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No church for me

April 22, 2018

A common musing among non-believers is why there isn’t, and whether we should create, something resembling a church for the non-religious. There is real benefit, after all, from the kind of camaraderie and community activity that churches provide.

The problem is that isn’t motivation enough. Those who go to church every week are looking also for a sense of the sacred. We atheists don’t have as much sense of that, and often enough would find something else to do Sunday mornings. Even were there some community group trying to provide a non-religious alternative.


Green tea

April 20, 2018

The European Food and Safety Authority has issued a warning about the risk of liver damage from green tea supplements. The interesting thing is that the substances that put the liver at risk are the very catechins for which green tea sometimes is lauded.

There are two lessons here. First, as the old maxim goes, it is the dose that makes the poison. There are innumerable substances that are beneficial or even necessary in small amounts, that are toxic in larger amounts. Trace minerals like selenium, copper, and chromium are easy examples. Whether reading an article designed to scare, such as one about Chinese towns where people are suffering from excess flouride, or an article designed to lure your money, such as the many touting green tea supplements, keep first and foremost the critical importance of dose.

Second, when any food from tea to broccoli is dried, concentrated, and powdered, it then becomes a kind of drug and is no longer the food with which we have historical experience. Food is complex, and you cannot extrapolate from evidence about foods to what such supplements will do. We have no reason to think that taking a broccoli supplement is beneficial, much less that it will somehow make up for not eating your vegetables. We have no reason to be concerned about drinking green tea, just because some supplements made from it cause liver damage. Japan has been running an informal experiment for centuries with millions of people in drinking green tea. That gives me some comfort that it likely won’t kill me.

Ob disclaimer: I drink a cup of green tea most mornings, a habit I acquired when visiting Japan.

Silver bullets

April 19, 2018

Ars Technica asks whether cures for diseases are a good business model for pharmaceutical companies, pointing to the declining sales of Gilead’s hep C cure. The problem with a silver bullet is that once the werewolf is dead, you no longer need it. It seems to me that article overlooks some important points. There remains a large population of people with untreated hep C. And Gilead’s treatment is declining in part because it is being replaced by better and cheaper treatments. So how is this anything more than normal competition at work?

Ob disclaimer: I am long Abbvie.

And so, ad infinitum

April 18, 2018

Like many, I was taught in biology that there were more species of beetle than any other order. But the authors of a new paper argue that cannot be right, because every species of beetle has a few species of parasitic wasp that specifically target it. (Cite.) UC Davis Entomologist Lynn Kimsey explains:

Look at it this way. Beetles have never been very good at parasitism. Wasps, on the other hand, are all about parasitism. So for each beetle species there are probably at least two wasp parasitoids: One [that targets] the eggs and one [that targets] the larvae.

The paper’s authors aren’t quite certain that parasitic wasps make their order, hymenoptera, the most speciose. Only because they don’t know about the relative number of parasitic mites and nematodes that likewise target beetles and other insects. Had Jonathan Swift known about wasps, he might have changed his well-known verse:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

The lure of fascism

April 17, 2018

Authoritarian movements need their members to view all politics relative to the current stance and needs of the movement itself. That is how they subvert existing law. That is how the Trumpistas so easily support a habitual liar. The recent missile strikes against Assad provide the latest example of that filtered vision. Those strikes were supported by 37% of Democrats, no different from the 38% that supported similar strikes in 2013. In contrast:

When Barack Obama was president, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported the U.S. launching missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians. A new Post-ABC poll finds that 86 percent of Republicans support Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes on Syria for the same reason. Only 11 percent are opposed.

For two-thirds of today’s Republicans, what determines whether they support a missile strike on Assad is simply whether their candidate is in the White House. That is almost unbelievable. All the strongmen from history would applaud that Fox News and Breitbart have done their job so well.

Andrew Sullivan describes Hungary’s slide, with lessons for the US:

Last week, in a surge of voter turnout, Orbán won almost 50 percent of the vote, but two-thirds of the seats, giving him another supermajority (this time without coalition partners) in parliament, with further chances to amend the constitution in his favor. His voters in the heartland swamped a majority for the opposition in Budapest. One of two remaining opposition newspapers, Magyar Nemzet, shut down on Wednesday after 80 years in print. Orbán had withdrawn all government advertising in it. Some wonder whether there will ever be a free election again.

Sullivan fails to be critical enough of how Orbán rallies his support. George Szirtes highlights the deceits that weave their spell on Orbán’s base:

Forget the fact that Hungary has practically zero immigration from those regions, and that the EU request that they should take in 1,300 was fiercely resisted, resulting in the erection of two rows of barbed-wire fence at the border with Serbia and Croatia, and the deployment of a civil militia – which could always be used for other purposes – to patrol it. More importantly for now, he tells his hard-core supporters that all who oppose him under the “independent” banner are in fact undeclared Soros candidates ready and willing to carry out the wicked financier’s orders.

For many families somewhere in the cultural and economic middle, the chief concern of life is guiding their children to doing as well or better. That is measured not just economically, but also in fidelity to their religion and norms and habits. Those below count as failure, those above as inspiration, and those outside or deviant as risk, either direct or seductive threat. The politics peddled both by Orbán and the Trumpistas tell the worried middle that a real leader works for them, battles the groups that represent threats, doesn’t waste money on those below, celebrates their religion, affirms their historical myths. And will make them great again.

Fascism doesn’t come about because a plurality are made cruel and vicious. Rather, it is because they turn inward and are sold on myth and lies. From the inside, such movements look like baseball and apple pie. Most who support such politics may be the neighbors you want. Where it wins, it can last for decades. Franco and his regime survived almost forty years after the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini might have done as well, had he taken a neutral stance during WW II.

Update: Macron warns that the EU is seeing a civil war between democracy and authoritarianism: “I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past.”

The audience for history

April 16, 2018

Josephine Quinn looks at how the mythicists of several nations tried to weave origin stories around the Phoenicians, and thereby helped create an ancient nation that never existed.

Michael Harriot recounts how much the right hated Martin Luther King, Jr. And would still, were he alive doing today what he did then. Now that he is a dead hero, they will turn him into a 21st century Republican, just as they do Jefferson and Lincoln.

Alas, the demand for myth always is great, while the audience for history is vanishingly small.

Catholics & protestants decline differently

April 15, 2018

I have known people who call themselves Catholic atheists. I know exactly what they mean. They recognize that all doctrine they were taught from childhood is every bit as much nonsense as any other religion’s, but that still they know it, and more, still they have some affinity for all the ritual and practice. And likely still know the local priests and stalwarts of their parishes. So it doesn’t surprise me that Gallup’s recent poll shows a continued decline in the US of both Catholics and protestants. But that with Catholics that decline shows up in practice rather than in identification, and with protestants, it is in identification, rather than in practice.