Friday, May 27, 2005

Judge Hammers Non-Mainstream Religions

A judge is supposed to decide cases based on the law, not on his or her personal agenda or ideology. They are supposed to be impartial and fair.

But judges are human, and sometimes they allow their own biases to affect their decisions. Take, for example, the Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore, who in 2003 not only went against established case law and the Constitution, but even violated a federal appeals court’s ruling when he refused to remove a stone display of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom.

A more recent, and local example of how judges can sometimes allow their own religious beliefs to creep into their rulings came last year when a Marion County Superior Court judge, Cale J. Bradford, ruled that a divorced couple must not teach their son about Wicca, a pagan belief.

The father, Thomas Jones, has appealed the judge’s decree with the aid of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. The story went public last week and has drawn nationwide attention.

Legal experts generally agree that the judge’s ruling will be overturned by the appeals court. But even so, the case is a striking example of how the judiciary can sometimes allow personal moral biases to affect cases.

Being moral is a plus for any judge, as long as he stays within the bounds of the law when making his rulings. But extremist judges often use morality as an excuse to direct their decisions to a point that is far outside the bounds of the law and the Constitution.

In the couple’s divorce decree, the judge let stand a clause that prohibits them from exposing their nine-year-old son to any “non-mainstream religious beliefs.” That, of course, begs the question of who decides what mainstream is.

The purpose of the ruling was to prohibit the parents from exposing their son to Wicca. But the language is so vague that it could be argued that Buddhism or even Islam is a non-mainstream religion.

Even more to the point, what gives any judge the right to tell a parent what religion they can or cannot expose their children to? The test is whether or not the child is being harmed.

In the cases where parents harm or even allow their children to die by withholding needed medical attention on religious grounds, the courts need to step in, because physical harm is obviously being caused. But Wicca is simply a natured-based religion that stresses the peaceful coexistence of humans and their environment.

Contrary to popular opinion, Wiccans are not Satanists. They are, however, pagans. Paganism is a religion that is even recognized by the U.S. Armed Forces. Ecumenical chaplains are taught its belief system.

It has been long held that parents have the constitutional right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. Generally, when the parents are divorced, the parent with custody can determine the religious upbringing.

In this case, the parents have joint custody, but the boy is living with his father. Both parents are Wiccans.

Legal experts say the ruling is extremely unusual. It is unheard of that a judge would prescribe a certain religious belief to the parents in a divorce decree, especially if the parents are in agreement about religion.

One positive thing that might come out of the case is that it may educate more people about other “non-mainstream” religions, including Wicca.

In a time when the President of the United States is pushing his nominations of extreme right-wing judges, and when there is a good chance that at least one of his future nominations will be for a Supreme Court justice, it is important for us to keep in mind that minority religions have just as much right to exist in this country.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Replacing One Myth with Another

The human mind is a funny thing. It doesn’t take much to fool it, or to blind it to reality.

What’s even more amazing, however, is how easily one part of the mind can exist happily in some fantasy world of pseudo-reality while another part can be busy earning an advanced degree in physics or learning how to compose masterpieces in music.

It’s only when the pseudo-reality of the naïve part of the mind is challenged from outside that the two parts acknowledge each other. And it is not a comfortable meeting.

Unfortunately, the logically-challenged part of the mind wants so much to continue wallowing in its comfortable naiveté that it most often simply ignores or rejects any intrusion from the part that is grounded in reality.

Well, that’s enough for the generalized introductions. Let’s narrow this down to specific examples.

It’s easier to start with childhood. Take a normal seven-year-old child who is in the first grade and can spell his name, add two simple numbers together, and knows to dial 911 in case of an emergency. He is starting to understand and acknowledge reality, even if it is very simple.

Yet many kids this same age also insist that there really exists a jolly fat man in a red suit and white beard who lives at the North Pole and travels the world once a year bearing gifts. That’s the comfort-giving, naïve part of the mind. And at this young age, there is nothing abnormal or troubling about the coexistence of both parts of the mind.

On the other hand, once a kid reaches 11 years old or so, if he hasn’t started questioning the logic, not to mention the logistics, of a real-life Santa Claus living in his world, it might be a sign that he is having trouble adjusting to reality, even if his parents haven’t broken the bad news yet.

Taken a step further, it becomes almost comical to imagine a grown man who has earned a college degree, has started to raise a family, and who can balance his bank account every month, but who still believes in a literal Santa Claus. Imagine this man refusing to even listen to logical arguments against the existence of such a legendary figure.

Now replace the story of Santa Claus with the equally mythical stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and the Creation.

Ouch! Did I just pinch a nerve?

Yes, that was me knocking on that enigmatic and reclusive portion of your mind that still believes in fairy tales. You know, it’s the part that has a phobia against reality because it honestly believes you will go to hell if you let any of it seep in.

But don’t worry; you’re far from being alone. The world is full of grown up, mature, educated, and intelligent men and women who can do everything from build a microchip to fly a jet airplane, yet who insist that there once was an 800-year-old man who built a big boat and put two (or seven) of every creature on earth into it just before a giant worldwide deluge.

Somebody hasn’t told them there is no Santa Claus, and they’re all too afraid to believe otherwise.

It might be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Bush Again Threatens Scientific Research

Back during the presidential campaign, when Pres. Bush was seeking reelection, he actually stated that, although he held strong religious beliefs, he would not impose them on Americans, because everyone in America is free to worship and believe as they wish.

During one of the debates, his opponent John Kerry stated that if he were elected, he would be the president of all the people, not just those who fell in line with his concept of morality. Bush must have thought that sounded good, so he later said virtually the same thing.

I had to laugh because, of all the presidents that have been in office during my lifetime, the one who seems to delight most in inflicting his own moral imperatives on the masses is Bush.

Last Friday, he provided yet more proof of this. He stated that if Congress passed legislation that would weaken his ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, he would veto it.

“I worry about a world in which cloning becomes accepted,” Bush said.

Well, I don’t worry about such a world. In fact, I would welcome such a world, as long as the cloning follows well-thought-out universal guidelines. But, as long as Bush is president, those of us who see the advantages in a world where cloning is used to grow organs on demand will just have to look to the future and hope the next president isn’t as intransigent.

But Bush is not only putting a stranglehold on embryonic stem cell research in the United States. He has chastised South Korea for not only allowing such research, but promoting it.

South Korea is one of the nations that has seen the benefit of doing research on stem cells from embryos. The government there has funded the production of cloned human embryos for the purpose of extracting stem cells.

“That represents exactly what we're opposed to,” said White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.

Everyone involved with the issue, from the White House to the researchers, agree on one issue. Cloning for reproductive purposes should be banned, at least for now. And so it should.

But cloning for scientific research, which is expected to lead to cures for a wide variety of genetic disorders, is extremely important. In fact, since we have the technology to do it, I would suggest that it might be morally wrong on some levels not to pursue it.

There are those, including Bush, who believe that destroying any human life, even if it saves many other lives, is immoral. They say that life as a human being begins at the moment of conception, even if it is artificial conception.

But there are many other reasonable and moral individuals who do not share in this belief. We believe that an embryo created in a Petri dish is not a human being because it was never meant nor expected to develop into one. The intent is the key.

And so, we’re back to Bush’s personal moral imperative being shoved down the throats of those who disagree with him, not on the basis of good science, but on the basis of his own belief system. And that’s exactly the opposite of what he promised during the campaign.

It’s just one more good reason why, despite the pretence of being highly moral, Bush cannot be trusted.

Unfortunately, he has more than three years left to go in his term, and we’ll just have to muddle through. But Congressional elections are coming up next year.

Because of the mess Bush is making of things, recent polls indicate that if an election were held today, Democrats would win. If the trend continues, maybe enough political moderates will be elected to keep Bush’s reactionary agenda in check.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Some Weather Lore Still Works

The weather affects everyone from time to time: Spoiled picnics, rained-out vacations, and damaged homes are part of weather’s nasty side. But then there are the beautiful sunny days and clear, moonlit nights too.

I’ve always had an interest in the weather and how it works. I’ve also always given it a lot of respect, knowing what it can do to you if you don’t.

In today’s technological world, predicting the weather is a much more exact science than it used to be. It’s still not exact enough; tornadoes can still strike without warning. But it’s much better than it used to be.

For example, those who depended on weather a lot, like farmers and sailors, used to employ weather rhymes and sayings to help them forecast coming storms. But do these aphorisms really have a basis in science?

Surprisingly, some of them do. When it comes right down to it, weather can be broken down into just a few components. Humidity, air pressure, and wind are the three main indicators that can tell you whether or not it’s going to rain if you know how to read the signs.

Let’s look at some examples.

“When the dew is on the grass, Rain will never come to pass. When grass is dry at morning light, Look for rain before the night.”

Dew forms on the grass when the temperature falls quickly during the night, causing the moisture in the air to condense out on grass and car windshields. But if it’s cloudy, the temperature doesn’t fall very rapidly at night because the clouds act as a blanket, holding in the day’s heat. Therefore, no dew means it is cloudy and, thus, more likely to rain.

“If a cat washes her face o’er her ear,‘tis a sign the weather will be fine and clear.”

Cat fur can build up static electric charges when it gets very dry. During times of low humidity and fair weather, especially in the winter time when it is very dry, a cat may lick its fur in order to moisten it. Moist fur will shed electric charge and prevent static discharges, which annoy the cat.

“When sounds travel far and wide,A stormy day will betide.”

Sound travels at different speeds through different substances. It travels faster through a solid substance than it does through air, for instance. Sound travels better in air that is heavily laden with moisture than it does in dry air. And air with lots of moisture is air that is likely to rain.

But there are also sayings that are just old wives’ tales and have no scientific merit.

“Onion skins very thinMild winter coming in;Onion skins thick and toughComing winter cold and rough."

Onions can’t generally predict the weather, especially the long-range weather.

And then there is the famous saying about the month of March:

”If March comes in like a lamb, it goes out like a lion; if it comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb.”

That saying is meant more as a description of the highly variable March weather than it is a prediction.

And here’s one that seems to tie it all together in one verse. All of the signs in this poem have some scientific validity to them.

“When the sky is red in the morning,And sounds travel far at night;When fish jump high from the water And flies stick tight, and bite;When you can't get salt from your shaker,And your corn gives you extra pain,There's no need to consult an almanac,You just know it's going to rain. “

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Evolutionists Don't Debate Kansans

The Kansas State Board of Education is debating its science curriculum again. So what does that have to do with students here in Indiana?

At issue, of course, is whether or not to water down the evolution curriculum by including the so-called “theory” of intelligent design. Intelligent design is a euphemism for creationism.

It’s important for Hoosier students because Kansas represents a microcosm of what is happening across the nation to one degree or another. In nearly half the states, 24 of them, creationists are making another push to be included in science classrooms under its newest guise of intelligent design.

In Kansas, a committee of the State Board of Education held hearings on the merits of intelligent design. It heard testimony from several supporters of intelligent design, but no scientists who support evolution bothered to show up. They claimed the hearings were a sham and that the committee had already made up its mind.

All of the four committee members were conservative Christians, as is most of the current membership of the board itself.

Those who support including intelligent design concepts in the science curriculum say that the universe is far too complex to have evolved without help from an intelligent designer. Although some of them support the scientific theory of evolution to a point, they do not believe that humans evolved from simpler creatures.

But mainstream scientists say that intelligent design is nothing more than the same old creationist viewpoint with a different name. And even most creationists admit that creationism is not a true science. It is founded in faith.

That’s fine. Religious beliefs are not supposed to be backed by scientific evidence. That’s the definition of faith, to believe without proof. In a country that holds its freedom of religion dear, everyone has a right to believe in whatever religious dogma they choose.

The problem arises when some of the more conservative members of the religious crowd try to wedge their perspective into the school curriculum by calling it science.

Scientists boycotted the Kansas education debate not because they do not like to debate evolution. Scientists debate evolution, and other scientific theories, continually. There are many debates raging in the scientific community over the finer points of the theory.

But they generally refuse to debate whether or not evolution is the cornerstone theory of biology, cosmology, astronomy, and geophysics. That is a given. It is.

So to the scientific community, there is really nothing to debate. Evolution’s evidence is strong and unwavering. And every new discovery in the fields of genetics and biochemistry add further evidence to the theory.

Additionally, scientists do not debate a theory if there is no way to prove the theory false. In other words, it has to be falsifiable. Since intelligent design cannot be proved false, because to do so would be to disprove the existence of God, which is outside the realm of science, then intelligent design is not falsifiable and, hence, is not a scientific theory at all.

What, on the surface, seems to be a reasonable compromise to the evolution-in-education debate, that intelligent design be included along with evolution in biology textbooks so that students can make an informed choice, actually isn’t reasonable at all when you consider that intelligent design isn’t really science.

Science follows a method. That’s how science is supposed to work and that is what should be taught in science classrooms. There are other means of answering big questions, but those other ways are not science. They may be philosophy or religion, and the answers might be just as profound, but they are still not science.

And so it is with intelligent design. It seems reasonable as an answer to how we got here for those who choose not to believe the scientific answer. But the concept of intelligent design is not science because the answer to the question of how we got here was predetermined, not divined by experiment or by collecting evidence.

And so even in the unlikely event that the theory of evolution is eventually falsified, intelligent design still would not win by default. It would simply be back to the drawing board to find another scientific theory that would work better.

Simply put, if the answer comes before the evidence, it is philosophy or religion, and any study of it in public schools must be relegated to those types of classes. But if the evidence is gathered before the answer is clear, then it is science and it can be included in the science curriculum.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Beware of Phishermen

Gone phishing lately?

If so, you better not admit to it; it’s against the law.

Phishing is the latest method cyber-crooks are employing to part you from your money. Spam is still a huge problem. But phishing, which is actually a type of spam itself, goes a step further by trying to trick you into voluntarily making your bank account information available.

Recently, one of the nation’s largest electronic financial companies released the results of a survey that showed at least 43 percent of all Internet users have received a phishing contact, and five percent have actually given away their account information.

I get at least half a dozen phish e-mails every day. Most of them are trying to get into my eBay or Pay Pal accounts. Some are trying to get account information from banks that I don’t even have an account with.

Phishing attempts can be very cleverly disguised. First time recipients of such e-mails may be tempted to supply the information asked for.

For example, today I received an e-mail that looked like it was from Charter One Bank. It was very professional looking, complete with the bank’s official logo. It even had a copyright notice at the bottom.

The message stated that the bank’s technical service personnel were upgrading their software and they would like me to log into my account and verify my personal information. They even supplied a Web link that I could click on, which was a real Charter One Web site.

Clicking on the link, however, didn’t send me to an authentic Charter One page, but a page that looked for the world like it was one. Hovering my mouse cursor over the link revealed that it was actually taking me to an undisclosed IP address. Those unaccustomed to phishing scams may not have even noticed.

Once at the fake Web site, which again looked identical to the real thing, I was presented with an official form asking for my name, account number, Web password, etc.

Obviously, I didn’t actually fill out the form. Had I done so, the crooks would have had complete access to my bank account, assuming that I actually had an account at Charter One Bank.

It succeeds more often than you might think. Individuals are sometimes out thousands of dollars because they are not careful enough.

A recent Associated Press news story revealed how an Alabama woman was robbed of $6,000 because she was too busy to check the authenticity of an e-mail message she had received asking her to verify her bank account information.

So how can you tell what’s real? How can you catch the phish?

For one thing, legitimate companies never ask for your passwords in e-mail messages. But most phishing scams don’t either. They ask you to click on an authentic-looking Web address that takes you to a fake site.

But messages from real banks seldom ask you to click on a Web address. They ask you to log in to your online account, which is something you would know how to do if you were a banking customer of theirs..

If they provide a Web address and you’re unsure if it is real, don’t click on the link. Type it in manually. That way you know you’re at the banks actual site.

Most importantly, just realize that banks do not generally need to query you for your personal information again once you’ve signed up the first time. If they do, I would consider changing banks. Banks that lose your account information do not deserve your business.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Make Speed Limits Flexible

It’s official. With the governor’s signature solidly on the line, Hoosier motorists can begin driving at a more reasonable 70 miles per hour on rural Interstate highways and other limited access highways this summer. The speed limits on other divided highways could be increased to 60 mph.

“The will of the legislature was clear,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said. Both the House and the Senate approved the increase in speed limits by comfortable margins.

While the speed limits on Interstates could go up on or near July 1, the speed limits on other highways will remain at 55 mph until state engineers determine which ones can handle the higher speeds. That could take several weeks or months.

In Johnson County, Interstate 65 will have its speed limit increased to 70 mph fairly quickly. And U.S. 31 could eventually see a higher speed limit along the rural stretch between Franklin and Edinburgh. Currently, the speed limit on rural state highways, divided or not, is 55 mph.

Of course, if you’ve ever driven on that stretch of highway, you know that if anyone were to actually travel at 55 mph, they would be considered a nuisance. Drivers typically cruise along at a good 10 mph faster than that. And that means that even if the speed is increased to 60 mph, it still won’t match what motorists are actually doing and what the road is capable of handling.

In 1971 I used to travel U.S. 31 almost daily as I commuted to Franklin College from my home in Edinburgh. The speed limit then was a reasonable 65 mph. When the federal government mandated a speed limit reduction to 55 mph in 1973, it felt as though I was creeping along. It still does when I go the speed limit.

I’ve always thought posted speed limits were rather arbitrary anyway. All states have legal speed limits, and most states have limits that are higher than even Indiana’s new one, at least on non-Interstate highways.

I guess they are necessary, but a new system might work even better. For example, most state police officers and sheriff’s deputies will allow up to 10, even 15 mph over the posted speed limit before issuing a citation. Officially, it is up to the individual officer’s discretion.

But that makes a speed “limit” a misnomer. If it’s a limit, by definition, it is not to be exceeded.

Instead of posting speed limit signs, why not post suggested speed signs with the current speed limits as the accepted suggestions. Motorists would be free to go faster if conditions permit.

Under this system, drivers could travel at 75 or 80 mph during times of good weather and light traffic. During high traffic times, or when the weather is bad, police officers could ticket drivers for reckless driving if they were going faster than the conditions warranted.

Most drivers have enough common sense to know how fast is safe. If you’re driving 70 miles per hour through a residential district of a divided highway during the time of day when kids are getting off school in the pouring rain, then you deserve a speeding ticket, even if the officially posted speed limit were 85.

Germany takes the no speed limit idea to the limit. On rural stretches of its world-famous Autobahn, motorists can go as fast as they wish. Drivers come to Germany from all over just for the privilege of driving fast. Of course, the Autobahn has a high fatality rate, too.

So I’m not advocating no speed limits at all, just more reasonable ones that change according to the conditions of the road. The flexible limits would more readily reflect what is actually happening and would remove the anxiety of drivers who fear they are doing something wrong when they find themselves going 75 mph on the open road.

But, for now at least, the new higher speed limits will do. At least it’s a step in the right direction.