contests from 1968 to 2000, Democrats won 3 times in Lawrence County and the GOP 6 times. While that is still weighted towards the GOP, the largest gap between the 2 major parties prior to the 2004 election was 38.1% in the 1972 election. The gap in 2016, was 61.3% in favor of the GOP! Of the 3 contests the Democrats won in my dataset (the Democrats have not won in Lawrence County since the 1996 election), the biggest gap was 17.8% in the 1972 election (in favor of the Democrats), and the smallest margin of victory for the Democrats was 0.5% in the 1996 election; for the GOP the smallest margin of victory relative to the Democrats came in 1980 at 3.4%.

 

You can see a good visual representation of this in the graphs included in this blog post. The primary point is that while Lawrence County has tended to trend towards the GOP since 1968, the partisan divide was pretty even for most of that timeframe (the graph in the lower left corner shows that from 1980 to 2000, there was very little difference between the vote totals of the GOP and Democrats (0 on that graph would mean an even distribution between GOP and Dem votes). So, what happened post-2000 that started to drive this wedge? I think I have an answer, and it is probably not one a lot of people will want to hear, so bear with me.

 

On the one hand, it is tempting to point towards the sexual scandals of the Bill Clinton administration as part of the reason for this trend. Perhaps voters started to trend away from the Democrats because of it? That doesn’t really explain why the 2000 election was so close in Lawrence County (the GOP only garnered 6.7% more votes than the Democrats), and across the country in general (George W. Bush would ultimately lose the popular vote in 2000 by ~500,000 votes).

 

To me, this suggests that whatever initiated the partisan divide post-2000, was something else. One can’t blame the Clintons in other words, nor could one blame Al Gore as the shift in politics happens afterwards.

 

Before I continue, I want to note why I found the vote distribution in Lawrence County so fascinating when I first started looking at the numbers. Prior to looking up the vote totals, I would have guessed that my native county tended to lean to the political right, but I would not have guessed that the divide was so close prior to 2000. That was a bit surprising to me because I noticed a strong partisan lean to the right as a teenager, and that impression left me feeling as though the partisan lean of the county had pretty much always been strongly in favor of the GOP. My teenage years were all post-2000 though, as I started high school in the fall of 2001.

 

The year 2001 is a rather obviously important one for Americans, as it marked the greatest single terror attack on US soil carried out on September 11th of that year by Al Qaeda operatives who hijacked multiple airplanes and ultimately brought down the World Trade Center towers. I remember watching the events unfold in the classroom, I also remember that it was picture day. Since my last name begins with “B” I was one of the first to go to the gym for my picture. When I returned to my classroom, my teacher had the TV set pulled out in front of the class. This alone was nothing new as we spent most of that semester in that class watching hunting videos and playing cards (this was not a class I learned much of anything in. It was “Introduction to Construction Technologies 1” and to call it a “fuck-off” class would be an insult to “fuck-off” classes everywhere. We didn’t do shit in that class, but that is a rant for another day). That day, Mr. Garner had the television turned to CNN, and as I sat down in my seat and began to wonder what the hell was going on, the second plane flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until several years later that the full gravity of that day’s events really began to dawn on me.

 

That appears to me to mark the beginning of the political divide in my native county, as the proportion of the population voting in favor of the GOP begins to steadily climb each election year after that. The 2004 election saw a 13.5 percentage point increase in the votes the GOP received relative to Democrats. This was followed by an additional increase of 13.6 percentage points in the 2008 election, and then another 9.2% percentage points towards the GOP in 2012, and another jump in the 2016 election but this time a jump of 18.3 percentage points.

 

What the hell happened? How did a rural county where the share of people voting remains fairly constant through time, and had previously had a roughly even split between Republican and Democrat voters, shift so drastically?

 

I am going to focus primarily on 2 events, because I think they explain the majority of this shift. The first I have already mentioned, the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the 2nd is the recession of 2008. Now, you’ll have to forgive me as I am not an economist, nor am I a political scientist or military expert. I am also no psychologist, or sociologist. So, this will be the opinions of one guy who knows enough about statistics to make some informed observations, as well as my own observations and personal anecdotes. So, while I think I have a decent grasp and opinion of what may have happened, I won’t claim to be able to explain 100% of the observed trend. Life is often not that predictable, especially human behavior.

 

What I noticed as a teenager growing up in the rural south from 2001 onwards, was a trend towards a more aggressive form of political commentary. There is a saying I grew up with that it isn’t polite to discuss politics or religion, but post-2001 Lawrence County didn’t really seem to observe that. What I began to notice was that right-leaning media and commentary was on the rise and becoming more popular. One might have found just as many people watching CNN as watched Fox News prior to 2001 in Lawrence County, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone post-2001 who didn’t watch and discuss primarily the right-leaning news media.

 

Talk Radio and Fox News were extremely common, and people seemed to stop shying away from discussing both religion and politics. But, the conversations were almost always one-sided. What seemed to be happening was that if you leaned politically left in Lawrence County post-9/11, you tended to keep it to yourself. Striking up a conversation about politics with those on the more conservative end of the spectrum tended to result in extremely heated exchanges. My suspicion is that most of the left-leaning population in places like Lawrence County, figured they would ride out the conservative trend in the wake of 9/11, and maybe they would have been correct if not for the recession in 2008, but I am getting a little ahead of myself.

 

First, why would the events of 9/11 cause a shift to the political right? The explanation here seems to be to look historically at how countries react after being attacked. People seem to become more protectionist, and this protectionism manifested itself in the US as a series of wars in the Middle East.

 

Basically, we got punched in the jaw and reacted by throwing a series of haymakers in the hopes that we’d land a few and crush our enemies. They reached out and hurt us from across the world, and we wanted to respond in kind. I won’t say whether or not this was the best reaction to have or not, and in hindsight I’d say that starting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were much bigger mistakes than they were anything else. At the time I was certainly all for both wars, and you can look at how the culture around Country Music reacted in response as a gauge of just how widespread that opinion was in rural America. Patriotic songs about striking at our enemies began to become more popular, while those who spoke out against the wars were ostracized from the Country Music scene (remember the Dixie Chicks?). It is also no secret that George W. Bush played up these patriotic sentiments in the run-up to his re-election campaign (remember the 2003 picture of Bush in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln? That was very premature to say the least, but certainly drummed up support from people still angry over the lives lost in 9/11 and the subsequent wars).

 

The events of 9/11 help us explain the partisan divide up to the 2004 election, and the wars started in response to 9/11 certainly played an integral role thereafter. The next most serious event was the recession of 2008 that began under George W. Bush with the housing crisis.

 

This is where things get a bit more complex and is also where you’ll have to forgive my ignorance of economics and political science. A study by Larry M. Bartels titled “Political Effects of the Great Recession” published in November of 2013 in The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, will provide some of the basis for my opinions that follow, as well as articles I link to herein.

 

In response to a recession, the electorate tends to shift in one political direction or the other based on the perception of which party is in power. Which is to say that when the financial crisis started under George W. Bush, most Americans opted to vote in the direction of the political left in response, thus electing Barack Obama (D) in 2008. But, look at the trend in rural America as evidenced by the Lawrence County vote data. That year John McCain and the GOP got a staggering 66% of the vote compared to 32.2% in favor of Obama. So, even though the reaction to the recession seemed to be a jolt to the left, rural America seemed to stay on a more conservative-leaning track. In fact, I’d argue that most of the world trended more to the right than the left in the wake of the recession, primarily because the full effects didn’t really begin to become apparent until after Obama was elected (again, this is something alluded to in Bartels’ article). Look at what happened during the first mid-term elections of Obama’s presidency with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010. The right-leaning conservative ideology of the Tea Party was extremely popular in rural America at this time, and ultimately got a handful of politicians elected to both the House and Senate where they would begin to change the perception of the GOP to the “party of no” as the partisan divide became increasingly stronger and the use of filibusters began to explode. This article in Politico from 2015, highlights the observed trend: https://www.politico.com/story/2015/04/graphic-data-america-partisan-divide-growth-117312.

 

What that article above shows, is the loss of partisanship and political compromise. Regardless of what your political ideology is, politics are necessarily about compromise and debate. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (plus the events of 9/11 and the subsequent wars), partisanship almost seemed to die in the US. Political opinions began to become a “my way or the highway” approach as more and more advocated for their political party to get everything they wanted at the expense of the other. The Democrats lost control of Congress in the wake of the 2010 midterms, and while Obama won re-election, he found himself with a congress that was hostile towards not only his agenda, but any left-leaning agenda. The partisan politics of the conservative right (emboldened by the rise of the Tea Party), drove the wedge deeper between Democrats and Republicans.

 

Take a look at the figures here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics

 

(Edit to clarify: I incorrectly calculated the number of days the 104th Congress was in session by a year. For some reason, I calculated the number of days originally as if it only lasted until October of the same year it started its session. I have since corrected my statistics and made the necessary edits below) 

Let’s start with the 98th Congress during Reagan. It enacted 677 laws, passed 331 resolutions, and 561 bills got a vote. The numbers fluctuate a bit after that, but the lowest number of enacted laws up to 2010 was 337 by the GOP-led 104th Congress from January, 4th 1995 to October 4th, 1996, with 598 passed resolutions and a total of 444 bills having come to a vote. Now, compare that to the minimum during the Obama presidency by the GOP-led 112th congress (January 5th, 2011 to January 3rd, 2013) which enacted only 284 laws, passed 722 resolutions, with only 390 bills getting a vote. This might seem somewhat misleading at first because the latter congress passed more resolutions while getting fewer bills voted on and even fewer to become law but note how long these 2 congresses existed. The 104th Congress lasted less than a year (639 days if I did the math correctly), while the 112th lasted just over 2 years (732 days if I did the math correctly). Now, obviously Congress doesn’t work every single day, but my point here is that for the 104th Congress, the minimum number of bills getting to a vote and becoming law worked out to about 0.5 enacted laws per day, 0.9 passed resolutions per day, and 0.7 bills a day got a vote. Compare that to the 112th Congress which only 0.4 enacted laws per day, 0.9 passed resolution per day, and only 0.5 bills received a vote per day. A drop in 2 of the 3 categories.

 

Again, what the hell happened? Part of this can be explained by the prevalence of the filibusters by the GOP, led primarily by the support of the Tea Party. (https://tcf.org/content/commentary/graph-why-we-need-filibuster-reform/). Take a look at the graph in the article linked and note that filibusters began to increase during the Nixon administration, and began to level out during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, only to explode in use by the GOP during Obama’s presidency. This is consistent with the partisan divide we saw previously and seems to correspond to the increasing partisanship in rural America that sparked the idea for this blog post. To give you some perspective, the most filibusters up until the Obama presidency came during the Clinton administration at 50 cloture votes. At the peak under Obama, the GOP more than quadrupled that record with 218 cloture votes.

 

What seems to me to best explain what we have seen happen in rural America post-9/11, is a hyper-partisan divide that I’d argue has been driven largely by where rural America has turned to for its news and opinions.

 

In 1949, the Federal Communication Commission’s (the FCC) Fairness Doctrine was introduced (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FCC_fairness_doctrine). This policy basically required any agency reporting the news to do so in an “honest, equitable, and balanced” way. The gist of the policy was to hold news organizations accountable for what they reported and put at least some pressure on news organizations to fact-check and do at least some measure of quality control to separate opinion and speculation from factual reporting. This helped inform readers of any inherent bias a news or media organization may possess.

 

I want to break for a moment and note that I have absolutely no issue with partisan news sources. That’s cool with me, and many of our country’s oldest and most trusted news sources are clearly affiliated with one end of the political spectrum or the other. That in and of itself isn’t an issue because if I know what the political biases are of my preferred news outlets, then I know not to kid myself that I am getting an unbiased view of all sides of the argument.

 

Or to put it another way, if I were a conservative then I might prefer to have subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times because I know those tend to be conservative leaning, and that is the news I’d prefer to read on a regular basis as it most closely aligns with my political interests. A liberal might opt to subscribe to the New York Times and Washington Post, as they are known to lean more to the political left.

 

What would be irrational for me to do, would be to try and convince myself that I am getting a fair and accurate assessment of conservative opinions from liberal-leaning news sources, and vice versa with respect to the conservative-leaning news. If, as a progressive liberal, I want to know what conservatives are arguing, I need to go to conservative news sources. If a conservative wants to know the arguments a liberal is making, then they need to engage with the liberal-leaning news sources.

 

In 1987, Reagan let the Fairness Doctrine lapse. The most pronounced effect of this doesn’t appear to have been immediate, but I’d wager that this action alone was probably the most important thing to happen to drive the partisan wedge we see in the US today.

 

In 1996, Fox News was founded. In the 2000’s, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a TV in public in Lawrence County not tuned to Fox News (perhaps CNN too at first, but its share of public TVs seemed to dwindle as time went on). And the news on the radio tended to lean to the right as well, with Talk Radio programs by people like Rush Limbaugh. What I am trying to get at here is that if you lived in rural America through the 2000’s, my bet is that the vast majority of the news and opinions being reported daily around you, leaned to the right politically. If you were to ask people about the partisan lean of their news sources however, I’d wager that they would have been more likely than not to tout Fox News’ inaugural slogan of “fair and balanced.”

 

Or to put it another way, while the dominant source of news in Lawrence County (and rural American in general) leaned heavily to the right, people had managed to convince themselves it was neutral and that they were receiving a fair assessment of the left end of the political spectrum from right-leaning media organizations claiming to accurately reflect all sides of the political debate. This was simply untrue, but the power of the idea seems to have spread like wildfire.

 

What this had the effect of doing was to create a series of straw men arguments of liberal/progressive views and opinions. A straw man is a logical fallacy whereby someone makes an argument on behalf of their opponent to rebut/debate, but the argument is based on an inaccurate version of their opponent’s actual beliefs. What this means is that the right-leaning news machine began to present views and opinions of left-leaning groups, that they did not actually possess. Many times, these were constructed by oversimplifying the actual arguments as opposed to being outright lies, but the effects were the same.

 

Consider the above with respect to one of the most divisive issues in the US, abortion (an issue that drove many Republican-leaning voters to cast their vote for Trump in 2016 even if they did not like him as a candidate). What would you say the pro-choice opinion is, as explained by the pro-life movement? My guess is that you’d say it was “pro-abortion,” which is what Mike Huckabee (R) said here: http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/08/05/democrats-abortion-anti-pro-life-party-huckabee. Or maybe you’d equate it with being in favor of murder, as many others do: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/08/18/abortion-industry-corrupt-to-core.html.

 

What you probably wouldn’t do, is accurately describe what most pro-choice advocates actually believe. I am pro-choice, and anti-abortion. I don’t like abortion. I think it should be avoided if at all possible. I am for any measures that reduce the need for abortions, like improved access to healthcare and contraceptives, as well as sex education that actually teaches people about sex instead of abstinence (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/reducing-abortion-rates-policy_us_589b8ea5e4b09bd304bfd920). We know those things work, because we have the data to show it. Being pro-choice doesn’t mean I am for murder, or that I am anti-life, I don’t care what your conservative-leaning source said. They are wrong. Dead fucking wrong.

 

This is what is the biggest issue as I see it. Stop listening to what other people tell you the “other side” believes or doesn’t. Go fucking ask someone who actually holds that belief instead. If you are a conservative pro-life advocate, go actually read the opinions of those of us who are pro-choice and stop assuming that other pro-life advocates are accurately describing our opinions.

 

Stop relying on a singular news source for your information and opinions. By relying on one news or media organization for both, you are literally relying on them to formulate your opinions for you, as well as allowing them to dictate what the most important news is for that day.

 

Consume media from all sorts of different outlets and think about them for yourself. Consider all the options, not just the ones you think you’ll agree with at the outset. Talk with people who hold opposite political opinions, and I don’t mean that you should try and speak over them but actually listen and converse and try to understand. If you honestly seek to understand them, they’ll likely respond in kind.

 

I’ll end this extremely long blog post with a quote that I once saw attributed to Abraham Lincoln but have never been able to verify (that in and of itself is a reminder to think about the message of the quote instead of concerning yourself with the source):

“You can either agree with everything someone says or disagree with everything someone says. Either way, you never have to think for yourself again.” -Anonymous

 The figure above was generated from data pulled from Wikipedia (which cites the data from more reliable sources, but since Wikipedia is so easily accessible, I opted to just use that). Red means GOP/Republican, Blue means Democrat, and black means 3rd party. The lower left graph is calculated as the absolute difference between the percentage of votes received by democrats vs republicans, and the lower right graph is simply the total number of votes for each presidential election year.

The figure above was generated from data pulled from Wikipedia (which cites the data from more reliable sources, but since Wikipedia is so easily accessible, I opted to just use that). Red means GOP/Republican, Blue means Democrat, and black means 3rd party. The lower left graph is calculated as the absolute difference between the percentage of votes received by democrats vs republicans, and the lower right graph is simply the total number of votes for each presidential election year.

Why Atheist?

Of all of the topics I could have chosen for my 1st real blog post (that isn’t an introduction to the blog), why would I pick this one? I mean, I could do a blog post about the dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency (and I will). The news of Stephen Hawking dying just came across my twitter feed, so I could have written something about that. So, why write about me being an atheist?

 

Well, for starters, it is what seems to be flowing out of me most easily this morning. For me that seems to be the trick when it comes to writing, to let whatever it is I need to say that day come out. By doing that, it has the effect of helping me to get into the writing mood, and I often end up working on multiple things throughout the day as I take breaks from one project to pursue another.

 

So, writing about my atheism has 4 benefits:

1)    It gets my blog started off with a topic that I consider to be important to me. Its importance revolves primarily around helping people who are unfamiliar with atheists or atheism, remedy that. People often fear that which they do not understand, and people should not fear atheists by default. We really are regular average everyday people. That means that some of us are nice people, and some of us are assholes. Being nice or being a dick aren’t restricted to any single religious opinion

2)    It gets me writing, and I have many things I need to write beyond what goes in my blog. So, this helps me get my ass in gear

3)    Atheism is a controversial topic in a lot of ways and bringing some controversy to a blog can be a good way of sparking conversation and getting people to think. Again, I want to challenge us both to think instead of assuming. That means that if me being an atheist is an integral part of who I am and how I see the world, and this blog is my attempt to put my opinions out into the public sphere, then that means anyone reading this needs to know what I mean when I say I am an atheist

4)    Seeing as how I want to challenge not only you to think about what I write but also myself, that means it is imperative that I spend some time thinking about who I am and how I want to present myself. So, writing about me as an atheist is a way of me challenging myself to present who I am without making myself out to be a complete tool. We will see how well I accomplish this goal

 

So, let’s start with a simple definition of what atheism is (I can almost hear my former rhetoric and composition teachers screaming now as I start an essay with a definition, but in this case I kind of have to as the subject of the post revolves around a word)

 

Atheism means an absence of theism (a-theism), and an atheist is merely someone who lacks a belief in theistic claims. That is about as simple as anyone could make it, and it is precisely what I mean when I say I am an atheist. There are atheists out there who have slightly different variations on this definition, and some choose to add qualifiers to it to signify other aspects of their religious opinions. Some consider themselves agnostic atheists. For these atheists, their primary argument is that they do not possess direct knowledge that theistic claims are incorrect (hence the qualifier of “agnostic”), but that they still do not believe them (hence the reason they are atheist). Some consider themselves weak or strong atheists, with the former preferring to say they lack a belief in god(s), and the latter saying they believe gods do not exist.

 

You can also find all sorts of additional terms that revolve around god beliefs (or lack thereof), many are not very commonly used. Apatheist is one, and often described as “I don’t know if there is a god or not, and I don’t care.”

 

It doesn’t matter to me, I prefer to stick with atheist sensu stricto. I do not use it as a philosophical position, as my philosophy on life is not contingent upon my atheism. All my atheism does is describe an opinion I lack, it does not tell you anything about my beliefs in a positive sense (meaning that it doesn’t tell you what I do believe, only one thing I lack a belief in). Atheism is an extremely weird label in that way. How many labels do you typically apply to yourself to describe what you don’t like/believe/do? I don’t describe myself as “not a baseball player,” and we don’t need a specific word for it. The reason the term “atheist” exists then is because religious beliefs have become so common and widespread through time, that having a label to describe yourself when you aren’t religious has become necessary.

 

I could call myself an agnostic atheist (and have in the past) because there is no way to provide evidence for the nonexistence of something that doesn’t exist. Think about it using a different example, how would one prove that Big Foot doesn’t exist? You can’t present evidence that it isn’t real, because if it doesn’t exist then there is no evidence of it by default. All one could do is challenge and disprove any evidence presented for the positive claim (whenever people present hair samples of a Big Foot for example, they always turn out to be something else: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/07/bigfoot-samples-analyzed-lab). The only other thing one could do to support their rejection of a claim, is to point to a paucity of reliable evidence in support of it, but the absence of evidence is not equivalent to evidence of absence. Biologists and paleontologists discover new species all the time. Until they are discovered and described, there is no known evidence that they exist. So, the absence of evidence in these cases is not due to a particular species not existing, but because the evidence has not yet been discovered. So, is it possible Big Foot does exist? Well, technically it isn’t impossible as there is no scientific reason that an ape similar to Big Foot couldn’t exist, but it is highly improbable and implausible at this point. It would be difficult for a creature that large to escape discovery so long on a pretty well-populated continent. And while it is true that we discover new species all the time, the majority of these are small, many are invertebrates, and a lot of these new discoveries come from exploring new areas of the world (especially the oceans). Big Foot is almost certainly not real, sorry.

 

I could also call myself a weak atheist because I prefer to say that I lack a belief in a god, but I would I also call myself a strong atheist because I see no issue in saying that I believe gods do not exist. This is primarily because I think the latter follows from the former. If I lack a belief in something, then by default I believe that thing does not exist. So, if I lack a belief that my house is currently on fire, I might say it more plainly that I do not believe my house is currently burning down. Perhaps one of these 2 statements seem stronger than the other, perhaps one appears to make a claim while the other does not. I’d argue neither inherently makes a claim and that the only real issue is the colloquial use of language. Again, I think many of the misunderstandings revolving around this topic have to do with people making bad assumptions.

 

All of that so far is to say this, I don’t care how you as an individual would choose to identify or label me. You don’t get to define me, only I do. Some would likely read what I have said thus far and choose to label me as an agnostic, some will quibble over my definition of atheism and assert that it is a philosophy and a set of beliefs, and many will accept my label and definition I apply to myself. The label isn’t important, what is important is that you know what I mean by it.

 

So, why atheist? The long story made short with respect to my religious background is that I have gone from Southern Baptist to generic Christian to “spiritual but not religious” and then to atheist. It has been quite a journey. The reasons for each change (as well as the way my opinions as an atheist have evolved) are unique and some are personal enough that I won’t detail them here, but the general trend is that I keep asking myself “what if I am wrong?” That singular question has had more influence on my personal views and opinions than anything else, and still does. The fear of being incorrect, is one that permeates much of my personality. That self-doubt is something that I think I share in common with a lot of people. Writing about myself forces me to challenge my beliefs and opinions, and to consider alternate perspectives. What is no longer a surprise to me is how often I have been wrong, it has been quite humbling.

 

As for why I am now an atheist, that has mostly to do with trying to look at the world from varying perspectives and to seek out evidence to substantiate and corroborate claims. Which is to say that while I believed the evidence of a god surrounded me when I was a Christian, it became apparent to me as I continued to question and seek answers that this conclusion had much more to do with confirmation bias and ignorance than anything else.

 

What I am trying to say here is that when I first began questioning my religious beliefs, I did so with the utmost confidence in my belief in a god. I was convinced that a close examination of the world and an in-depth search for a better understanding of god, would lead me closer to it. I wanted to better understand my god beliefs in order to better understand the world, and vice versa. What I found instead was that I couldn’t rationalize a belief in any god, and that what I had previously argued as evidence for god was special pleading.

 

Now, that is not to say that I have any special knowledge to prove I am correct in my conclusion that gods are not literally real. Again, how would one put evidence forth to demonstrate the nonexistence of something that has never existed? I can’t, so I won’t claim to be able to disprove your god to you with evidence.

 

In fact, I have no interests in disproving your god to you. I don’t think anyone will seek out a conversation with me with the goal of having me prove their god isn’t real to them. It’s your god belief, not mine. So, as long as you aren’t asking me to adhere to your beliefs (and as long as you aren’t asking others to involuntarily adhere to your beliefs), we’re cool. Believe whatever you want, it’s no skin off of my teeth.

 

In the past, I have certainly tried to engage in arguments to convince the religious their god is not real. I won’t deny that I have done this, and I will also readily admit that I don’t think any of those conversations have ever resulted in anyone losing their faith because of anything I said. This is also a reason I have no interest in trying to convince someone their god isn’t real, because I don’t think most religious people care enough about the opinion of a formerly religious person (and now an atheist) enough to listen to me and amend their beliefs that drastically. Or maybe they don’t want to listen to me specifically. If someone is going to cease to believe in their god, it will have to be from a decision they make on a personal level to seek out their own answer to the question of their god’s existence. Nothing I say should affect your beliefs if you truly believe. If you have doubts, I encourage you to explore them.

 

The last thing I want to say for this post, is that my disbelief in religions spans all of them. I don’t merely disbelieve in a Christian god, nor is my label of atheist directed at only one religion. I don’t know any atheist who’s only point in using the label is to draw the ire of Christians, even though that is something we seem to be accused of quite often. It isn’t uncommon to have a Christian (especially in the US) accuse me of only trying to attack Christianity and not any other religion (typically they will point to Islam and claim that I am too scared to take on Islam). The only reason I (and many other atheists in the US) typically address Christianity and Christians in my examples, and the primary reason I converse with Christians as opposed to those of other religious faiths, is because Christians are the largest and most vocal religious group in the US. Despite the concerns of Muslims trying to implement Sharia Law, the biggest issue we face with a religious group trying to implement religious laws in the US comes from the Christian right. In fact, one of the most important influences on my religious opinions came in the form of a class on Western Religions as an undergraduate. We studied Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam (primarily Shia and Sunni). The most fascinating thing I learned from that class, was just how similar and connected all of these religions are. Which is to say that my objections to the Christian god, apply to the Muslim and Jewish gods too. All three of these worships the same god as it turns out; all 3 religions are directly connected, with both Christianity and Islam being derived from Judaism. Judaism also has its roots in a polytheistic religion, and one can still find the evidence of this in the earliest examples of Old Testament texts and even in the 10 commandments (“Thou shall have no other gods before me” literally means that the god that issued that commandment believed other gods existed, not just false gods).

 

At the end of the day, I always try and ask myself if I might be wrong. I know the odds of that being true are greater than 0%, because I know I am a fallible being. It being possible I am wrong, does nothing to tell me if I am though. In order to conclude I am wrong, I need evidence and a logical explanation. To date, I have never encountered evidence and a logical argument that has demonstrated a god is real, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still look.

Introduction. Who the hell am I and why do you care?

I have been pondering the idea of doing another blog for a while now and I've finally decided it's probably about time I do it. I started one a few years ago called "Scientosis" but ultimately took it down to concentrate on other things. So, I wanted to make my inaugural post to be about the intent and mission statement of this blog. I want to give you some insight into who I am and why I am writing it. Many people (most in fact) aren't going to give a shit about my opinions, I can live with that. I also hope that you don't unilaterally agree with everything I say here; instead, I want to encourage you to think for yourself and to challenge information.

Perhaps that is the primary mission statement for my blog: Assume less; question more

(a motto not all that dissimilar from TheThinkingAtheist, aka Seth Andrews).

Of all the things dominating the news cycle these days, I think the response I see daily on social media tends to share one thing, bad assumptions. Go on and check it out for yourself on just about any news article. Read the tweets back and forth as users comment on whatever news item you've selected, and ask yourself how many of these conversations appear to be between people speaking past one another instead of to one another. After you do that, ponder what the conversation might be like if each side assumed less about their opponent and instead asked more questions. 

When I have done this in my own personal interactions on social media (primarily twitter these days), I have found that people will either settle down and realize the ignorance in their assumptions, or they will continue to assert more baseless assumptions. If they go the former route, I consider the conversation a success regardless of the outcome. If the conversation turns towards assumptions built upon assumptions, then the conversation has died and I tend to remove myself from it. That conversation is no longer beneficial as the person I am conversing with would rather construct an imaginary version of me to combat than deal with reality (this would be akin to a logical fallacy known as a "straw man"). I am not interested in defending a version of my opinions and beliefs I do not possess, it is a waste of all of our time.

I took down my facebook page within a few days of the November 2016 elections in the US. I did so in part because of this aforementioned issue of finding that people tend to speak past one another. Another reason I took it down was because I didn't feel it was helping me emotionally or psychologically in the wake of Trump's election. I figured it would be better to simply step away for a while and rethink how I want to exist in social media space. Ultimately, I've decided not to go back to facebook, and that is due in no small part to its role in allowing the propagation of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/technology/facebook-russia-propaganda.html).

What I want to do now with this blog is to provide myself with a platform from which I can vent. Ultimately one of the things I will be venting about on this blog is the reliability of sources, so I must start off by saying that I am a blog ran by an individual and there is probably very little way for you to confirm that. I don't have a business, nor is any of this being funded by anyone or anything. This is a personal project of mine that I am doing in my spare time. Well, what spare time I have as someone finishing a PhD in Geoscience who also has 2 kids and a wife. 

The research linked in my profile (available through my researchgate profile: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/James_Beard2) was however funded through various sources, and you can find the information about the funding of those projects in their respective acknowledgement sections towards the ends of the papers.

Note that my views and opinions expressed in my blog are my own and do necessarily reflect the views and opinions of anyone affiliated with me, nor any organization I have worked for. I do not want to presume that I speak on behalf of my colleagues, friends, coworkers, mentors, and places of employment. 

I have my BS in geology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, an MS in Earth Science from Syracuse University, and I am currently completing my PhD in Geoscience at the University of Connecticut. All that to say that I know what I am talking about with respect to geology and paleontology, but I don't claim to know everything about either of those subjects. It is also worth noting that my education does not qualify me as an expert on anything outside of the projects, disciplines, and subjects I have studied extensively. So, don't think or assume that my political opinions are any more valid than anyone else's because I have an education. Nor do I want you to assume that my opinion as a scientist on a topic I have not studied in detail (let's say, quantum mechanics or nearly anything in the realm of physics and engineering) is equivalent with my opinion on one I have studied in detail (like marine invertebrates such as brachiopods and bivalves). 

What my education has provided me with are research skills that I can apply more broadly in the writing of posts on this blog. I will try and make it clear when I am being purely speculative and offering opinion, versus providing citations and links to sources and statistics. I want to try and make the distinctions between opinions and facts as clear as I can when I write, but you'll have to forgive me if I fail in doing so at times. 

Lastly for my inaugural post, I want to list some people, news organizations, and media sources I commonly turn to for my primary sources of information. I do this because I also want to make it clear where I get my information from. I don't want to mask anything that would help inform you of my biases. In general, you are going to find that I tend to consume news from liberal and progressive sources (I am a liberal progressive, so that shouldn't be a shocker). If I want to know what conservatives have to say with respect to a specific subject, I will seek it out on common conservative media sources (such as the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, or the Washington Times), but I don't frequent them for my primary news intake.

News organizations: If I watch news, I tend to watch CNN or MSNBC, but I don't have cable and haven't watched any cable news shows regularly in my life. I do however tend to follow people who are on these networks and I will list them below. The one political show I do tend to watch regularly is The View. I enjoy Whoopi and Joy Behar the best, and hope that eventually they'll replace McCain with Ana Navarro. 

Other online media sources: The Hill, ScienceDaily, Reddit

Twitter accounts I follow: StoneKettle, Seth Abramson, and Ed and Brian Krassenstein (obviously you can see all of the accounts I follow on my twitter page @PaleoBeard)

Again, the reason I point this out is for the sake of transparency. I am not trying to pretend that I possess no political affiliation, nor do I want to levy any claim that I am necessarily objective and unbiased. We all have our own biases, and the only way to navigate around them starts with recognizing and accepting them. If I know what my biases are, then I know who, what, and where to go to find a dissenting opinion to challenge my own. Only by doing that will I be able to correct and amend my views. I refuse to remain a static person.

Because of this, you will likely quickly discover that I have changed quite a lot and have occupied polar opposite viewpoints over the course of my adult life. I was raised in Southern Middle Tennessee, and tended to lean more conservative as a teenager and into my 20's. I was a Southern Baptist up until roughly the time I started college. Now, instead of finding me advocating in support of the 2nd amendment, you'll see that I will argue in support of stronger gun laws. When I first started stumbling out of my religion, I became rather staunchly anti-theist. And while I don't like religions in general and certainly won't shed a tear if they cease to exist, I despise personal attacks upon people for their ideology. I don't agree with equating the entirety of one religious group with its worst representatives. I believe in listening to and conversing with the individual. As long as we agree to live in a civil society where neither of us attempts to force our beliefs and values onto one another (or onto anyone else involuntarily), then you and I will get along. If you believe your beliefs/views/opinions mandate that you be allowed to coerce others to believe as you do, then we will likely not get along. 

Lastly, I expect a fair amount of dissent when I write. I welcome it even if I can't get to all of it (look at me, assuming that I would ever get enough response that I couldn't address it all. You'll find that I can be an arrogant asshole at times, I am aware of it and I try my damndest to keep it in check. But this blog is basically me indulging that aspect of my personality so...don't get your hopes up). If you disagree with me or believe I am wrong, by all means tell me in the comments. But make no mistake, simply telling me "you're wrong" will likely do more than illicit mockery. Don't just tell me you think I am wrong, provide evidence and facts and statistics to show it. That way, we all learn.

Cheers

ABeard