Sep 18, 2018

The Irrationality of Atheism

"As the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal saw it, it’s rational to believe in God. If we believe and it turns out God doesn’t exist, the price is modest: a lifetime of worship and a little less immorality. But if we don’t believe and God does exist, the price is considerably higher: an eternity roasting in hell."

- Jonathan Clements, "Harder Than It Looks," 9/18/2018

Sep 17, 2018

The Bad Science of Estimating Hurricane Deaths

How many residents of Puerto Rico died because of Hurricane Maria?

It seems like a simple question, right? Not in the world of the Opposition Media vs. President Trump, "fake news" and alternative facts. In that world, you get to pick from a range of 6 dead to … 8,498.

Below is a list of estimates I gathered from various news sources (in descending order):

8,498-793 according to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)
4,465 according to activists using the NEJM mid-point estimate
3,290-2,658 according to George Washington University
2,975 according to the Governor of Puerto Rico
1,427 according to a December 2017 report to Congress
1,272-1,006 according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
1,085 according to a December 2017 analysis by two scientists for Vox
1,052 according to a December 2017 analysis by The New York Times
499 according to a November 2017 CNN investigation
81 according to an October 2017 Vox investigation
64 according to the original official death toll
57 based on the number of names that have been released
18-6 when President Trump visited the island

I gathered these figures because of a September 14 CNN article headlined: "Trump falsely claims nearly 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico 'did not die.'" Since the anniversary of 9/11 had just passed, I needed to understand how Hurricane Maria could possibly be as big of a tragedy. I read the article and immediately noticed a few issues. For instance, the "nearly 3,000" figure was said to account for "Puerto Ricans who succumbed to the stifling heat and other after effects of the storm and had not been previously counted in official figures."

As I did my research and found the other estimates, I noticed similar caveats. For instance, the NEJM report disclaims:
"In the United States, death certificates are the primary source of mortality statistics, and in most jurisdictions, death can be attributed to disasters only by medical examiners. Survey-based studies can therefore provide important complementary population-level metrics in the wake of natural disasters, despite inherent limitations associated with the nature of participant-reported data, recall bias, nonresponse bias, and survivor bias."
That's a lot of biases. More important, the source of mortality statistics turns out to be the real key to understanding why these wildly varying death-toll estimates exist.

Around the same time as the CNN article came out, The New York Times updated a June 2, 2018 article titled, "Puerto Rico: How Do We Know 3,000 People Died as a Result of Hurricane Maria?" In trying to defend all of the varying estimates the paper had published and convince readers it wasn't "bad science," the newspaper ended up demonstrating how little hurricane mortality estimates have to do with anything like science. The article offers a fascinating look at how numbers can change without context and be manipulated to fit narratives.

Some highlights:
"George Washington researchers said they found that doctors in Puerto Rico at the time of the storm were not aware of new guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released the month after the hurricane, which recommend that doctors also consider a natural disaster’s indirect impacts in assessing how to tally deaths."
A month before Hurricane Maria, the CDC apparently changed the standard for measuring hurricane deaths. The standard went from counting death certificates certified by medical examiners (see above) to also counting “indirect impacts.” How does one define and measure such a vague phrase? Here's how the Times did it:
"To obtain our figure of 1,052, we compared the number of deaths for each day in 2017 with the average of the number of deaths for the same days in 2015 and 2016. The figures came from the Puerto Rican government, which provided us with tables showing the number of deaths per day and deaths broken down by cause. The 2017 numbers were preliminary, so we limited our analysis to September and October." 
"In September and October of 2017, 197 people died of sepsis — a complication of severe infection. That was a 55 percent increase from the average for the same months in 2015 and 2016. Those changes could be explained by delayed medical treatment or poor conditions in homes and hospitals.
"The number of diabetes deaths in September and October 2017, at 666, was 46 percent higher than the average for the same period in the two previous years. Many people with diabetes had difficulty keeping insulin refrigerated, and some had trouble maintaining special diets.
"Deaths from chronic respiratory diseases and Alzheimer’s also appeared to be increased. As for suicide deaths, 49 people took their lives in September and October of 2017, whereas in the same months of 2015 and 2016, an average of 33 people died by suicide."
At first, I was tempted to dismiss this as a typical abuse of statistics by journalists. But the NEJM method sounds even worse:
"Researchers visited more than 3,000 residences across the island and interviewed their occupants, asking whether anyone in their households had died, and whether the storm and its aftermath might have contributed. Residents reported that 38 people living in their households had died between Sept. 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria struck, and the end of that year.
"That toll, converted into a mortality rate, was extrapolated to the larger population and compared with official statistics from the same period in 2016. Researchers arrived at an estimate of roughly 4,600."
You read that right: To get their estimate of 4,600 Puerto Ricans killed by Hurricane Maria (a number that incidentally became a blaring headline and activist rallying cry), researches used a sample size of 38 that they then “converted” “extrapolated” and “compared” to the previous year.

"Was it bad science?" the Times asks, and then it answers: "Experts who study the health impacts of natural disasters say no." These are probably the same journalists who wonder why the public has lost faith in science and no longer listens to experts.

Sep 12, 2018

No Solutions, Only Tradeoffs

“There are no solutions. There are only tradeoffs.”

- Thomas Sowell

Aug 31, 2018

Inside the Mind of President Trump

To get inside the mind of our president, I read The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and will be reading Trump: The Art of the Deal. As I read, I am adding quotes here that are relevant to my intent, so check back if the page isn't yet complete.

To any anti-Trumpers who may arrive here: If you find yourself interested but conflicted, remember the words of expert negotiator and Harvard professor Robert Mnookin: "Empathy does not require sympathy. Empathizing with someone does not mean agreeing with, or even necessarily liking, the other side."

The Power of Positive Thinking

President Trump was heavily influenced by the thinking of Pastor Norman Vincent Peale. As a child, he attended the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where Peale was the senior minister. Pastor Peale also officiated at Trump's first marriage to Ivana in 1977. When asked about his religious background during the 2016 campaign, Trump frequently mentioned Peale.

Pastor Peale originally published the The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. It was updated several times and has sold more than five million copies worldwide. Below is a selection of quotes from the book.

  • "This book is written with the sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying and worthwhile life." (from the back cover)
  • "If in our thoughts we constantly fix attention upon sinister expectations of dire events that might happen, the result will be constantly to feel insecure. And what is even more serious is the tendency to create, by the power of thought, the very condition we fear."
  • "[Dr. Karl Menninger] said, 'Attitudes are more important than facts.' That is worth repeating until it grips you … a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether."
  • "Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously … Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image … Always picture ‘success’ no matter how badly things seem to be going."

Many have wondered how President Trump has so much energy at his advanced age. Pastor Peale's philosophy may help explain it:

  • "By supplying attitudes of faith to the mind it can increase energy. It helps you to accomplish prodigious activity by suggesting that you have ample support and resources of power."
  • "[I]n our consciousness we can tap a reservoir of boundless power as a result of which it is not necessary to suffer depletion of energy."
  • "Every great personality I have ever known … has been a person in tune with the Infinite … They have not necessarily been pious people, but invariably they have been extraordinarily well organized from an emotional and psychological point of view."
  • "The longer I live, the more I am convinced that neither age nor circumstance needs to deprive us of energy and vitality … Our physical condition is determined very largely by our emotional condition, and our emotional life is profoundly regulated by our thought life."

President Trump is famous for declaring things are "the best" and expecting that to be true. Pastor Peale had some things to say about that:

  • "When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of traction tends to bring the best to you. But if you expect the worst, you release from your mind the power of repulsion which tends to force the best from you."
  • "It is amazing how a sustained expectation of the best sets in motion forces which cause the best to materialize."

How has President Trump stayed so confident even when success seemed unlikely? Pastor Peale's advice may be the reason:

  • "Please say the following line aloud: 'I don’t believe in defeat.' Continue to affirm that until the idea dominates your subconscious attitudes."

Of course, Pastor Peale had a lot more to say about positive thinking:

  • "Think positively … and you set in motion positive forces which bring positive results to pass."
  • "[F]orm a picture in your mind of circumstances as they should be. Hold that picture, developing it firmly in all details, believe in it, pray about it, work at it, and you can actualize it according to that mental image emphasized in your positive thinking."
  • "If you think in negative terms you will get negative results. If you think in positive terms you will achieve positive results. This is the simple fact which is the basis of an astonishing law of prosperity and success. In three words: believe and succeed."
  • "Keep the idea of prosperity, of achievement, and of attainment firmly fixed in your mind. Never entertain a failure thought. Should a negative thought of defeat come into your mind, expel it by increasing the positive affirmation."
  • "You can make just about anything of your life — anything you will believe or will visualize, anything you will pray for and work for. Look deeply into your mind. Amazing wonders are there."

That was the last quote from the book that struck me as relevant to understanding President Trump. There is much more to the book and many things I appreciated personally and from a Christian perspective — but that's a post for another time.

Visit Amazon to get your copy of The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

The Art of the Deal

I only just started reading this book, which Trump published in 1987. The very first thing I noticed was the cover quote: "Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again." Its source? The (Failing) New York Times! How things have changed ...

As I did above, I'll post all the relevant quotes here when I'm finished reading the book. Can't wait? Follow me on Twitter where I'll be posting them as I go along.

The Four Stages of Spiritual Development

The late psychiatrist and best-selling author M. Scott Peck defined four stages of spiritual development:
"Stage I is chaotic, disordered, and reckless. Very young children are in Stage I. They tend to defy and disobey, and are unwilling to accept a will greater than their own. They are extremely egoistic and lack empathy for others. Many criminals are people who have never grown out of Stage I." 
Stage I describes lost people.
"Stage II is the stage at which a person has blind faith in authority figures and sees the world as divided simply into good and evil, right and wrong, us and them. Once children learn to obey their parents and other authority figures, often out of fear or shame, they reach Stage II. Many so-called religious people are essentially Stage II people, in the sense that they have blind faith in God, and do not question His existence. With blind faith comes humility and a willingness to obey and serve. The majority of good, law-abiding citizens never move out of Stage II. "
Stage II describes infant believers.
"Stage III is the stage of scientific skepticism and questioning. A Stage III person does not accept things on faith but only accepts them if convinced logically. Many people working in scientific and technological research are in Stage III. They often reject the existence of spiritual or supernatural forces since these are difficult to measure or prove scientifically. Those who do retain their spiritual beliefs, move away from the simple, official doctrines of fundamentalism."
Stage III describes adolescent believers with gnosis.
"Stage IV is the stage where an individual starts enjoying the mystery and beauty of nature and existence. While retaining skepticism, he starts perceiving grand patterns in nature and develops a deeper understanding of good and evil, forgiveness and mercy, compassion and love. His religiousness and spirituality differ significantly from that of a Stage II person, in the sense that he does not accept things through blind faith or out of fear, but does so because of genuine belief, and he does not judge people harshly or seek to inflict punishment on them for their transgressions. This is the stage of loving others as yourself, losing your attachment to your ego, and forgiving your enemies. Stage IV people are labeled as Mystics."
Stage IV describes spiritually mature believers with epignosis.

- Source: Wikipedia