See No Evil

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, many are asking the question that was asked after the West learned about the trains to Auschwitz, after 9/11, and after the Paris theater massacre: “Why did he (they) do it?”

 

We look for clues, we hear from people who knew the perpetrators, we wring our hands, but we find it hard to apply the word that best describes the act: evil.

 

After each of these horrendous acts of violence, the usual explanations are trotted out: mental illness, an overabundance of guns, festering grievances, addictions, brainwashing, but most of us, in our secret hearts if not our public voices, aren’t satisfied that these things adequately explain such monstrosities.

 

Though not popular in the sociology and psychology fields, many believe that human beings are born with a conscience. One of the most eloquent and understandable explanations for native (though not fully developed) conscience is supplied by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Even so, our conscience is far from fully formed at birth. Like a physical muscle, it must be exercised and developed, and this occurs via good formation.

 

The conscience “muscle”, properly formed, wards off evil; that is, grievously disordered behavior, but if this “muscle” becomes atrophied, or is damaged, disorder invariably results. Mental illness, addictions, strong emotions, and brainwashing can also weaken the conscience “muscle”, though a well-formed conscience can ameliorate the effects.

 

All human beings experience temptations, and many experience inclinations toward evil. Some succumb to the urge to commit evil acts without willfully embracing evil. Though they commit the act, they do not succumb wholeheartedly, and may later repent.

 

The embrace of evil is different, dismissing conscience, disregarding the welfare of others, considering the evil act and willfully committing it as the self’s prerogative. Addictions, emotions, propaganda, and mental disorders are peripheral to the willful embrace of evil. What’s more, those who dismiss conscience and willfully embrace evil are often more skilled at concealing their attitude and schemes than those who commit evil acts but are still pricked by conscience.

 

One cannot set aside conscience without doing grave harm to oneself. We are so wired, and we cannot un-wire ourselves and still make a pretense of being healthy. A person with a well-formed conscience could not sit in a room with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedong for ten minutes without realizing that something was very wrong,

 

The elimination of conscience that results in the embrace of evil—not merely succumbing to the temptation to commit an evil act—produces a grossly disordered self-regard and a cancerous self-hatred, a death wish if you will, even if the person doesn’t acknowledge it. Self-regard to the degree that no one else’s welfare matters, self-hatred as a natural consequence of the destruction of conscience and the willful embrace of evil; a form of possession in the sense that the self no longer exists apart from the evil.

 

Though temptations and inclinations toward evil may remain, a well-formed conscience strengthens the will to resist evil, and the experience of self-giving love is a powerful anti-virus to the “evil germ”.

 

The answer to the question “Why did he do it?” is evil exists, and some embrace it.

WSJ: Pollution used to Mean More Than Just CO2

I had the opportunity to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal article by Bjorn Lomborg about climate change, CO2, President Trump, China, and India.

A regrettable outcome of the media-hogging climate change debate is that the measure of pollution by nations has been reduced to carbon dioxide emissions, a rather benign compound apart from its relationship to climate change. In “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (Review, June 17-18, 2017), Bjorn Lomborg succumbs to this myopic view when he states, “He (President Trump) failed to acknowledge that global warming is real and wrongly claimed that China and India are ‘the world’s leading polluters'”. Mr. Trump is actually on to something if we were to broaden the definition of pollution, as we once did, to include polluting chemicals that contaminate water, air, and the land, including habitats. Nations like China and India are among the most egregious polluters when this more liberal, and comprehensive, definition of pollution is applied.

Science and speculation

I recently read several articles about a visiting baseball player who was subjected to racial hazing in a game at Fenway Park. The sense of these articles is this attitude reflects on the city of Boston, and on America at large. This is an all-too-common tendency today, to extrapolate a statement, an incident, or even data, to have far broader applicability than the evidence warrants.

 

Science is much in the news, with accusations of “science denial” or climate change skepticism, Creationists disputing evolutionary evidence, scientist-celebrities making bold pronouncements, along with front-page scientific studies that were once lauded and have now been refuted (often on the back page).

 

Though the laws of science—gravitation, thermodynamics, the conservation of mass and energy—are fixed, for all practical purposes anyway, the interaction of influencing factors and forces in complex systems like the Earth’s climate, Lake Michigan, even local weather on a given day, can produce a variety of outcomes, some predictable, some surprising. Surprising not because the laws of science have been violated, but because the system, the combination of dozens or hundreds of factors and forces, couldn’t be adequately modeled, or the input to the model (data/design) was flawed or incomplete.

 

I’ve seen my share of bad science and bad data (sadly, guilty myself on occasion). I’ve learned that while we need to rely on data, honest skepticism is an important aspect of the scientific method. On many occasions, scientists—experts—have reached a consensus on something that was subsequently proven to be false. As Matt Ridley wrote in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “Science is about evidence, not consensus.” I’m with Mr. Ridley. I don’t care about consensus, no matter how passionate or morally indignant. I want to see the data and the evidence, and how it’s linked to conclusions.

 

Drawing broad conclusions from evidence or evidence-based models has inherent risks. This doesn’t mean we can’t (and don’t) rely on evidence and models, only that we should understand the limitations and risks of doing so. Some years back, The Wall Street Journal published my rebuttal to their news article entitled, Study Finds Global Warming Is Killing Frogs: “When science records what it observes, when it measures phenomena, and when it faithfully and accurately models that data, its findings are valid, useful and reliable. But when scientists…offer speculation…credibility and reliability are diminished, sometimes drastically. Thus, the observation that the frog population worldwide is declining…in combination with models that purport to demonstrate global warming, is not (yet) sufficient to assert the title of your article. This conclusion is speculative, as it is based on the assumption that warmer temperatures at higher elevations in Costa Rica are responsible for…the fungus that is infecting the frogs.”

 

If extrapolation of data/evidence is a problem with respect to the hard sciences, how much more so with the social sciences? What’s needed is a clear understanding of (1) how the evidence/data was obtained; (2) the extent to which this evidence/data applies to the system being studied, along with identification of any gaps or missing pieces; and (3) the extent to which the model faithfully describes the system being studied. Can speculative conclusions, such as Study Finds Global Warming Is Killing Frogs, be justified by the data and evidence? Stephen Hawking recently revised his “authoritative” conclusion that humankind has 1,000 years to escape the planet to 100 years. Hawking is a recognized expert on theoretical physics, but the fate of the planet is far too complex for 1,000 years, 100 years, or any number to be credible. Just because an authoritative individual or institution says something doesn’t make it so.

 

As to that fan, or handful of fans, at Fenway Park, what they said is on them, and based on the evidence, that’s what science would say too.