Category Archives: Public interest

Why America is NOT a Christian nation in logic anyone can follow

The evidence that the constitution of the United States was crafted to keep religion out of politics is fairly straightforward. This fact however does not stop those in power who want to wedge their beliefs and preferences into public discourse and laws.

Religion is a powerful force in human affairs. It not only motivates individuals, it can move entire groups and nations to act in ways both good and bad.

It can also be divisive — subjugating the needs and rights of others for an interpretation of an ancient text which the adherent believes is the divine word of the creator of the universe.

So why am I addressing this issue? The tipping point for me was reading about how Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is trying to ban same-sex marriage in his state for purely theocratic reasons.

The lengths Conservative Christians and sympathizers will go in order to argue that they and their views deserve special privileges because they are Christians is astounding.

We could go back and look in depth at the history of the US, the founding documents and invoke all kinds of arguments. Ultimately though, the best arguments against such horrendous attempts to overhaul the United States are very simple.

So let’s dive straight into Roy Moore’s flawed reasoning and I’ll demonstrate, in terms everyone can verify and understand, why America is not a Christian nation in the legal sense of the word.

When asked “Are laws themselves superseded by God?” Chief Justice Moore said:

CLAIM ONE: “I think you’re correct in saying that,” he answered. “This is a Christian nation by the fact that 90% of the churches in America are Christian churches and it’s certainly founded upon Christian principles.

I’m sure most churches in America are Christian. That wasn’t the concern of the founding fathers. The establishment clause preventing the government from favoring or discriminating on the basis of religion was largely to prevent one religious group rising up above all the others.

Furthermore, the constitution guarantees equal treatment under the law regardless of religious affiliation. The appeal to a majority is just an attempt by Roy Moore to lend his arguments credibility that they don’t deserve. It’s also a form of bullying.

CLAIM TWO: “The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States which recognizes many of those principles.”

Here’s the kicker — the Constitution is overtly non-religious (secular) and in a fatal way to Christianity.

Compare the very first of the Ten Commandments to the first amendment to the Constitution.

First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”
First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment (the very first issue the founding fathers felt they needed to address) directly contradicts the First Commandment, presumably the most important commandment to Yahweh.

CLAIM THREE: “Our freedom to believe what we want comes from God. When it comes from God, no man or no court, can take it away. That’s a God-given right under the Declaration of Independence, which is law itself.”

This is ignorance and wishful thinking in its extreme. Again, taking the First Commandment, God has clearly said you have freedom to believe in one god only. That’s not freedom,that’s coercion.

If history is a guide, the human species only attains freedom after fighting off the oppression of autocratic regimes. Multitudes of humans have met their demise bringing this fight. Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, has autocracy as a fundamental principle.

You can’t argue that freedom comes from God and then advance a book he supposedly inspired that is filled with punishments and inducements for disobeying his rules, especially when some of those rules fundamentally oppose basic human rights (such as self determination).

“Why must they continue to flog dead arguments?”

But despite all this obvious evidence, conservatives still try to bring religion to the table. Why? Because it gives them unchallenged power to control the populace. They can justify whatever backwards and regressive laws they like, no matter their real world consequences.

The ambiguity of religious texts means they’re able to pick and choose their interpretations and become righteously indignant to those who stand in their way. In many cases, this feeling of moral superiority and absolute certainty has led to genocide and war — both civil and with other nations.

The religious impulse to absolutism sows the seeds of dictatorship. Just listen to the likes of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. They explicitly want to force everyone else to comply with their beliefs. This is not the role of a public official who is in power to represent the people… ALL people.

Constitutional protection was established so that no one could use their own religious interpretations to enforce their own theocratic versions of the law.

The irony is, most conservatives who buy into this “Christian Nation” fallacy are highly critical of nations that employ the same ideology, but in a different religious background.

They must be envious of government officials in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nations where they can enforce theocratic law in ways that contravene most basic human rights.

CONCLUSION

What escapes these fundamentalists is that by saying freedom comes from God (the one they believe in) they’re ignoring their own rule book — the Ten Commandments, which categorically states you are free to believe in only one god — Yahweh.

This coercion is intrinsic in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where many passages point to the death of all who oppose the will of Yahweh.

Freedom makes no sense when it comes with strings attached as it does with monotheistic religion. God quite clearly states that their can only be one true deity. All others are strictly prohibited.

The founders of the US knew this and went on to make the very first amendment to the constitution in direct opposition to what the creator of the universe laid out in the first commandment.

Hence… America is not founded on any religion. The humanistic philosophy that underpins the founding documents strictly prohibits the state from religious  meddling.

Being products of the Enlightenment, they knew full well what religious tyranny look liked and realized the only true way to ensure everyone is equal under the law was to scribe a secular constitution that prevented such abuses.

Putting and end to being offended

In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris recently, debates have raged throughout the Western world regarding the free expression and its role in society.

Many conversations have been outright condemnation. Sadly, a good number of other conversations have gone: “Nothing justifies murder, but…”

“We shouldn’t attack ideas with satire and ridicule for fear we might provoke outrage,” they say. This just hands power back to the thugs by giving them exactly what they want — control of others by fear and force.

But here are the facts: Words do not do any intrinsic harm. Ideas don’t have feelings and don’t deserve respect. People deserve respect.

Two things are at play here:

(1) People honestly believe that violence is permissible if someone is provoked

Pope Francis clearly believes this — the paragon of virtue of the Catholic Church supports the wife beater’s (she made me do it) defence, saying: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

It should be no surprise that a Catholic official is in favour of violence towards those who the Church deems as “opposition” (just look at Church history), but this is the meek and mild saviour of the Church speaking! The most popular Pope for a long time because he has appealed to the liberal and non-Catholics.

The kind of revenge society that Pope Francis is advocating is not the sort of society reasonable people want to live in. The idea that violence is justified for any reason other than defense  is simply barbaric. We condemn the kids who inflict physical punishment on the playground; we try to stamp out bullying, yet some of us are quick to say that inciting violence if insulted is okay. Progress in human rights, justice and ethical living since the Enlightenment has been away from this kind of meathead justice.

Violence is never the right answer to words and ideas we don’t like. Better ideas and better words are.

(2) People like to gain control by being reflexively offended

In recent years it has become fashionable for some to try to silence others and exert control on public discourse by playing the “I’m offended” card. The notion being that we all must have our feelings protected and if “I say I’m offended then you’d better just stop”.

But the world is constituted in such a way that this is clearly an absurd position. Just look at the droves of American Idol contestants in genuine shock and denial after receiving negative comments about their lack of singing talent. This is likely the first time they ever received any negative feedback because their so-called friends are constantly pumping them up and egging them on to “pursue their dream”.

You have the right to be offended but you don’t have the right to silence people in public discourse just because their arguments are inconvenient or uncomfortable to you. For if it is acceptable to silence others for your benefit, then it must be fine for others to demand that same level of respect of their beliefs from you.

If we try to change the world to conform with our wishes we are in a head-on course with disappointment and suffering.

It is impossible to not offend someone, somewhere. For some, the mere existence of atheists is offensive. Others just can’t be offended at all, though they feel revulsion at things done in poor taste. The thing is, ideas and concepts aren’t intrinsically offensive, people get offended.

Be not offended

Have you ever noticed that if you take two very similar people (similar interests and stations in life) and tell them the same thing they will respond differently? That’s because it’s not the words or the message that matters, it is the meanings people derive and layer on top of the message.

Words do not injure; words merely carry meaning and that meaning can only lead to injury if it is perceived to be so in the mind of the receiver.

Despite this, it blindingly obvious that when we lash out in response to things we don’t like it is because at some level we believe ourselves to have been injured in some way.

This is probably due to the fact that people identify with their beliefs and the more conviction and importance they assign those beliefs, the more sting they’re likely to feel if their beliefs are challenged. While they maybe ideas to us and we might even recognise them to be in error, to the person who holds the belief it is a matter of utmost importance. This is particularly the case when it comes to religion, primarily because those kinds of ideas are at the root of a person’s identity.

How the Stoics handled insults and criticism

As usual, the Stoics had some of the better insights on dealing with anything people had to say, positive or negative. This was because the Stoics knew that too many people place too much importance on what people thought, to the point where it would derail them emotionally.

Many of the following Stoic approaches to handling insults have been used with great effect in anger management classes and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The Roman Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for the hostile life in Roman Politics by reminding himself not to be surprised that people ware scoundrels:

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill”.  People do not choose to behave they way they do so “[t]hat men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.” – Meditations 2:1

Much of the shock we experience from the actions and words of others is because we at some level we think people shouldn’t be nasty or provocative. This is however, an unrealistic expectation and Aurelius’ morning reminder posted above is an antidote for such idealistic delusion.

We can’t control other people, but we can control our responses to them.

Another very effective way of dealing with comments is to refrain from thinking of them as negative or positive in the first place. After all, it is the assignment of meaning to statements that governs our emotional response.

“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Meditations 4:7

The above quote reveals a central theme in Stoic training that survives today in modern CBT: Don’t allow your initial impression to catch fire and turn into a full-on emotional outburst. Ultimately, we have the faculty of reason that can pour water on the sparks of emotional fires thereby keeping our equanimity and calm.

Epictetus says it much more eloquently:

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. – Enchiridion 1.5

Ideas don’t deserve respect, people do

In a civil society it is our duty to challenge ideas and allow the best ideas to make to survive while discarding those that are subversive, harmful and factually wrong. This can only happen with reasoned debate and inquiry free from corruption.

Words, ideas and pictures don’t have feelings, they can’t endure suffering and can’t be offended. Ideas deserve no special treatment for if they did then the idea that Earth is center of the universe or the ideas of alchemy would not be cast on the trash heap of history as they should be.

This is the big point that people like Pope Francis don’t get: we have only made moral and scientific progress — away from barbarism and the archaic notions that hold humanity back, by criticising ideas, holding them up in the light of day and seeing whether they’re valid, invalid, helpful or harmful.

However, ideas do carry power — power to change society, transform lives and shift wealth. This means people and and heads of corporations and institutions such as religions are motivated to suppress, deny and rubbish ideas that don’t serve their purpose or will lead to a loss of power. This is why we need freedom of speech — to avoid abuses of power in all its guises.

summary

Some things will offend people, regardless of how tame they maybe. You can’t not offend people. If we had a society that remained tight lipped over important issues for fear someone may cry “offense” then that lack of honesty and transparency would be allow all kinds of abuses and toxic ideas to flourish. The bullies would win.

The main take away points:

  • Words, pictures and actions are not inherently offensive, we become offended.
  • Words and ideas don’t deserve respect but people do
    Ideas don’t have feelings.
  • Trying to bend reality to meet our expectations is a flawed strategy.
  • Remind yourself daily, as Marcus Aurelius did, that you will encounter people who are rude, critical, irrational and outright nasty. Expect insult and avoid injury.
  • Repugnant ideas should be met with counter ideas in a civilised society, so that we can make moral progress.
  • Violence is only justified when meeting violence, never because we don’t like the words or ideas of others.

Regression: Hamilton drops fluoride from water supply

Fluoridation has been proven time and time again to reduce public health costs and dental problems. So it is with some disgust that I stumbled upon the decision by Hamilton City Council officials to bow to a misguided minority and remove fluoride from the city’s water supply.

There are many pseudoscientific beliefs prevalent in society so I shouldn’t be surprised that the removal of fluoride from Hamilton’s water supply has happened. But I am shocked and I am perplexed. Fluoride naturally exists in water just not in adequate quantities to protect teeth from decay. And for fuck’s sake this is 2013.

So there are several things wrong Hamilton City Council’s decision:

  • Firstly, pandering to a vocal minority clearly misguided and misinformed is not an example of good local governance.
  • The majority of Hamilton’s residents want fluoridated water, so if we’re talking about democratic decisions, the removal of fluoride is a massive fail.
  • Refusing to listen to the people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about is also a bad idea. Surely public health measures should be based on expert opinion (in this case dentists and medical professionals who are aware of the scientific evidence)?
  • Most disgusting of all — the deputy mayor  of Hamilton Gordon Chesterton claims there is a “lack of clear evidence” for the benefits of fluoridation in water. Since when did Mr Chesterton become an expert in the science behind fluoridation and dentistry?

A public official, like say, a deputy mayor, has an ethical obligation to check the facts behind a policy proposal — especially one that affects the health of the people he/she is representing.

Ignorance is a poor substitute for data

Mr Chesterton’s ignorance is being used to push a political agenda and for what? To appease the whingeing from people who reject science? The dropping of fluoridation is a symptom of a greater problem: The anti-scientific intuitions popular today stemming from bad assumptions (“if it’s natural it must be good”) and poorly constructed conspiratorial musings. All of this bad thinking is inevitable in human populations which is why we need science. Turning our backs on the data (or claiming the data doesn’t exist when it does) is problematic and sad really.

“People are entitled to their opinion, just not their own facts.” – Dr Steven Novella

Ignorance is a poor platform for making decisions period — especially when it will affect the health of citizens. We are lucky to live at a time when science is answering more and more questions and solving more and more problems. We turn our backs on science based medicine at our peril.

And despite what the advocates of the fluoride removal say, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that fluoride in water supplies is a massive public health benefit (see list below).

I think we can watch dental health deteriorate in the Hamilton region, and it probably won’t be in the people who are opposed to fluoridation. Instead, it will be people in lower socioeconomic homes who can’t afford dental care, have poor dental hygiene and have diets loaded with sugars.

A massive public policy fail

This is yet another massive public health fail. Massive. The ignorance of a few and a pompous deputy mayor who presumes far more expertise than he has will lead to suffering and more pressure on health services.

Let’s be clear about this — those opposed to health measures based on scientific medicine are the exact opposite of what they claim — they’re the ones turning back the clock on progress to a time when a person’s prospects in health, longevity and quality of life were dire.

In the event Mr Chesterton is reading this, here is the evidence you seem to have imagined doesn’t exist:

Gay marriage, the New Zealand Herald and the absurdity of online polls

Online polls are evidence only of the existence of online polls, oh, and that any conclusions drawn from them are absurd.

A recent online poll conducted by the New Zealand Herald showed that public support for gay marriage , counter to earlier polls which showed huge public support for gay marriage, had dropped to 48%.

Okay, an online poll was conducted. That is all we can reliably say about this poll. However, the Herald began using it in stories to demonstrate that “support had dropped” as the parliamentary debate about the proposed gay marriage bill went on.

Can we really say this? Can the results of an online poll be used to draw such conclusions? Or indeed, any conclusions at all?

Methodology? What methodology?

The reliability of any survey or poll comes down to the methodology employed in collecting the responses. Is it a representative sample of the population? Can it reliably ensure only one response per person? What is the sample size? Is it statistically significant?

Online polls typically violate all of these measures and controls. Other than that, it is totally possible to ‘game’ an online poll by rallying supporters to vote one way. My conservative uncle even tried to get me to vote like this on the Herald digipoll in question.

With regards to said Herald digipoll on gay marriage, the sample is self-selected — in other words people voluntarily choose to vote on it. Who would choose to vote on such a poll? Not only those who are emotionally engaged (which touches both sides of the argument) but specifically, those who feel incensed by gay marriage, predominantly those of a conservative persuasion.

This is the same phenomenon that research shows has been employed on social media: negative views on an issue outnumber positive views.

Probably the best illustration of this is review websites. For example, 10,000 people go to a hotel — 9900 have an enjoyable experience while 100 do not. Which reviews are most likely to end up on the hotel review website? Negative views on an issue motivate us to speak out and “right the wrong” so to speak.

Absurd methodology, absurd conclusions

The Herald did repeatedly refer to the result of the Digipoll as a change in opinion — something that cannot be justifiably determined from a poll that was clearly being gamed.

Worse still, Bob McCroskie, director of Family First NZ took these results as confirmation that his campaign of intolerance has swayed public opinion in his direction and that now it’s just politicians who are failing to realise this.

Conclusion

It is ridiculous to suggest an online poll has any correlation with real public opinion. Emotionally heated issues such as gay marriage are always going to attract those who are emotionally invested in the debate and for the most part it is the outraged — the conservative minded who feel gay marriage will signal the end of civilisation.

The unreliability of online polls, indeed any self-selected poll has been noted before. However, media outlets without actual data are using these polls as if they have some validity. This in turns feeds into people’s biases which in turn doesn’t help fuel a productive public debate.

Functional exercise, functional body (move it or lose it)

How can functional training make you a better human?

As you get older there are several processes occurring that diminish your ability to move as you could 10, 15 and 20 years prior.

Muscles lose their elasticity, strength and flexibility. Joints become less mobile or less stable (depending on their function). All of this adds up to less physical wellbeing.

The symptoms are often made worse by your body’s “history”. Something I heard a few years ago from a 90 year old man really struck me. He said “every bump gets recorded”. His contention was that, while the body can heal from knocks, when one is older those aches and pains come back to haunt us.

Modern society doesn’t help either — sitting down in hunched positions hour-after-hour, day-after-day ultimately trains the body into bad postures and poor function. We sit down for hours, use escalators when we could use the stairs and we slump down on couches for a few more hours to end the day. In short, everyday life is training us to be in bad shape.

strength as a skill versus strength for “show”

Functional strength is more than just about strength in the traditional sense (“look how much I can lift”). Functional strength is primarily about training the nervous system. Renowned trainer and Kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline calls this “greasing the groove”. In other words, strength is created through repetitive training of a specific sequence of movements. Strength is a skill as much as any other physical skill with a specific set of adaptations.

This is why athletes train radically differently to the average gym goer. Professional athletes typically get functional movement screening to see where there are deficiencies in their joint mobility, strength and flexibility.

Because athletes repeat specific sequences of movements at great speed and with great force generation, the risk of injury is always lingering. Minimising that risk while maximising the efficiency of movement is what modern physical training has become for athletes. This is the lesson ordinary humans can take from the pros.

Degeneration interrupted

One thing that always raises my eyebrows is the tendency of trainers to take on clients and give them a vanilla programme to help the client reach their fitness goals. For instance, it is not always a good idea to put a person straight into a weight training program when they can’t even move their bodies properly.

The purest form of functional training is bodyweight training — probably the most underrated form of training there is. What a lot of people don’t realise is that a lot of guys that are gym strong but not functionally strong. This because moving an external load (barbells/dumbbells) is vastly different from moving your own body. External loads can force the body to move through problematic lines.

Someone may well be able to squat a 300 pounds but they probably can’t do a one-legged squat for 1 rep let alone 6-10 reps. As a general rule, why not getting people to train their bodies to move themselves properly before overloading the body with weights?

Relics of a bygone era

In the move from aesthetic, bodybuilding paradigms to a more functional, athletic training ethos, there are inevitable casualties and cast offs. Some exercises — once thought to be staples in any gym goers trick bag — are now relics of the past. Others are borderline but tough to get rid of because they’re so ingrained in the collective psyche.

Leg extensions, leg presses, peck deck flyes, chest flyes, machine squats, leg curls and bicep curls (heresy!) are often ignored by athletes. Why? For the most part, these exercises take the target muscle out of a position of strength, compromising the ability of the muscle to perform as it functions normally. Leg extensions and leg curls are two prime examples of exercises largely useless to athletes.

Functional rules of thumb

Muscles are evolved to fire holistically — as part of a sequence. In the previous example, both leg extensions and leg curls take quadriceps and hamstrings out of their strength and put them into isolation. This is also a way to create functional imbalances, which is a surefire way to invite injuries.

So with all that in mind, here are a few guidelines:

  • Forget isolation exercises (movements that involve one joint and isolates specific muscles).
  • Discard the body part approach to programme design and take a movement-centric approach instead.
  • Address structural and movement asymmetries.
  • Use bodyweight training to condition muscles, joints and tendons to move through full ranges of motion (a full depth squat is difficult for many people). Train the body to move through natural body motions.
  • Use progressive bodyweight exercise to increase functional strength (see Paul Wade’s excellent book: “Convict Conditioning” for more on progressing basic bodyweight movements. View some sample workouts).

The vision

I want to be clear about the last point — developing functional strength via bodyweight training. The main point is thus: If you can’t move your own weight properly then that’s where you need to start.

Bodyweight training will help you move properly, through full ranges of motion and stave off body degradation that happens as one gets older. Getting stronger in these movements will enable you to be the best human being you can be while avoiding the kind of self-induced “paralysis” that hits most people later in life. Move it or lose it is the name of the game.

The functional fitness revolution

Fitness and health is such a massive industry that the conventional advice is often never questioned. Despite this, a quiet revolution is happening in the fitness industry.

[This is the first in a 2-part series of posts on how the fitness industry has changed and how you can avoid bad advice and hokey marketing gimmicks].

It was bound to happen. After the heyday of the muscle bound bodybuilding hulks in the 1970s and 80s, physical training had to change.

When I began looking into training and physical fitness in the mid-1990s, pretty much the only resources you could find were of a bodybuilding nature. Many fitness programmes relied on weight training and a bit of aerobics to develop that cardiac-respiratory system (aka heart and lungs!)

While all this is great and the average guy or gal could improve their fitness, these routines were limited in scope and therefore may not have been entirely appropriate for the average gym goer.

Recalibrating fitness goals

Muscle growth in and of itself is great but there must be something more to training than that. Whether this was an overt observation of the fitness community or not I can’t be sure of. What I do know is that sports science and the study of kinesiology (how humans move) have come along way since weight training really took off in the period from the 1950s–70s.

The fitness industry as a whole owes a lot to the pioneers of bodybuilding and strength training. The musclebound hulk like figures (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno and Lee Haney) were poster boys for an entire generation of trainers.

Bodybuilding is awesome, but in some respects it is a victim of its own success. The huge bulging over-bloated bodybuilders that have become the norm now are such extreme outliers that most guys don’t want to look that way, don’t have the time and simply the perseverance to develop such massive physiques.

Muscle isn’t the end of the story

At heart, all guys are secretly wannabe superheroes. While bodybuilders no longer represent the ideal that most guys are after, professional athletes do inspire awe and respect in the general populace.

It is hard not to admire a Usain Bolt, a Sidney Crosby or a Lebron James. These guys inspire awe in what they can do, rather than in how massive their biceps are.

There’s nothing wrong with big biceps and this post is not an attack on bodybuilding. I’m keen to bloat my chest, shoulders and biceps through training as much as the next guy. An awesome physique is well, awesome! But there is something about a guy who can move like a cheetah, jump like Mike or power his way through opponents like a charging rhino.

What is this functional buzzword anyway?

Modern life combined with the growing realisation that training for just muscular development has led to this functional fitness revolution.

So functional simply refers to the idea that the average person can reach their physique potential in size and ability. Guys can be powerful athletes; ladies can be nimble like a dancer. In fact, these are powerful reasons for why training has gone the functional way — people play sports, hike, cycle, mountain bike and run marathons. Unfortunately for many of us, we spend hours a day de-training ourselves for basic movement by sitting hunched over desks or other suboptimal arrangements.

The sea change in the way training is done can in part be attributed to a number of popular gym disciplines: Pilates, Yoga, Military training approaches and the emergence of Crossfit. Popular exercise magazines are Men’s Health/Women’s Health and Women’s Fitness/Men’s Fitness magazines. There are many more but these publications capture the essence of fitness as a lifestyle rather than an aesthetic only.

Resources

Can we at least learn something from this Mayan apocalypse mumbo jumbo?

The failed Mayan apocalypse ramblings could be a positive awakening for humanity, but it won’t be. Read on for why I’m not optimistic.

Sorry but I can’t not talk about the supposed Mayan apocalypse hubbub. I just think that we can learn some lessons from this whole thing. I mean, we laughed at Harold Camping for his absurd pronouncements about the end of the world last year (twice as the math was slightly off).

For starters, the Mayans never made such a prophecy. Even if they did — so what!? The obsession with what the Mayans may or may not have said/thought seems in part to be due to the romantic (false) notion that ancient societies were in some sort of wonderful place, in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

My basic premise

Claims such as those made about a mysterious Planet X destroying the Earth or any other apocalyptic ramblings fail because those making/believing such claims are arriving at conclusions from a faulty epistemology.

Check this list of failed predictions of apocalyptic events (Wikipedia).

Remember, ancient peoples were ignorant of many basic facts that we take for granted today. In fact, you only have to go back a few hundred years to see how primitive our collective human understanding really was. It wasn’t long ago we had no idea of: the germ theory of disease; sun centered solar system; expanding universe; DNA and heritability; evolution and the origin of species; radio waves; electricity; gravity… We were blind to so much.

Misconceptions galore — A Primer on Knowledge

A claim I was presented with recently went as follows (paraphrasing):

“At one time, the research of the day showed that the Earth was the centre of the universe”.

I hear similar statements from people quite a bit. The idea that science is somehow flawed because our understanding of the world was primitive at one point is really unconvincing.

Claims such as “the Earth is at the centre of the universe” stem from primitive intuitions based on limited data — such claims come before research is done.

Remember, science isn’t a “thing”. The word is a noun for a process of fact checking and observation. At one point knowledge on a subject is minimal. The scientific method helps us grow a body of reliable knowledge and increases our understanding. This is what makes science a reliable and valid epistemology.

Therefore (and this is the key point): Human understanding improves over time.

That means, we cast off that which is shown to be false and accept that which we find to be true.

Science has allowed us to open our eyes, lift the veil of ignorance and reveal a world that rich and wonderful and even more important — science has shown us that it is comprehensible, even to our limited brains.

“But science changes over time”

Wrong. Knowledge changes over time. Science is just the method we use to acquire knowledge/discard hypotheses. This is a good thing.

The Mayans had a primitive understanding of reality

The Mayans, like all ancient cultures were superstitious, attributing all manner of natural phenomena to gods and mystical beings. Human progress has been a long history of superstitions being replaced by real knowledge and understanding.

I think we can learn some valuable lessons from these facts about our collective understanding of the universe in which we live, and yet another failed end of the world hypothesis:

  • Knowledge improves over time.
  • The process by which we accumulate claims has changed: We now can produce reliable information about reality through validation and testing.
  • Ancient cultures did not validate claims through a stringent process of checking facts.
  • They didn’t have sophisticated tools to investigate reality and therefore couldn’t be expected to ask better questions.
  • Ancient cultures were largely ignorant of basic facts about the natural order.
  • Ancient cultures did not have privileged information that we don’t know now (as much as we would like to romanticise and claim they did).

Ergo… We must ask ourselves, “How does the ancient claim/philosophy square with our understanding of nature today?”

Ignorance and default thinking

People can still choose to believe that lightning is still mandated by higher powers and that cyclones and earthquakes are sent by gods but this thinking is now optional. When people didn’t know better they defaulted to the supernatural claim. That’s just part of being human.

Conclusion — why nothing will change

If human knowledge improves over time then we can’t look back into the deep past and expect to see great understanding of reality. Even if an ancient culture claimed something about today, that isn’t a reason to believe it (again the Mayans didn’t make an apocalyptic claim, people interpret it that way today).

Here is a prediction: Those invested in the Mayan apocalypse nonsense will probably not change their beliefs even after yet another failed attempt to predict the end of the world. That is just human nature, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in action

What we will see is more ad hoc justifications on and beyond 22 December 2012.

Then the next craze will hit town and the we will be entertained/bemused at yet another prediction stemming from flawed epistemology and more lame justifications.