Monday, April 24, 2017

Scientific Consensus


I recently saw a video of Senator Bernie Sanders grilling Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the post of director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout his seven minutes Sanders repeatedly demanded that Pruitt affirm that 97% of scientists believe that global warming is a grave threat to the planet; that it is caused by human activity; and that the government must take steps to shut down the use of fossil fuels. Of course, Sanders jumped in and interrupted every attempt by Pruitt to answer his questions. He ended by saying that he could not vote to confirm him, as if there was ever any doubt.

To be fair I must say that Sanders qualified his question by adding that the 97% figure referred to the percentage of peer-reviewed papers that had appeared in climate change journals and other similar publications. I think that this qualifier is overlooked when most people consider the question of scholarly or scientific consensus. I can certainly believe that 97% of these peer-reviewed papers support the human responsibility for global warming. What is hard to believe is that 3% of the papers were able to sneak their way through the peer-review process and cast doubt on the hypothesis.

My own experience makes me skeptical about the whole peer-review process. For years I have subscribed to a couple of scholarly journals on the Renaissance. Inevitably, they feature articles or book reviews on Shakespeare. Never have I seen one that would even hint that the great plays and poems might have been written by a man of much greater education and life experience than the man from Stratford on Avon.

Great writers like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Henry James raised the question in the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud shared the view that someone else was the author as did Shakespearean actors like Orson Welles and Derek Jacobi. Dozens of books on the authorship question have appeared in the past few years but most go unmentioned in the peer-reviewed journals.

My own experience in the field of Renaissance art history has also made me question the peer-review process. In the past dozen years, I have been able to arrive at plausible interpretations of some of the most well-known but most mysterious paintings of the Renaissance. I have done the research, written up my findings but found that the peer-review process is a closed shop, only open to peers. Necessity made me turn to the web and in 2010 I put my interpretations on a website and also created a blog, Giorgione et al..., to explore the subject further.

Scholars often urge their students to “think outside the box” but rarely follow their own advice. Although their politics may be liberal and even radical, they tend to be conservative when it comes to their own subject. Graduate students have to be aware of the danger of criticizing their mentors. Professors must still publish to keep their jobs, advance their careers, or gain grant monies. It is very difficult to challenge the traditional wisdom or orthodoxy.  As one art historian wrote,
“To do so would be to question the competence of most of those who have written on the subject, and this is something that no one…wants to do…the longer those views have gone unchallenged the greater the authority that they have acquired.”
Galileo is a hero to so-called “freethinkers” but in his time, he stood virtually alone against all the professional scientists and mathematicians of his time who dominated the institutions of higher learning. He used a primitive telescope to destroy the elaborate system accepted by more that 97% of the leading experts. Oddly enough, a few Jesuit astronomers were among his few early supporters.

Climate change has become like a new religion and its priests can be found in the scientific establishment. Their devoted followers march in street processions to proclaim their beliefs and attack heretics. For them the issue is settled and no further debate is necessary. What are they and Bernie Sanders afraid of? Why did he find it necessary to interrupt and ignore any attempt on the part of Scott Pruitt to reply?


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sunday

Only a few days after Egyptian President Sisi visited President Trump in the White House, Moslem fanatics in Egypt set off bombs in two crowded Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday. The explosions killed almost a hundred people and wounded many more. As a result, Christian leaders have cancelled all services for today’s great feast of Easter.

During the past few years a friend of mine has worked to compile daily accounts of attacks on Christians all over the world. It is hard to read these accounts of varying brutality that occur practically every day. Most of the attacks are carried out by fanatical Moslems. Christians are beaten, raped, robbed, tortured, and murdered mainly because they are Christian. No individual offenses were levelled against the worshippers who had come together in Egypt.

Last year at this time I mentioned that members of the Islamic State murdered four nuns of the Missionaries of Charity working in an elder care facility in Aden, Yemen. Last year on the day after Easter, Taliban suicide bombers murdered over 65 Christian worshippers in Pakistan and wounded over 300. The only crime of those people, like so many thousands of others brutally persecuted in recent years, was that they were Christians.

What is so bad about Christianity? Why do extremists, both secular and religious, hate it so much? Maybe I should ask, why do they fear it so much?

Even after the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, his subsequent Ascension forty days later, and the incredible events of Pentecost, St. Peter did not fully understand the implications of the Resurrection. Only after a personal vision convinced him that Jesus died and rose for all, did Peter see the light. He said,

“Now I really understand that God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. “*

I have come to believe with Peter that God is not a respecter of persons, and that anyone who does right is acceptable to God. Still, I like being a Christian, especially a Catholic. There are many things I like about it but most of all I like a religion that believes in and holds out hope for resurrection, for a life after death.

I like to think that the worshippers bombed in Egypt or the four nuns murdered in Yemen are living a new life, and that they are not just rotting bodies being picked apart by vultures. It also strikes me that in reading accounts of them they, like tens of thousands of other Christians who have also been brutally persecuted, had already given up their lives in the service of others. Like Jesus, they went about doing good and healing.**

For Christians Easter, coming as it usually does at the outset of Spring, will always be a sign of new life.

The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples used the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted, the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. As the last traces of snow disappear, the crocus miraculously pushes its way up through its winter tomb.


*Acts of the Apostles 10: 25-37.

**Deacon Michael Nabil Ragheb, a 29 year old husband and father, was one of those killed in the Egyptian bombing. His uncle described him:

 “Michael was very diligent. He was top of his class in university, where he graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy with distinction. He was also a graduate from the Coptic Theological College. He was successful, both in his working life and spiritual life. He was a son of the Church from childhood onwards and was a very obedient, humble and honest person. Since 2006 he served at Mar Girgis as a deacon, teaching the children in Sunday school." (Thanks to Tom Davis, creator and editor of "Today's Martyrs".)

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Filibuster


The Senate yesterday utilized the “nuclear” option and broke the Democrat filibuster over the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Shamelessly disregarding their previous statements and actions, Democrat politicians are now calling the filibuster a cherished part of American democracy.

So many of these same people were around during the administration of George W. Bush when there was an unusually large amount of judicial vacancies caused by Democrat unwillingness to confirm any of Bush’s nominees to the Federal bench. Back in the last year of the Bush administration Senator Chuck Schumer, the current minority leader, had warned Bush to not even consider nominating anyone to the Supreme Court in case a vacancy occurred in his last year.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 all these vacancies were now his to fill. But when Republicans used the filibuster to block some nominees, the Democrats invented the “nuclear” option that broke the filibuster and allowed the Senate to confirm the Obama nominees. Now that the Republicans have control of the Senate, and use the same tactic invented by the Democrats, all of a sudden the Republic is in danger.

However, the idea of the filibuster is nowhere to be found in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. The first filibuster only took place in 1837. In fact, I believe that the founding fathers, who were brought up in the British parliamentary system, would have been shocked by the idea that one man or even a minority could impede the will of the majority of the people’s representatives. They would have been even more shocked by the modern version of the filibuster, a kind of “virtual” filibuster where the Senator would not have to actually go through a boring, grueling test of endurance.

Isn’t it ironic that the same politicians and commentators who now bemoan the loss of the filibuster, are the same ones who are also advocating the abolition of the Electoral College, something that has been in the Constitution from the beginning. When it comes to the filibuster, they argue that the votes of 41 Senators count for more than the votes of 59 Senators.  But some dare to call President Trump illegitimate because he did not win a majority of the popular vote even though he won a clear and substantial majority in the Electoral College.

Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate by 52-48. The margin is even greater in the House of Representatives where the Republicans gained the majority in 2010, only two years after President Obama took office. Today, Republicans hold 237 seats in the House, Democrats hold 193, and five seats are currently vacant. In the fifty states there are 33 Republican Governors compared to only 17 Democrats. Republicans now are in the majority in 69 State legislative houses, while Democrats are in the majority in only 30. Can these popular majorities on both the national and state level all be part of some vast right-wing conspiracy?

Perhaps the most famous Senate filibuster in history is a fictional one. In Frank Capra’s famous 1940 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, James Stewart played Jefferson Smith, a young, popular local figure, who was appointed by the political machine in his home state to temporarily fill a Senate seat left vacant by the death of the incumbent. However, he soon discovered that the machine was up to no good and took to the Senate floor to conduct a one-man crusade against their nefarious scheme.

Frank Capra made Jefferson Smith a heroic figure, and in doing so he also created a myth that has lasted to the present day. I’ve seen the Capra film many times and the Democrats who now attempt to justify the filibuster bear little resemblance to the character played by Jimmy Stewart. Judge Neil Gorsuch bears a much closer resemblance to Capra’s hero than Chuck Schumer does.


Note: Click on the link above for an excerpt the Capra film, or view the brief video below.