April 2017

March Book Club Discussion

Our March 9th meeting was the second meeting of our book club. For our January meeting each attendee brought a list of books for discussion, and our president, Bob Lane, made an executive decision that we would choose one chapter from Peter Singer’s Ethics in the Real World. We chose the essay The Tragic Cost of Being Unscientific, a three-page description of the terrible consequences of South African president Thabo Mbeki’s rejection of the consensus that HIV causes AIDS. As many as 365,000 people died needlessly during Mbeki’s 9-year presidency, when available anti-retroviral drugs could have treated their disease. When arrogance and ignorance are used as the basis for public governmental policy, the consequences can be devastating. Singer argues that runaway climate change threatens millions, and its denial by today’s policy makers carries far greater risk than Mbeki’s willful ignorance a decade ago.

After the essay was read aloud, the floor was opened for comments. The discussion was wide ranging and lively, lasting over an hour. There isn’t space to describe all of the topics covered, but I can cover some of the more topical and salient points.

Similarities were immediately drawn between Mbeki’s repressive policies and today’s U.S. Administration with its “alternative facts”, bombastic suppression of informed debate, removal of climate change links from government web sites, and its appointment of anti-science ideologues and party hacks to head governmental agencies.

We discussed confirmation bias, the human tendency to search out and favor information that confirms one’s preexisting belief’s and traditions, keeping the believer in the tribe. Hume’s quip “reason is the slave of the passions” was recalled with the observation that people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and take comfort in the unwarranted assurances and promises of religion.

But we also noted that the human ability to ask “why” and question the status quo, coupled with the invention of the scientific method, using experiment and statistics to verify hypotheses, allows us to overcome our genetic dispositions. Education and training in critical thinking can slow the inertia of ignorance and dogma, and we are making progress in spite of our hereditary baggage.

We asked whether scientific training in itself is enough to overcome our human predispositions. Max Planck’s observation that progress is made as the scientific old guard dies off, “one funeral at a time”, was brought forward. Scientists are human too, subject to the same foibles, biases, and hubris as anyone else. But the scientific method demands empirical confirmation, and the influence of our innate arrogance and prejudice is tempered over time.

We were very fortunate to have some younger newcomers attend the meeting, and they were able to comment on the quality and relevance of the current American school system. One of them noted that it was designed to create qualified workers for industry. She would like to see us adopt some of the practices in Europe, where the curriculum is adapted to the individual students. Perhaps tailored and specialized earlier secondary programs for more varied career goals in areas like art, automotive technology, maybe information sciences would be more productive. But these days arts and humanities are being cut due to budgetary pressures. Are we only producing automatons for the benefit of billionaires?

After the discussion, we celebrated Pi (π, approximately 3.14) day, March 14, with apple, cherry, and chocolate cream pies and ice cream. A nice evening indeed.

—Steve Hanka

Want to join the book club?

Send email to wayne@humanistsofutah.org

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Dogs of War

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,–
Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue–
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Julius Caesar
Act 3 scene 1
William Shakespeare

I am quite certain that it was at one of our HoU meetings that I heard a speaker say that it takes a full 100 years to “close the books” on a war. All of the participants are dead, payoffs to widows, children, etc. have been made; it is finally over. The news this week includes remembering that the United States entered World War I, or as it was known at the time, the War to End all Wars, 100 years ago. Imagine that, a war that nobody alive remembers is finally becoming part of dusty history. My mother recently found a picture of her father that had a swastika below the portrait. It is a disturbing image to us today. However, the swastika symbol is ancient dating back at least 11,000 years. It is one of the earliest forms that symbolize movement as it was used to depict flying geese. According to Wikipedia the Sanskrit symbol is a mark made on persons and things to denote auspiciousness, or any piece of luck or well-being. So, in 1912 or so when the picture was taken the meaning was complimentary.

World War II changed the perception of the swastika. The Day of Infamy occurred on December 7, 1941 which means we have another 24 years before the book on WW II will be closed. Many of us will not live to see that day. The men and women who fought in the war are often referred to as the Greatest Generation.

The Korean War began in 1950, the year that I was born. This conflict stands out because it garnered very little media coverage. Much of what we know, or perhaps perceive, of the Korean War comes from the movie and spectacularly popular TV series M.A.S.H.

Vietnam is the war of my generation. Unlike veterans of the two World Wars, Vietnam and Korean war vets were not welcomed home with pomp and circumstance. In fact, Vietnam vets were often reviled and publicly castigated. Thankfully, strides to undo these injustices have been and are continuing to be taken.

George W. Bush ran on a foreign policy plank conceived by the neoconservative wing of the Republican party. It was their idea that a well-armed and trained mobile force could be deployed into troubled regions, topple dictators, and then be welcomed in flower strewn parades by the liberated citizens; a la our WW II soldiers who liberated France. I am not suggesting that they sought the attack on the World Trade Towers, but they certainly took advantage of the opportunity to test their theory by invading Iraq; and that quagmire is nowhere near resolution. PS: a visit to southern France a few years ago, shows that local population still reveres or even loves Americans. They still have streets and annual events to honor the valiant men and women who fought and repelled the Nazis.

Yesterday President Trump launched a missile attack on Syria. It appears that our grandchildren, and even great grandchildren have a zero chance of living in a world where all the war books on have been closed.

Wayne Wilson


President’s Message

Happy Spring everyone, the pleasant temperatures are getting me outside a lot lately. Boy is there a lot to do, but I do love planting time. However, things are different for me this year.

I don’t have much of an appetite for talking politics or issues right now, so I thought I would just ramble a little about what is different for me this year. Suffice it to say I am a full-time care giver for my mother. That has made it necessary for me to move back to the home I grew up in. In as much as I will eventually own the home I have been slowly but steadily moving in, and it is all exhausting.

Going through her things getting rid of this and saving that, then doing the same with my stuff is taxing. But as taxing as it can be, we did have a laugh together the other day. When I got up the other morning, I noticed the carnage she inflicted on the supply of drinks in the refrigerator. My mom still gets around on her feet pretty well and gets up a number of times at night for a drink and sometimes a snack. Anyway, I lined up the drinks she opened the night before and we had a good laugh as we noticed that she had opened three Glucerna, Two Izze juice drinks, Two Pepsi’s and a V-8 for a total of eight. Sometimes there are moments.

I’ve been living, amazingly, for over thirty years at a four-plex. That means, at least for me, without looking like a hoarder there is a lot of stuff that has been “stuffed into closets, containers and anywhere it is out of the way. As you start to box stuff up, it grows and grows because it is not stuffed into closets anymore! So, you begin to realize what a task it will be to move. I have mostly started with books from inside and tools outside. When I stop to think about it, I’m sure we have over three thousand books including paperbacks and all. Some of the old text books from eons ago must go, along with old almanacs and outdated medical books. It also gives me a laugh to find that I have multiple copies of some of my favorites like three of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, and several works by and about Charles Darwin. To me, books are friends and my books about science, humanism, by authors like Asimov, Dawkins, Harris, etc. are all going with me.

The one thing I will miss at the old apartment is the large backyard I used and had a garden some 80 by 30 feet. Now I need to scramble to find and prep some areas for tomatoes, peppers, squash and a new planting of herbs.

One last thing before I go. In all the thirty some odd years we’ve lived at this apartment, we have never had cable TV. As I have been watching it more I have been paying more attention to the commercials. They certainly run the spectrum in a way from excellent and funny to really stupid and even offensive. We get talking mucus and fingernail fungus. We get woman’s bladders dragging them off to bathrooms and cannibalistic breakfast cereal. I just hope nobody comes up with a character for Preparation H. More commentary on commercials next Month. Thanks for letting me ramble.

See you at the general meeting, I’ll bring the cookies.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU