Monday, April 25, 2011

The First Thing Is to Admit What We Don't Know

I search for truth in our shared experiences, our disagreements, the good that humankind promotes and the evil that we enact. We are artists and poets, writers and musicians, but destroyers of life. The one thing we never are is boring. It matters not one whit as to whether you believe or don't believe in God, for me it's about examining all of the possibilities. Science offers many answers but not all. Science is continually changing because valid science is born of a hypothesis and proof (See the scientific method). Sometimes the hypothesis cannot be proven. Sometimes the proof reveals a totally unexpected truth.

However, science without contemplation, without moral considerations can lead us into dark places. The medical experiments of Josef Mengele and others were clearly a search for scientific proof gone wrong. The whole science of eugenics was a perversion of science, yet for a time, those who believed in eugenics boldly cited scientific proof to support their beliefs. Is science bad and responsible for the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the United States' own little foray into forced sterilization of some of its citizens, mostly poor and black? Of course not, but such events are an indication that science can be perverted just as any other belief system.

Just as many of the Christian faiths in the U.S. sought to justify slavery, so did science. Negroes were judged inferior. Skulls were measured, brains were studied and the conclusion was that black people were intellectually inferior to whites, an idea that continued to be presented as having a scientific basis in 20th century works such as The Bell Curve. From the early 1920s to the 1970s, some 65,000 men and women were sterilized in this country, many without their knowledge, as part of a government eugenics program to keep so-called undesirables from reproducing. Then there were the scientific experiments known as the Tuskegee syphilis study. The clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government.

The current worship of nuclear power is a perversion of science. We have the science to create nuclear power plants but it seems highly irrational to play with a substance that creates radioactive waste that is toxic to all life in some misbegotten belief that we can keep it under control. Depending on the half-life of the radiation, it could stay in a person for much longer than a lifetime. The half- life is the amount of time it takes for a radioactive material to decay to one half of its original amount. Some materials have half-lives of more than 1,000 years. I find this no more rational than the religious sects that deny medical treatment to their children because they believe that if they pray hard enough God will heal them.

What is inherent in our nature that makes us need to believe in something so strongly that we exclude reason and compassion from our thought processes? Our belief in science created the first atomic weapon, a weapon capable of wreaking havoc and devastation, a weapon capable of leaving behind lethal radioactive waste with an indefinite shelf life, when reason should have perhaps suggested that just because we could didn't mean that we should. Science has helped us create more efficient ways of killing; we can now kill humans and leave the buildings standing. What an accomplishment!

Am I opposed to science? No. Science has also been used to promote the greater good and I would not condemn all of science for its missteps. However, a belief in science is just as potentially dangerous as an unwavering belief in a man with a beard who lives in the clouds. Looking inwardly isn't about justifying our worst impulses; it's about studying what makes us who we are in order to find our way to being better than we are. Most people act without ever considering why they act. This is why mobs form so easily and get so out of control. Individually, most would not engage in the type of vicious and sadistic behaviors that they will as a group. How do we move beyond this mob instinct?

I think that it is far more complex than simply declaring that all people need to embrace science and reason. Either can be perverted as much as any religious belief because the issue lies within ourselves not the stars (Thanks Will). Certainly there have been magnificent advancements in science that have benefited us all; however, humankind has also used science to develop even more efficient ways of killing one another. Hanging the solution to today's problems solely on science or reason is no more rational than announcing that it's all in God's hands.

For me this is where psychology and philosophy must be added to the mix. Science is a type of knowing, based on proposing a hypothesis and designed experiments test and hopefully prove that theory. But that which makes us human goes beyond the concrete, factual answers that science can provide. What we do with that science is based on a complex working of human nature and science hasn't designed an experiment to take the full measure of what makes us tick.  Perhaps psychology and philosophy lack the straightforward factuality of science but it is their study that continues to reveal the human psyche, bit by bit.

I doubt that I will persuade anyone who finds all of this to be some esoteric discussion based on belief that cannot be proven to consider this seriously but at least let's respect that we have differing perspectives.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Wind Began To Switch...

She brings you good news. Or haven't you heard?
When she fell out of Kansas, a miracle occurred.


It really was no miracle. What happened was
just this: The wind began to switch -- the house to pitch
And suddenly the hinges started to unhitch.
Just then, the witch -- to satisfy an itch --
Went flying on her broomstick thumbing for a hitch.

When Dorothy and Toto landed in Munchkinland squarely on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, the Munchkins naturally were curious as to how she happened to navigate her house to make such a strategic landing. Good Witch Glinda calls it a miracle but Dorothy explains that it was just happenstance due to a switching wind and the Wicked Witch's unfortunate decision to take her broomstick out for a spin at that precise moment. Last Saturday, the wind in Raleigh definitely switched but I was lucky and my house didn't pitch and no witches were harmed.

I had no idea that we were under a tornado warning. Concerned about my proclivity to spend Saturdays watching reruns of Criminal Minds, I decided to leave the television off and devote myself to organizing my pantry and other domestic chores. Instead of turning on the radio, I did my chores to Aretha, followed by some smooth notes by Leela James, tapped off by  some classic Linda Ronstadt.  

I was in my second sing-a-long with Linda, "Feeling better, now that we're through; feeling better since I'm over you..." when my sister called to suggest that I come over sooner rather than later because there was a storm on the way.  I live about a quarter of a mile from sister and her husband, Bob and travel to their home is less than five minutes. Besides, I distinctly recall that she did not mention the word "tornado." I finished my performance with Linda and decided to clean myself up a bit and change clothes. 

When I left the house, I did notice that the sky was really dark, the wind was blowing hard and my city-issued very large trashcan had blown all the way across the street in front of my neighbor's house and was lying on its side in the gutter. I started across the street to retrieve my wandering trash receptacle when my neighbor came out and sent her nine-year-old out to get the can for me. I thanked him for his assistance and had a brief exchange with his mom who no doubt thought that I was insane.

My concerned neighbor shouted above the wind, "You be careful out there!" Now I realize that the subtext was, "Are you fracking crazy? Where are you going? There's a tornado coming!"

However, my response was, "It is windy out but I'm just going around the corner to my sister's." (Codespeak for, I'm a crazy woman who has not bothered to listen to any news or weather reports all day.)

When I arrived at my sister Rhonda's house, she looked surprised to see me. She had assumed that I was barricaded in a closet or hallway hiding from the tornado after I didn't show up when she called me earlier.

"There's a tornado coming!"

"Really, is it coming here?"

The conversation was cut short because Bob announced that we all needed to get in the hallway where he had thoughtfully provided pillows and bed coverings. Bob has nesting instincts. Bob and Rhonda were babysitting for their 27-month-old grandson, Little D, and he thought that three grownups in the hallway with sheets, blankets, and pillows meant that it was play time.

I didn't see a tornado except on television the next day, but I heard it. There was a low hum beneath the sounds of the wind and rain that got louder and louder until it sounded like a loud freight train. It lasted for only a minute. The house shuddered a bit but then it was gone and all that was left was wind and rain. I heard later on the news that some areas had hail after the tornadoes had passed.

I was relieved after the storm that we were all okay as were our homes but I didn't realize how lucky we all were until I went outside. We live in a subdivision known as McKinley Mill and parts of the area were hit hard by the tornado. Houses were destroyed, roofs torn off, homes pushed off their foundations, serious destruction and it will take time to rebuild and repair. Our area didn't suffer any loss but there were deaths in other areas; the last that I heard, the death toll for the state is 24 lives lost.  

The loss of life and the severe property damage suffered by some overshadows minor inconveniences such as going without power for about 12 hours. The street that is shown in the video below, Serendipity, is perpendicular to the street that my sister and her husband live on; you can see the corner where the streets intersects from their front yard. There's nothing like realizing that disaster brushed its wings against your cheek, but passed you by, to make you really appreciate seeing the sun rise.