Saturday, October 21, 2017

Petition Boy Scouts to include nontheists

Message from the Secular Coaltion for America:

The Boy Scouts of America Charter and ByLaws says: "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." No child should ever feel that they are less good, less worthy, or less capable to lead or "grow into the best kind of citizen" because they do not subscribe to religion. We know that the best kind of citizens are those who respect all people, of all faiths and no faith. The religiously unaffiliated is now the largest "religious group" in the country and our numbers are strongest among young people. We will no longer stay quiet and let organizations like the Boy Scouts tell us and our children that we cannot be moral upstanding citizens without God. With your help and your voice, we will change hearts, minds, and policy. Please help us continue to raise awareness about this issue by signing and then sharing this petition http://p2a.co/UhRsQLF with your friends and family, especially parents who may be considering Boy Scouts of America for their children. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Federal judge declares higher power must be deity

By Mathew Goldstein

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer recently ruled that the House chaplain’s refusal to allow an atheist to deliver the morning prayer complies with the Equal Protection Clause.

The dispute dates to February 2015, when Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, invited one of his constituents, Dan Barker, to deliver the invocation as a Congressional guest. The office of Catholic House Chaplain Patrick Conroy informed Barker that all guest chaplains must be “ordained by a recognized body in the faith in which he/she practices” and must present a copy of their ordination certificate as proof. He also advised that the invocation must address a “higher power.”

Barker had retained his 1975 ordination as a means to officiate at weddings to bypass discriminatory laws that restrict marriage officiants to clergy. Barker submitted his ordination certificate to Conroy’s office. He said he believes there is no higher power than “we, the people of these United States.” Conroy did not respond for almost one year, until January 2016. He then informed Barker he was denying his request to give the invocation because he had publicly announced his atheism.  

Mr. Barker, the co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, consulted a lawyer and sued the Chaplain, and Speaker Paul Ryan, in May 2016. He claimed his exercise of religion rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated. Judge Collyer concluded this argument fails: "Taking as true Mr. Barker’s allegations that atheism is his religion and assuming, but not finding, that RFRA applies to the House, the court finds Mr. Barker has failed adequately to allege a claim under RFRA because he fails to allege a substantial burden". She went on to explain that a substantial burden “exists when government action puts ‘substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.’”  

Government authorities demand that Mr. Barker modify his belief based behavior as a condition for qualifying to participate in a government sponsored activity is a substantial demand. But the "pressure" was insubstantial in the sense that not participating in this activity is relatively easy, much easier than changing beliefs and related behaviors. This reflects the fact that the activity at issue, Congressional sponsored invocation, is itself unnecessary. Congress can perform all of its functions, and lawmakers can voluntarily pray before each session begins, without an opening prayer ritual or a paid chaplain.

Meanwhile, atheists lose an opportunity to gain publicity for themselves by giving any invocations. More significantly, and insidiously, to the extent the laws favor theism there is a resulting diffuse pressure being applied against atheism. Laws endorsing government sponsored theism communicate to the public that there are two tiers of beliefs regarding deity under the laws. There are theists who will leverage any privilege that they think they are granted, and entitled to, under the laws to act against public expressions of atheism or criticisms of theism.

Barker also cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which declared that governments cannot discriminate between different beliefs when selecting who gives government sponsored invocations, to support his legal challenge. Collyer, oddly, declared that the ruling didn’t apply to Barker because the justices did not cite atheists in that particular decision. “To decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer,” the judge said.

Judge Collyer is singling out atheists for the negative purpose of refusing to apply an otherwise generally applicable civil rights protection that the Supreme Court recently reasserted. She is inserting a 'discriminate against atheists' clause into the law. Atheists lack generally applicable civil rights protections unless the Supreme Court explicitly says otherwise, according to Collyer.

Insofar as it is true that government sponsored legislative invocation is, by default, for theists only, as Collyer dubiously claims, it follows that the practice of legislative invocation itself violates the constitution for favoring theism over atheism and discriminating against atheist citizens. But legislative invocation was initiated during the first congress and declaring it unconstitutional would be difficult. Therefore, judges who are committed to the constitution and its civic equality protections should be defining legislative invocation as open to people of all beliefs, include those who believe that there is no deity to speak to. This would be easy to do and, contrary to what Collyer says, would not conflict with Supreme Court rulings.

Congress is a place where people occasionally say something that others who are present and listening disagree with, so what is the problem? An opening Congressional invocation by Dan Barker that does not cite deity is not going to infringe on anyone else's rights. Barker, not surprisingly, said he is disappointed with the ruling, complaining that it allowed the House chaplain’s ”personal biases against the nonreligious” to block him from fully participating in our government. I agree.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The redistricting method of the future

Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission
Office of Governor Larry Hogan

Honorable members of the Redistricting Reform Commission:

Maryland law says: "Each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions." Census tracts average about 4000 people, but in Maryland some census tracts have 24000 people. There are currently 1394 census tracts for about 5.8 million people. A Senate district is currently sized at 123,000 people +/- 4.7%. There are about 30 tracts per Senate district.

These numbers are well suited for mathematical optimization. The general idea is to define the redistricting task as sets of constraints and one or more optimization goals that are precisely defined as equations. Some optimization methods require a single optimization equation. Combining multiple optimization goals that are represented by different units of measurement can be a complication. It is possible to utilize multiple optimization goals that are represented by a common measure, such as a percentage, to avoid this complication.

The more goals there are the greater the risk that different goals will conflict with each other. The tighter the constraints the more likely that there will be no feasible solution. Therefore, it is preferable for the number of different optimization goals to be low or be selected to be non-conflicting and to take precautions that ensure the constraints are realistic.

Contiguity is a constraint. A maximum count of district boundaries crossing significant political subdivisions and natural boundaries are additional constraints. The Redistricting Reform Commission is proposing a maximum +/- 1% population variance which could be implemented as another constraint. Maximum compactness can be the optimization goal, or compactness could be combined with minimum population variance as the optimization goal.

Viable optimization algorithms for redistricting are heuristics that obtain a good result quickly. This is because redistricting optimization is technically a very difficult problem to solve given the vast number of possible solutions. Different software on different computers with different optimization algorithms will produce different results. These different results can be ranked by the optimization goals equation. This presents an opportunity to implement redistricting as a contest. Competitors can be given instructions for how to submit redistricting map proposals. The earliest submitted redistricting map that generated the highest optimization score while meeting all constraints would be automatically adopted. As an incentive the winning proposal could receive a cash award.

Compactness can be measured by boundary shape. Or by the degree to which the district spreads from a central core, called "dispersion". Or by housing patterns, which is sometimes referred to as population compactness. District tendrils are less meaningful in sparsely populated areas but more meaningful where the population is densely packed. The ratio of the proposed district's perimeter and the perimeter of a circle with the same area size is an example of a boundary shape measure of compactness.

Members of the Redistricting Reform Commission should consult with the computer science and mathematics departments at universities and colleges, particular those that offer graduate degrees in Operations Research, for expert advice. Examples of automated computer redistricting, some with free source code, are available on the Internet (http://www.publicmapping.org/, http://bdistricting.com/2010/, http://autoredistrict.org/, https://sourceforge.net/projects/bard/, and https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/redist/index.html). Applicable algorithms include polygonal clustering, graph partitioning, simulated annealing, and tabu search, among others. Spatial contiguity can be formulated in a mixed integer programming framework, so mathematical programming methods may also be viable.

The district boundaries after each census could be very different from the prior boundaries, which can contribute to making elections more competitive. The result of relying on mathematical optimization for redistricting will be gerrymander free and fair by the "justice is blind" standard. There is no need for a redistricting committee. A voting rights committee composed of former judges could be responsible for splitting some Senate districts into two or three Delegate districts to try to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Currently the Delegate districts are three member by default but with 16 one member and 12 two member districts that are not publicly explained. The Governor's Redistricting Reform Commission is recommending one member Delegate districts by default with fewer exceptions. However, one member Delegate districts give each citizen fewer representatives assigned to different committees which weakens citizens' influence over the bills. The committee votes on bills are more important than the floor votes because bills that fail in committee almost always die and bills approved in committee usually also pass when they go to floor vote. The small size of single member Delegate districts risks rendering a +/- 1% population variance constraint along with the other constraints impossible. Also, one member Delegate districts undermines Maryland's ability to demonstrate compliance with the Voting Rights Act because occasionally merging Delegate districts is unlikely to increase minority representation. 

It may be better to retain the current three member Delegate district default and require that all exceptions be justified in writing as promoting increased minority representation in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. Alternatively, mathematical optimization could draw three Delegate districts in each Senate district but with somewhat different constraints and optimization goals then were utilized to draw the Senate districts. In particular, the optimization goal could be revised to prioritize meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and the constraints could be loosened for those Senate districts that have a demographic profile which introduce Voting Rights Act compliance concerns. Dividing each Senate district into three Delegate districts could be a contest for finding the best redistricting map. This would create a two phase redistricting process, Senate districts first, Delegate districts second, that will increase the time needed to complete redistricting.

Federal redistricting standards are somewhat different from the state standards.  Also, Congressional districts effect the national election and thus are no longer only about the state of Maryland. If Maryland stops gerrymandering Congressional districts while Republican states continue to gerrymander then the next federal elections results will be more favorable for Republicans. It is more likely that a General Assembly redistricting reform bill will be enacted if it is not paired with Congressional redistricting. Therefore, it would be better for the Governor's office and lawmakers to place Congressional redistricting reform proposals into a separate bill, or postpone Congressional redistricting reform until after a multi-state reform collaboration effort that crosses the partisan divide is arranged. 

Mathematical optimization is the redistricting method of the future. Reliable enabling technology is available. Maryland has people with the skills needed to implement automated redistricting. I appeal to the Commission and state lawmakers to seriously consider mathematical optimization for redistricting.

Mathew Goldstein

Friday, October 06, 2017

Religion sometimes threatens civil liberties and rule of law

By Mathew Goldstein

The Justice Department claims that the free exercise of religion clause of the first amendment to our constitution includes the freedom to act as one's religion demands even when such actions curtail the civil rights of others or conflict with the laws.  This threatens the rights of countless Americans, particularly religious minorities and nontheists.  We see this in the recent executive order granting employers the option to omit contraceptive coverage from employer sponsored health insurance plans.  We see this in the recent Justice Department amicus brief supporting a baker who refused to provide a same gender couple with a marriage cake.  If free exercise of religion is not limited by civil rights protections, or generally applicable laws with good secular justifications, then where is the stopping line?  How does a judge decide that a free exercise claim goes too far?

It is difficult to fathom how a business that is owned by holders of publicly traded stock can be said to worship a deity, or posses a religious belief, let alone exercise a religion.  A way to avoid this difficulty has been to limit the applicability of free exercise claims to privately owned and "closely held" business.  In a private ownership context the business is deemed to be a vehicle through which the business owners practice their religion.  Donald Trump's recent executive order exempting businesses from including contraceptive coverage in health plans dispensed with this publicly owned versus privately owned distinction.  This will provoke lawsuits because it is so unprecedentedly broad.

The approach taken by this Republican party administration, and to some extent by the Republican party more generally, favors allowing businesses to refuse to sell products or services to, and maybe also refuse to hire or promote, individuals who do not respect whatever false beliefs, or unjustified limits on behavior, the business decides to impose on its customers or employees in the name of exercising any of the many religions. The Justice Department now appears to be arguing that a federal contractor should be able to refuse to provide services to people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts and that organizations which were prohibited from requiring all of their employees to follow the tenets of the organization's faith should instead be able to discriminate against such employees.

An obvious problem with interpretations of free exercise of religion that privileges religious beliefs over other beliefs is that religious beliefs are themselves contradicted by religious beliefs so that there is no way to adjudicate between conflicting free exercise claims without denying someone their free exercise of their religion.  Another problem with privileging religious beliefs is that there is a lack of proper justification for the laws treating opposing beliefs differently.  If person P1 claims X is their religious belief and person P2 claims ~X is their corresponding anti-religious belief then why should the law favor X over ~X?  

We already know whose free exercise of religion will be disadvantaged if judges are required to resolve clashes between conflicting beliefs.  The free exercise of religion by employers will triumph over that of employees and customers.  Otherwise, the adherents of the smaller, less wealthy, less popular, less organized, less zealous, religion, or the religion that the judge disfavors, will partially lose free exercise of their religion. 

Free exercise is a meritorious and viable legal principle when it functions as a general protection against government repression of religions, provided that it is subordinate to civil rights equity principles and to laws that are evidenced to promote human welfare, regardless of employer, employee, or customer status.  The resulting secular laws may sometimes conflict with religiously motivated practices.  In that case the religious practices lose.  Interfering with religious practices is not a secular goal, it is a last resort from practical necessity.

It is not difficult to understand why some religious people who are convinced that their religion is both factually true and important object when their religious motivated practice is being restricted to accommodate those who have contrary beliefs or to respect secular laws. Insofar as our laws conflict with religious beliefs, those religious beliefs are arguably being disadvantaged, and therefore we should not be surprised if some people react negatively.  Secular democratic government depends, at least to some extent, and arguably to a large extent, upon the citizenry being, at least to some extent, secular.  

Accordingly, people who value secularism should argue publicly for secular government, but by itself that will not suffice.  We also need to argue more generally against religion as an arbiter of the facts about how the world works because the inability of religion to identify facts about how the world works is the reason that laws should be secular instead of religious.  If it were otherwise, if religion was a valid method for determining how the world works (if our universe was supernatural) then our laws should be religious instead of secular.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Big Questions of Philosophy by David K. Johnson

By Mathew Goldstein

David K. Johnson is a professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania who produced a Great Courses series of videos titled The Big Questions of Philosophy that sells for about $70 dollars (less for audio, more for DVD).  Some county government library systems have contracted with a company that sponsors a web site, and also an app, called kanopy.  Kanopy makes many videos available for free to people with library cards.  At least some, if not most, of those videos do not appear to be very good.  But among the many hundreds of free videos on kanopy is the entire set of 36 half hour lectures of the aforementioned course.   

He is probably not as rich, nor as famous, as George Soros whose book features five of his philosophy lectures.  After watching Professor Johnson's first five lectures, and excerpts from a few other lectures, I will take a chance on him and recommend his videos.  This is the philosophy 101 course that should be included with everyone's basic education but not everyone receives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Soros Lectures at the Central European University, by George Soros



Reviewed by Bill Creasy


With most intellectuals, you can ask: If they are so smart, why aren't they rich? You can't say that about George Soros. He has made a fortune by trading currencies, most famously making $1 billion in a single day. This book begins with his short biography, and Soros is also a frustrated philosopher, having studied under Karl Popper. He went into finance when the philosophy job didn't work out. Recently, he has concentrated on philanthropy and has returned to philosophy.

He claims in this short book, made up of 5 university lectures, that his understanding of philosophy gave him an edge for successful trading. The first lecture discusses the basis of his two important ideas, and the other chapters apply them to current issues. The lectures were given in Oct. 2009, so a major theme is to discuss the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The audio and video of the lectures are available on his website, www.soros.org.

His two ideas are direct challenges to prevailing assumptions of economics and other social sciences. The ideas seem obvious in some ways, but are also important in trying to explain social events.

The first idea is called "fallibility" by Soros. It is based on the fact that human beings have imperfect knowledge and reasoning about reality. Classical economics assumes a state of equilibrium from participants who have enough knowledge about a situation to make rational decisions. Soros says that this assumption is false. Imperfect information affects not only decisions, but also gives rise to simplified and simplistic approximations, rules of thumb, political slogans, generalizations, and moral precepts. Peoples' use of these simple rules cause imperfect responses to uncertain situations. This doesn't justify the postmodern statement that there isn't any real objective information. Soros thinks there is valuable information, but there is usually not enough information to fully characterize economic events.

Soros discusses the idea of a "fertile fallacy." This is an idea that can be wrong or flawed but can still lead to productive actions in the correct direction. He says, “We are capable of acquiring knowledge, but we can never have enough knowledge to allow us to base all of our decisions on knowledge. It follows that if a piece of knowledge has proved useful, we are liable to overexploit it and extend it to areas where it no longer applies, so that it becomes a fallacy.” For example (my example, not his), "liberty and justice for all" is a fertile fallacy. Liberty and justice are always in tension, because one person's liberty can lead to someone else's injustice. But the slogan can still lead people towards an ideal of a freer society with a fairer legal system. He says, “Fertile fallacies are...the equivalent of bubbles in financial markets.”

Soros's other idea is called "reflexivity," and it is more complex. The purpose of social science is to observe patterns or develop hypotheses about social behavior in a passive way. But as soon as a pattern is observed, human beings immediately try to exploit the observation to their own benefit, in an active, manipulating way. The active manipulation can change or even completely destroy the pattern!

This effect can explain the 2008 financial crisis to some degree. (The following is my condensed version of an explanation, which Soros discusses in more abstract terms.) Prior to 2000, mortgage loans were considered to be extremely safe investments. The mortgages were based on real property, and people were generally conscientious about paying for their houses. However, large financial institutions saw this simple rule and exploited it. They tried to sell as many mortgages as they could and combine them into "risk-free" securities. Many new houses were built and sold to generate more mortgages. The result was that mortgages were given to people who couldn't afford to pay for them. The surplus of houses and foreclosures caused a glut of housing, making prices fall so the amounts of existing mortgages were larger than the value of the property. The actions by the financial institutions changed mortgages from a safe investment to a risky one that has cost them a lot of money.

It would be nice if the crisis was over. But the current European financial problem is from other "safe" loans: sovereign debt, or loans to governments to finance deficits. Again, this is a safe investment until it is taken to excess. Soros said in a Newsweek interview, "The situation is about as serious and difficult as I've experienced in my career." (Jan. 30, 2012, p. 53). The U.S. is also borrowing money to make an unprecedented national debt.

This effect shows the difference between social science and physical science. In physical science, discovery of a pattern or a natural law can be exploited and the law doesn't change. With social science, discovery of a pattern causes people to change the pattern. As a result, the pattern can cease to be true, except historically.

Soros pointed out this problem, but there is a certain irony in Soros's description of his ideas. He puts them in terms of physical science, using terms such as "equilibrium" and "feedback," and he even develops a "human uncertainty principle," in analogy to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle. This doesn't seem to be unusual in the social sciences. Soros writes, “Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call 'physics envy.'” But the human uncertainty principle, as he describes it, is quite different from the physical one, because humans intentionally act to completely change the observations. Putting this effect in terms used by physics is simply misleading, because physics doesn't have such a problem. Soros comments, “The alchemists made a mistake in trying to change the nature of base metals by incantation. Instead, they should have focused their attention on the financial markets, where they could have succeeded.”

Regardless, the ideas that Soros discusses are interesting and relevant to current problems. In the second chapter, he discusses financial bubbles and the reason that government regulation is necessary to establish rules in financial markets. In the other chapters, he discusses the difference between markets and politics and why they should have different systems of operation. If you are wondering why financial deregulation doesn't work and why free market rules don't apply to politics, this small book is worth reading.


This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Unsafe Spaces Tour panel at American University this month

By Mathew Goldstein

Spiked magazine is sponsoring a series of Unsafe Spaces Tour panels at different universities, including Rutgers and Harvard.  They claim they are trying to promote "the humanist case for free speech". Tickets are free.  On September 28, there’s a panel at American University (Washington, D.C.) on “Feminism, sex, and censorship on campus” featuring Nadine Strossen, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Ella Whelan, and Robert Shibley.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Darwin substitute for Lamarck?

By Mathew Goldstein

Why do animals and plants appear to be well adapted to their environments?  Lamarck had an answer that appears to make sense.  Environmental changes promote behavioral changes which promote corresponding structural adaptations in animals and plants that are transmitted to offspring.  However, Lamarck's hypothesis contradicts the prevailing theory that natural selection acts on random genetic mutations. The post Darwin discovery of genes defeated Lamarck's theory while simultaneously demonstrating the validity of much of Darwin's theory.  Yet there is still some wiggle room here for a superficially Lamarckian, non-random component within the prevailing, random mutation, framework.

Maybe natural selection acts on random mutations to produce outcomes that appear Lamarckian because environmental changes impact particular genes differently.  Particular genes can be stimulated by an environmental change.  Maybe the rate of mutation on stimulated genes increases relative to the rate in genes unaffected by the environmental change.   Because random mutations in that gene are more likely to occur more quickly than would otherwise be the case, the likelihood of a rare beneficial mutation also increases.  Natural selection then favors the rare beneficial mutation in the overall population.

When cells replicate their DNA, the replication by transcription mechanism sometimes stalls. Sometimes, when a stalled replication resumes, a gene sequence is deleted or extra copies of it are made.  A combination of factors could make these copying errors more likely to occur for those particular genes that are actively responding to environmental stresses, so that those particular genes are more likely to show copy number variation.

I read that there is some evidence that "adaptive mutation" of this sort could be occurring in microorganisms.  For example, there is more copy number variation of the copper-resistance gene CUP1 when it is stimulated by environmental copper.  When CUP1 was modified by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Houseley, a specialist in molecular biology and genetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, to react to a non-toxic sugar instead of to copper, an increase in copy number variation result was again seen after the modified CUP1 gene was stimulated by that environmental sugar.  

There is substantial skepticism that adaptive mutation plays a significant role in evolution among biologists.  More and better evidence for stimulated gene localized copy number variation, and a mechanism that translates stimulation of a gene into a higher mutation rate, will be required for this speculative hypothesis to be accepted.  Efforts to prove or disprove adaptive mutation in microorganisms may accelerate as a result of the recent positive CUP1 gene results.  If biologists one day determine that adaptive mutation is true, and probably had some role in humans being one branch on the primate tree, then will more people put aside their religious beliefs and accept that humans are ancestors of microorganisms?