What Is a 12% Chance?

I thought I’d take a moment to explore one of the areas that I actually have some background in: Mathematics and statistics. According to the web site fivethirtyeight.com, as of when I published this post, Donald Trump has approximately a 12% chance of winning the November 3rd election.

Incredible, some might say, Joe Biden is going to win the election. Not so fast! 12%, while heavily favoring Biden, doesn’t mean that Trump is necessarily going to lose. The image of this post (I love MS paint sometimes) represents approximately a 12% chance for the Orange lunatic to win the election. It’s unlikely, but far an insurmountable lead.

What does 12% actually mean, and how we can relate it to the real world? It turns out that 12% is very close to exactly 1 in 8. It also turns out that 1 in 8 in very close to 1 in 6 (for estimating purposes, since 1 in 6 is 16.6%.) In other words, Trump’s chances to win the election are not too far removed from rolling a 6 single sided die and coming up with a 6. Again, unlikely but not impossible. For something you can try yourself, it’s also very close to your chances of flipping a fair coin three times and having each flip come up heads.

Here are some other close approximations of what a 12% chance actually lookls like:

  • From a standard deck of cards pulling out any of the ace though 6 of diamonds (actually 1 in 8.6, or about which is 11.5%)
  • That an American living in the US (or it’s territories) in 2018 lived in California (approximate 39 million out of 331 million, which is just under 12%)
  • Selecting a random day of the year and having that day be a Monday (actually 1 in 7, which is 14.2%.)
  • There is apparently a 1 in 8 chance that a solar mega storm will happen in the next decade
  • 538 provides the example of rain in Los Angeles. It apparently rains 36 days per year, meaning that there’s about a 1 in 10 chance of any day being rainy, which is only slight worse than Trump’s chances.

Statistics can be interesting stuff. We just need to be careful that we don’t misinterpret what the numbers mean. Having a sense of how odds work, and being able to relate them to the real world, can make mathematics much less confusing and more relatable.

An open letter to Christians about their support of Trump

Ends and Beginnings

Dear American Christians:

On November the 3rd, less than two weeks from today, you have an important decision to make about your eternal life. Do you remember that covenant you hold so near and dear to your heart? It is the pledge that separates you from the rest of us heathens. It is the promise you have based your entire earthly existence on, that because of your relationship with Jesus Christ that you will have an eternal life and will never perish. But on November 3rd if you vote for Donald Trump again, knowing what you know now, I got to believe your trip to eternal life might just be in jeopardy.

I want you to think about this headline from The New York Times today for just a moment: Parents of 545 Children Separated at the Border Cannot Be Found. Now I want you to…

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Blasphemy Part 2

This post is a follow up to my previous post about blasphemy. In Canada, back in 2017, a long defunct blasphemy law was repealed. While nobody had been charged with this offense for decades, and any charges would have almost certainly fall apart under a challenge to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the mere existence of such a law did not give Canada any moral high ground in pressuring other countries to remove their blasphemy laws. I am happy this law is gone from the Canadian criminal code. I hope that the Canadian government uses its position to help remove blasphemy laws worldwide, especially in Muslim majority countries.

Blasphemy laws have no place in any modern and free society. They give a place of special privilege to religious ideas by criminalizing those who speak against them. It is against the principles of modern civilization that mere ideas, like the untestable claims of religions, should not be beyond criticism. If your bad ideas need to protect with laws it only serves to reinforce that your ideas are nonsense.

Christianity also has at least one blasphemy law of sorts. Mark 3:28-30, as well as the other synoptic gospels, has Jesus stating:

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

I have no idea if Jesus actually said these words (or their equivalent) or not, but the point made is very clear. Those who do not show the proper reverence to the Holy Spook will not be forgiven of their sin, and will presumably end up in Hell for their “crime.” Given that this passage exists I’d like to take a moment to express the following:

The Holy Spirit does not exist, nor is it part of the incoherent “trinity.” The stories that we read about the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts were made up, either by the author or by earlier Christians. Nobody has ever had the power to speak such that everyone could understand their words simultaneously. The concept of the Holy Spirit only serves to help convince believers that God is somehow with them, even though nothing attributed to the Holy Spirit can be effectively demonstrated The power of the Holy Spirit is complete and utter nonsense!

With that out of the way I assert that I have made blasphemous statements against the Holy Spirit that, according to the gospels, can never be be forgiven. If you are a Bible believing Christian you should now understand that for me to convert back to Christianity would be pointless, so all attempts to do so should be in vain. I

would encourage anyone else who also regards Christianity as an absurdity to make a similar declaration against the Holy Spirit. Let your blasphemy be stated loudly and proudly! Nobody should fear punishment for what are effectively thought crimes.

The Right To Blaspheme

Blasphemy is a victimless crime even if God exists. God, being all powerful, and unchanging, cannot be harmed by my simple expressions. The only thing that can possible be hurt are the overly sensitive feelings of religious believers. But here’s the deal: You don’t have the right to not be offended. If you support blasphemy laws you really do need to grow up and learn to accept that your religious beliefs aren’t privileged. I respect your right to hold your beliefs but you do not have the right to force your beliefs onto others.

I stand against blasphemy laws and all those who would enforce them. The latest story of a history teacher in France being beheaded by Islamists – offended that students were shown “controversial” cartoons – is just another in the long history our species killing people over offended religious sensibilities. It’s absurd to kill people because you are offended, or you think that God is offended.

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My Fears For November 3rd

November 3rd is quickly approaching. It may be the day that the Great Experiment fails (although the polls certainly suggest that’s probably not going to happen.) Regardless of the outcome I have some looming fears about that day.

My first and foremost fear is that not enough Americans vote against Trump, or that the votes against Trump are disqualified. Trump wants this to happen and it’s quite possible that we’ll find Republican lawyers in court arguing that the results in certain key states should be disqualified. Without a landslide victory this election may come down to the partisan Supreme Court.

My second concern is what happens when Biden wins. Sure, it’s a net positive result, because it’s not Trump. I’m not really a fan of Biden, nor Harris, much like I’m not a fan of Obama. Biden and Harris are both very conservative and aren’t really the kind of politicians I want. I worry we’ll go back to what we’ve had in the past, which is what gave us Trump in the first place. We need politicians who are going to make meaningful changes so that somebody like Trump doesn’t get to come back.

Even if we get more progressive politicians who are willing to make meaningful changes, my third concern lies in the senate. Many of the races are close and it’s quite possible that Republicans will retain control. If that happens we can expect very little change, and just about anything meaningful to stall in the senate. Appointments to the courts will be held off, and only critical legislation will pass. It would result in a continuing dysfunctional government.

My last concern is that we get a blue wave in November and people step holding politicians to account. As it stands we’re poised to get huge voter turnouts, but I expect that it’s largely backlash against Trump. All of the work to get people engaged will be for not if people step back and stop caring after November 3rd. We need to be proactive in our politics to make sure that we don’t get another Trump. Politics only works when people are engaged and a large scale disengagement will mean we go back to the status-quo (or worse.)

Ultimately, if you care about the kind of society you live in, and you want to make sure that it’s strengthened against would-be tyrants, we all need to stay involved and work to hold our politicians to account. We can’t just go to the polls every few years hope they’ll do the right thing. History shows us that this just doesn’t happen.

Medical Journal Says Trump Must Go

In recent times the New England Journal of Medicine has gone on record about the lack of leadership in the current administration. The failure of this current administration at dealing with the threat of COVID-19 should be a serious concern of everyone regardless of political affiliation. Over 210,000 Americans have now died, and the number will continue to get worse as the current administration still does very virtually nothing.

The New England Journal of Medicine is also not the first non-political organization to make political statements about the Presidency in recent times. The magazine Scientific American has also come out and, for the first time ever, has explicitly endorsed someone for the Presidency of the United States. This endorsement is more of a statement against Trump rather than anything particular to Biden, but the point is made. Science organizations suffer under Trump and Republicans.

If you are somehow still undecided about who to vote for come November 3rd take the statements of these two usually apolitical organizations into consideration. It should tell you that the Trump administration has serious problems on the medical and scientific front.

The reality is that Trump routinely refuses to consider the evidence or even take seriously the position of medical and scientific experts. Much like his evangelical base it would seem that Trump selects the information he accepts based primarily on his intuition. Keep in mind that this same intuition has led to the bankrupting of many of his business, including casinos.

If for nothing other than helping to deal with this current pandemic the Trump administration needs to be removed from office so that people who will listen to the advice of medical experts can be brought in. Until then take the following advice:

  • Wash your hands
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Practice physical distancing and avoid large gatherings
  • Wear a mask when you are with others

These simple steps, if practiced by everyone, would help significantly reduce the transmission of the novel corona virus.

No Christians, Your Prayers Aren’t Helping the President

The President has tweeted out this morning that he’s feeling well, and that his recovery is like a miracle coming down from God. No surprises here really, as Trump loves to warm up to his fundamentalist Christian base. Some of his cult of followers are now claiming that their prayers are healing the President.

Let’s look at what’s going on. We have the President of the United States sitting in a first rate military hospital receiving the absolute best care in the world from some of the best doctors available. Medical science is hard at work on helping Trump recover and yet Christians want to take at least some of the credit for what modern medical science is doing.

If God is so powerful and loving why did he allow Trump to get the Coronavirus in the first place? Why go through this rigamarole with allowing him to get sick and then healing him? God surely knew that Trump was going to get sick, but elected to do nothing until he was actually infected with the virus (and let’s not even talk about who knows how many other people he has possibly infected), and now you’re heaping praise onto God for helping Trump feel better, but ignoring the fact that over 200,000 other Americans have died from this virus. I really don’t know what I can possibly say to cure your stupidity.

Christians, your prayers aren’t helping Trump (although they aren’t hurting him either). Assuming he’s actually getting better it’s because that is what usually happens when people get sick. Even this page shows that people of the Presidents age only have an 5.6% mortality rate (which is still quite high, and I cannot find statistics on severe complications.) The odds are with him that he’ll recover from this virus, and assuming he survives it won’t be because of your prayers. Come back to the real world and leave behind the world where chanting in your head somehow cures people. It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t real.

Trump and Coronavirus

It was revealed today by the White House that Donald and Melania Trump have contracted COVID-19. I’m sure to many of us this is hardly a surprise given the lack of precaution that Republicans in general have taken towards this virus.

While it may feel very good to wish ill will upon somebody as vile as Donald Trump it does us no favors to do so. Hoping that Trump dies from this virus will not help those of us who oppose him and his policies.

First, it goes against everything that it should mean to call oneself a humanist, and to value the lives of other people even if they don’t value yours. If we want to claim that humanism is a viable model for morality, and want to help it spread, then we need to act consistent with those beliefs. Nobody, not even Donald Trump, deserves to die from this virus. Wishing suffering upon others is inconsistent with humanistic values.

Second, the death of Donald Trump does us no favors politically. His death wouldn’t give Americans a chance to show that they soundly reject Trump’s brand of cruelty. Sure, I’ll grant that the immediate problem go away, but his supporters wouldn’t. They will still be there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for another opportunity to put forward another person who will give them what they want.

I’ll take this opportunity to say this: I sincerely wish the President, First Lady, and everyone infected with the coronavirus, a quick and painless recovery from this virus that has already claimed the lives of over 200,000 Americans, and over 1,000,000 world wide.

I also sincerely hope that this causes Trump to take the coronavirus more seriously than he has over this past year, although I have serious doubt that this will happen. History has shown that he seems to have no ability to care about anything but himself.

Bishop Robert Barron on Angels and Devils

I'd probably, again under this rubric of always seeing the primacy of the good over evil, I wouldn't start with evil start with good. Does it make sense to believe in angels? And there's obviously the biblical witness to angels but can you make a more of a rational argument? I think, looking at some of the great figures in the tradition that have seen the coherence of belief in angels as we survey the nature of god's creation, that seems to be ordered in the sort of hierarchical way. God seems to delight in a great multiplicity of creatures. Does it make sense - and this is both Thomas Aquinas and [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin make the same argument - does it make sense to say that God's creation ends with just the physically complex universe and there is simply yawns and abyss between that and God. Wouldn't it make more sense to say "no, there's a whole range of purely spiritual creatures" So like God, pure spirits, but like us creatures in whom essence and existence don't coincide, and I think that's a coherent position to hold. Now if you hold that, is it further more coherent to say that some of those angels would have fallen, just as we fall, you know just as our freedom is well exercised and poorly exercised, might that not be true in that purely spiritual realm of creatures? Yeah it seems to me, and so a fallen angel we call a devil. I mean there's nothing that strikes me as really incoherent. I can't point to "now here let me give you clear empirical evidence." I think those arguments have some, you know, coherence and then the bottom line though is the biblical witness to the existence of angels.

The above quotation, which is based on the YouTube transcript, comes from Word on Fire‘s Bishop Robert Barron after being asked by Cameron Bertuzzi, of Capturing Christianity, to offer an argument for the existence of demons and devils in this interview video. Years ago I used to watch Bishop Barron’s YouTuybe channel in order to find out what his followers agree with. I honestly haven’t gone out of my way to hear anything from him for almost 5 years now, and I’m not certainly not regretting it.

“And there’s obviously the biblical witness…”

The only real evidence that Bishop Barron actually provides is his statement that there is the “biblical witness” to angels. This shouldn’t count for much to those who are actually skeptical of the existence of angels. It certainly isn’t much to go on that some old book claims that something is real, unless you start with the assumption that the Bible is somehow a reliable authority on such matters. The Harry Potter books, as well as The Lord of the Rings, claim that wizards exist (granting that a LotR wizard is very different from a HP wizard.) Does this mean we should take seriously the existence of wizards, or should we accept that people like to write down fantasies? An old book making claims may be a starting point for an investigation, but it should not be taken as a reliable authority on matters.

Coherence

The second striking thing about this is that Bishop Barron seems to think that the coherence of an idea should be sufficient to accept that the idea is real. If this is not his position I would hope he would offer a different argument, or find some way to go from coherent to sound. Alas, he does not.

To say that something is coherent is simply to say that the idea does not contain any logical contradictions, and that we cannot axiomatically dismiss it as not describing something real. When an idea is incoherent it is sufficient to warrant belief that the idea doesn’t describe anything in reality, but the converse is not true. Coherence is a necessary requirement for something to be real, but it is not sufficient, as all ideas that are real are coherent, but not all coherent ideas are real.

Also of concern is Barron’s sentence “Now if you hold that, is it further more coherent to say that some of those angels would have fallen […]?” How does a concept become “more coherent”? As far as I am concerned coherence is binary proposition, and either something is coherent, or it is not. I’m not aware of levels of gradation to coherence. Perhaps he meant to say something like “is it also coherent to say that some of those angels would have fallen?” That would make sense, but I’m not going to belabor this point.

Would angels fall?

As previously noted, Bishop Barron asks the question “Now if you hold that, is it further more coherent to say that some of those angels would have fallen?” I think the answer to the question is “I don’t know, and I don’t think you can possibly know either.” I don’t know what beings that are “pure spirits” are, or what they are capable of. At best it seems that Bishop Barron is just engaging in imagination play, but has no actual hard evidence to back up his claims. All theology seems to be this way – endless speculation and no hard evidence. Has anything new come out of theology in the last 500 years?

Conclusion

Having listened to what Bishop Barron had to say about angels I still remain skeptical. He offers nothing that doesn’t start with the assumption that his particular God exists, and that it is somehow “pure spirit” (whatever this means.) Aside from arguing that angels and the Devil are coherent concepts (I don’t really agree, because he didn’t really define what these things are), the only evidence he brings with him is that the Bible says they’re real. Well whoopee shit Mr Catholic Bishop, I really don’t care what the Bible says about the existence of things we have no ability to verify.

If this is the best argument that he’s got then he’s nowhere close to convincing me. At best he’s got to the starting blocks by saying that the concepts are coherent, but that’s not saying much at all. While I can grant that he probably wasn’t expecting to be asked about this, he didn’t really give much of a defense at all.

A Possible Answer to a Supreme Court Problem

So there are few things about the US Supreme Court that I’ve become increasingly concerned about in recent years. The one that seems the most concerning to me is just how long justices are sitting on the court. Ginsberg sat on that court for 27 years, and served well into her 80’s. Clarence Thomas is now the current senior member of the court having been there for over 29 years, at age 72 years could serve for another decade. Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee is 48 years old and could serve for 35-40 years.

When the founders allowed for lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court it was probably expected that a person would serve approximately 20 years, and then retire or die. I think the modern era has put the idea of a lifetime appointment, especially for somebody in their 40s, under strain. The fact that Ginsberg had already served for over 25 years, and Thomas could serve for well over 30, is a problem that people should look to address. I don’t think it’s a good idea that any Supreme Court justice serve long terms.

I think the problem of long terms for justices is part of what leads us into the situation we have today where seats on the court are extremely coveted by both parties. Because the Supreme Court has the power to shape what laws are permitted, and they tend to keep their seats for a very long time, everybody wants a piece of the action so to speak.

So what can be done? I think it’s seriously time that Americans start considering term limits, and age limits, on the Supreme Court. If we’re going to have people who are shaping what laws are legal I’d like those people to reflect the society of the time. So here’s my proposal: All justices who serve on the Supreme Court may serve maximum term of 18 years, and must retire upon reaching the age of 75.

This would offer some significant benefits: Assuming the size of the court stays the same, every President should expect to replace approximately two sitting justices per term, and there will be frequent changes to who is serving on the bench. Positions on the Supreme Court should become less coveted, and people should have a good expectation of what justices are going to retire during a presidents term. It also means that a bad choice of justice does not get to sit on the highest court for decades.

Obviously this wouldn’t solve all of the problems that are out there. Those who wish to stack the court to overturn certain legal precedents will still want to shove the court full of ideologues, but knowing that these people will only serve a limited tenure means even if the court becomes stack on one sides favor that the stacking can be undone within a decade. It also means that the selections for the court today wont be as strongly felt by people several generations from now.

If we wanted a fairer system we could do something giving each major party four justices, only the chief justice is selected by the currently sitting President, who must be confirmed with a super majority. But I digress.

In the end I don’t think anybody deserves a lifetime appointment to any court, or even to serve in government. I also advocate for term limits for Congress, to make sure that fresh blood is brought into the mix, as it’s become apparent that there are many in Congress that are more interested in their careers than doing what is right.

What are your thoughts about term limits for the Supreme Court, and possibly other branches of government? Do you think it will help to solve some of our current problems, or will it only create new ones?