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An Observation: Accuracy of Perception

An Observation: Accuracy of Perception

An observation: Whether considering theology or politics, almost none of my liberal acquaintances resemble the image of them as portrayed by my conservative acquaintances, and almost none of my conservative acquaintances resemble the image of them portrayed by my liberal acquaintances. Whose vision requires correction?

A Few Notes on Civility

A Few Notes on Civility

I’m not even sure if civility is the right word here, but it will work. I’m talking about remaining courteous even while expressing vigorous opinions.

  1. Civility isn’t cowardice. Rather, it is choosing the most effective way to express one’s opinion. It may lead to civil disobedience, a situation in which one offers oneself in a stand against evil.
  2. Civility isn’t silence. It may involve limited words. It may be a simple “I disagree.”
  3. Civility isn’t a lack of conviction. It’s a way of expressing yourself that you think will connect.
  4. Civility isn’t weakness. The loudest voice is not necessarily the one with the greatest conviction.
  5. Civility isn’t a debt you owe to the other side. It is something you do for yourself and for your cause.
  6. Civility isn’t easy. I think we all know this.

The most important action is still your vote. The reduction in turnout for mid-term elections is an unfortunate comment on how people understand the process. Please study out your candidates for this coming election and be at the polls. The primary election in Florida is August 28, and the general election is November 6. We have a senate election, a gubernatorial election, and, of course, congressional. You can get information on the various ways to vote at the Department of State-Division of Elections site.

I registered to vote when I turned 18, and I’ve been to the polls for every election since that time. I simply cannot understand low turnout for local elections or in non-presidential years.

How About Improved Law Enforcement?

How About Improved Law Enforcement?

I try to avoid posting partisan political material, but I am still an involved voter, and I will advocate on issues. I’ve been thinking about all the posts I see that tell me not do send prayers (which I don’t send to people, but to God anyhow) or thoughts, but to take action. (If you haven’t guessed, I mean about school shootings.)

Let me start with a note about prayer. I wonder what the ratio is of prayers offered to God vs notes indicating that prayers were offered? If you’re a Christian, as I am, you probably believe that prayers have some impact. Personally, I think the most important impact a prayer should have is the one it has on me. If I pray for someone and there is an action I can take, it seems to me that a sincere prayer should lead me to act. “You are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

I think, however, that most people are sincere. It may be hard for some people to believe that gun control is going to work, or others to believe that arming teachers is a good idea. One may also wonder whether an improvement in mental health care could have the necessary impact. I can comment that we’re living in a sinful world, and I believe that. There’s evil out there. But having made that comment, our children are still being shot.

I think one of the most important things we can do is track which politician said what and exercise our right to vote according to our conscience. Too often we don’t pay that much attention, especially to state and local races. So there is an action that nearly everyone can take, and that’s to intelligently exercise your vote.

But I’d like to put something into the pot as we look at solutions: Better law enforcement. No, I’m absolutely not going to beat up on or criticize the police. This is about what I want those politicians to do if they want my vote. One of the great evils of American politics, in my opinion, is the effort to create a result without the willingness to pay for it. I’m not even talking about deficits, though they tend to result from the same thing. I’m talking about allocating the necessary resources to the people you expect to do the job. Or not, as is more often the case.

I recall a computer client some years back who was moving to a new office. He wanted me to install the network cable through his new building. Now while I can build a computer (though I don’t these days; not worth it at today’s prices), and I can do some great things with your software, I am not a wiring man. I suggested he get the proper professional to install the network cables. In order to save money, he hired a relative, who stapled the network cables to various items, often putting the staple pin directly through the cable. For some reason, the network didn’t work. I’ve had people decline to take the necessary training to use tools. I’ve had people who want to see tasks accomplished, but are unwilling to provide the tools. In all these cases what seemed to save money ended up costing the person more.

Some years ago there was a crime bill, and it included money to add some thousands of police officers around the country. One politician objected on the ground that the bill didn’t include money to incarcerate all the offenders those additional police officers would arrest. I wondered whether anyone was considering how much crime could be prevented by adequate policing. It reminded me of a friend of some decades ago who managed a convenience store. He said, “Any officer in uniform gets free donuts and coffee in my store. There are almost always officers there, and I have never been robbed.” The point is that having additional officers can prevent more arrests. Law enforcement is not just about catching and punishing offenders. If you don’t believe me, tell me you don’t have your eyes out for a trooper car, especially one in the median (doubtless with radar gun active), when you’re driving, especially if you have a tendency for your speed to slip higher. Certainly the penalty is important. But the simply presence of law enforcement helps make the road safer.

Now I don’t know the numbers. I’m not a law enforcement expert. I’m not 100% sure I’m on the right track, but here’s a debate (by points) I’d like to see on the city, county, state, and federal level:

  • How might we increase the safety of our schools by increasing the available of law enforcement officers? How could we do this in a way that presents those officers to the students in a friendly way, i.e., that makes them appreciate them?
  • What additional equipment and facilities might help law enforcement respond more quickly?
  • What additional manning might help law enforcement respond more effectively and spend more time on threats?
  • What additional training might we provide?
  • How might we properly compensate these officers so that they will feel confident and respected as they perform these tasks and so that we can attract the best? (I know that this is a vocation. It’s all well and good to say they don’t serve for money, but we ought to pay in accordance with what we expect. Let them say how they do it from love and duty. Let us respond with cash and support.)

Finally, let me note that I’m not an advocate of “the police are always right.” I believe in enforcing standards and accountability on law enforcement just like on anyone else. But if you expect high standards of behavior, you should also be ready to provide high standards of support.

As I said, I’m not an expert here, but I’d like to see a calm, constructive debate and then I’d like us to be willing to pay for what we’re asking for.

I’m looking for politicians who propose things along this line, i.e., serious debate about things we might be able to accomplish, to whom I can give my vote in every election. Trust me, I do vote, and I do read all your position statements and check your record.

People Don’t Get Probability

People Don’t Get Probability

Whether it’s about elections or hurricane predictions, neither the media nor the public understand probability. I suspect this is because we are evolutionarily programmed to look for certainty. Certainty leads to decisive action. It is sometimes said in military circles that a bad decision is often better than no decision. But it’s easy to be decisively wrong.

For example, if you looked at the actual data about Hurricane Irma, and looked at the predicted range of possibilities (you know, either the cone or those circles around the predicted center), the prediction process went quite well. As reported in the media and as “understood” by many in the public, not so much.

Thus I read with great pleasure Nate Silver’s article today at (one of my favorite sites), The Media Has A Probability Problem. There were those who criticized Silver for his data analysis in the 2016 election where he was giving a greater probability of a Trump victory than anyone else. Not predicting a Trump victory, but giving it a higher probability. There were those who were rating Clinton’s chances in the high 90s. Following the election there are those who see Silver as wrong, along with the rest. But that’s a probability. A 30% chance is hardly a prediction that something won’t happen. If you understand probability, that is.

Most don’t. Or they understand it in their heads, but don’t feel it. Here’s a summary from Nate Silver:

Probably the most important problem with 2016 coverage was confirmation bias — coupled with what you might call good old-fashioned liberal media bias. Journalists just didn’t believe that someone like Trump could become president, running a populist and at times also nationalist, racist and misogynistic campaign in a country that had twice elected Obama and whose demographics supposedly favored Democrats. So they cherry-picked their way through the data to support their belief, ignoring evidence — such as Clinton’s poor standing in the Midwest — that didn’t fit the narrative.

Now don’t take this as supporting President Trump’s cherry-picking of polls and numbers. That’s just another, less nuanced form of confirmation bias, or more likely simple carelessness with and disregard for facts.

Further, if we are going to blame the media for problems, we need to watch where we go instead. Many blame the media for very real problems of bias, stupidity, and deception, only to turn to even less reliable sources which they believe implicitly. One advantage I’ve found with reasonably good media reports is this: If you read beyond the headline, and check the references, you can almost always find what you need to double check and correct the news story. For example, most news organizations provide links to the actual poll data and analysis.

So if you want good information, follow the chain back to the source. Don’t just find something more agreeable and believe that. There are perfectly good ways to analyze data and avoid errors. None of us is perfect, but we can and should be better. Much better.

Seeking a Bible Topic

Seeking a Bible Topic

Franklin Graham is quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that the President Trump’s refugee ban is not a Bible topic. He actually said a bit more, but “not a Bible topic” is going to be the quote that follows him all the (remaining) days of his life. And well it should, though I think most are missing what’s being said.

My purpose is not to defend Franklin Graham on this; in fact, I am diametrically opposed to his position on these refugees. I believe that we should welcome Muslims in the same way as we would welcome anyone else in need. It’s relevant, in one way, to point out that many refugees from Syria and Iraq are Christians. But for a Christian that shouldn’t be the issue. If all were Muslims we should remain equally concerned for their welfare, and equally willing to put our own welfare at risk on their behalf.

But I think the issue here is a bit different. Let me quote just a bit more from the article. (If you’re diligent, you’ll go and read my source, and perhaps some of its sources in turn.)

“It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue,” Graham told HuffPost. “We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws. Because of the dangers we see today in this world, we need to be very careful.”

The issue here is not directly that refugees are not a topic in the Bible. The specific question is whether the Bible provides a command that can be directed at the United States, that directs us to admit all refugees. This question is one of hermeneutics. How do you make such a determination?

One passage that might be cited is this:

 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

That line “love the alien as yourself” might come up in a discussion of how a Christian should look at this. I would not want to be left in a refugee camp for years, and if I had gone through a series of checks in that camp, I would not be delighted to suddenly learn that I would be left there for another six months (or perhaps more). A person who loves an alien as himself probably wouldn’t do that.

But does this law apply to us right now? I personally believe it applies to me (for reasons I won’t detail here), but does it apply to my country?

At this point we might consider another passage from Leviticus:

22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (18:22)

Now if Leviticus 19:34 is a command, is not this also a command? If the first applies to America does the second not apply also, and vice versa?

But what we find is that those people who want Leviticus 18:22 to apply find a way to make it apply. I’m not discussing here whether their way works or not, but merely consistency. A certain number of those don’t want 19:34 to apply and they find a way to explain that it doesn’t. Again, the reverse is also true. No, not everyone is thus inconsistent. Some will apply both and others will not apply both, but there is a considerable amount of inconsistency.

Is there a valid, consistent hermeneutic that can make one apply and not the other? Possibly. But we rarely hear about that.

I was teaching the New Life Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola as a guest this Sunday and we discussed this topic a bit. One of the members quickly brought the conclusion: Most of us have our viewpoint first and then find scripture to support it. I pointed out that this was also the case when we reject or accept someone else’s viewpoint and biblical claim.

From one point of view, I can’t help but agree with Franklin Graham. No, not about refugees. I agree with him that in the sense he describes (using the full quote) that there is no scriptural command that could be said to apply to the United States and that would require that we accept anyone who wants to come here.

I also disagree, with some vigor. That is not the way to determine what is a biblical issue. I’ll be interviewing one of my undergraduate professors tomorrow evening for our Energion Tuesday Night Hangout. (Note: It appears this hangout never took place. – HN 02/06/2021) I’ll embed the YouTube viewer at the end of this post. He used to tell us to narrow the letter and broaden the spirit. That is, you find out who it applies to originally in the narrowest way possible, but then you find the principle or spirit that inspires that command, and you apply that much more broadly.

One might say that this approach offers a great deal of leeway. Indeed it does. And so does every approach to interpreting the Bible. That’s because the Bible wasn’t created by a committee of lawyers and mathematicians. Rather, it is the result of the experience of (some of) God’s people with their God.

As such, the Bible can enlighten, guide, inform, and help, but does remarkably little (if any) direction in the sense that Franklin Graham was apparently applying. If that approach is applied consistently, the Bible fades into insignificance.

Except as a fig-leaf used to cover our pre-existing passions.

This is one reason I advocate the process of letting the Bible change you and then that you, through your actions, influence others. Even better, let God use the pages and text of scripture as God wills to change your own life.

In my case, this would mean adjusting my way of thinking about other people. It would mean making me feel empathy for those who suffer. As such, I would want to live in a nation with policies that reflect such a view. I don’t have to ask anyone to live according to one divine decree or another, always in dispute. Rather, I simply use what influence I have in favor of that position.

If the Bible is used in the sense of the quote from Franklin Graham, then very little is a Bible issue, at least in terms of politics or society. But if we look at the Bible as one of the ways in which God changes our character, then everything is a Bible issue, because through it I let God change me and then I go forth to influence the world.

I believe that Jesus would want me to welcome Muslims into my country, my neighborhood, and even my home. But I know people from many faiths, and indeed some atheists who would agree with my goal. So I can advocate this as a good policy from a secular or a religious viewpoint.

A collection of books I publish and recommend on inspiration.

Lawyers and Politicians

Lawyers and Politicians

We like to hate lawyers, but the real problem with our laws is that they are written by politicians.

The Complexity and Imperfection of Solutions

The Complexity and Imperfection of Solutions

According to an NPR story, the clearance rate for murder, meaning the percentage of cases in which someone is arrested (or identified), is 64.1% nationally. This will vary by community. That means that a lot of murderers have not been identified and have been running around the country while being murderers.

If that shocks you, color yourself naive. Yes, the clearance rate has dropped badly, while at the same time the rate of violent crime has dropped, yet even at 90% clearance, a significant number of murderers got away with it. Certainly, enough got away with it to convince arrogant potential murderers to think they might be the one that gets away. A key factor in preventing any activity that’s criminal or disapproved is the extent to which the criminal expects to get caught. For a summary, see Deterrence in Criminal Justice. (I’d prefer to cite other sources, but they are behind a pay wall, and this article cites those sources.)

My point here is not criminal deterrence, but rather the fact that the things we do to achieve a result are not necessarily going to achieve the result we expect. For many people the way to eliminate an undesirable activity is to make it illegal. If you make a law, you’ll fix the problem. But we live regularly with problems that have not been fixed by the laws created for that purpose. Politicians know how to play on expectations when they name laws. The Affordable Care Act does not necessarily provide affordable care and the Violent Crime Control Act may not actually control violent crime. Even when things go well the cause may not be the one seen as obvious.

There is a common saying that you can’t legislate morality. In one sense that’s nonsense, in that you can write any law you want. You can even declare the Bible to be your basic law. I’d love to see the hermeneutic used. Personally, I would want Matthew 7:1 to be absolutely and universally applicable, but then I have a bit of the anarchist in me. You can write a law telling people not to be selfish, but enforcement might be a problem. So yes, you can write a law saying anything, but that law might not be effective. So in another sense, it’s good sense, in that you have to legislate behavior, not morality, and laws vary in how well they can control behavior. In yet another sense, even a law that successfully alters behavior will not necessarily make those who follow it more moral, and in that sense you really can’t legislate morality.

Most of us want to do so, however. We want to make laws that really fix problems, and we expect that, having made the law, the problem will be fixed. This leads to a great deal of very bad law. I use a rule of thumb. If you hear words like “epidemic,” “national tragedy,” or other similar words, assume that the resulting legislation will be a mess, often causing more problems than it solves and ruining many people’s lives in the interest of solving perceived problems. As in the case of immigration and refugees, often these laws are written to solve problems that don’t really exist.

Watch out as well for “even one ____ is intolerable.” You’re not going to eliminate all instances of a behavior that anyone perceives as desirable. Someone is going to do it. We hear this with topics such as child abuse, murder, terrorism, or sexual crimes. “Not one case!” yells the politician, sounding so virtuous and determined. But at  a minimum, there’s one lie there. Nothing that politician does will eliminate all cases. The law cannot make you perfectly safe. As you hear about solving the “opioid epidemic,” be aware that government agents will be ruining the lives of people who are genuinely trying to live with pain, all in the name of preventing addictions by someone else somewhere else.

I find it totally amazing that people who advocate limited government in some ways are quite determined to get the government more involved elsewhere and somehow assume that the government’s actions will be effective. The same issues that make regulatory agencies subject to stupidity and chicanery apply to every other aspect of government as well. Your local police or the FBI can be a bureaucracy as much as the EPA.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a law. It just means that we need to shed our naivete about how making laws will fix things. Here are some key points:

  1. Correctly identify the problem. I have no idea how many people want to solve an epidemic of violent crime while violent crime is actually in decline. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to do some work. I believe we do. But we need to look at what the actual cause is.
  2. Look at solutions that will actually improve the situation. If the likelihood of getting caught is, indeed, more critical than the severity of sentence (see citation above), then what we need is better enforcement, not longer sentences (or some combination). You might need to increase the size and training budget of your police force rather than changing the criminal laws themselves, for example.
  3. Do not expect any solution to make you perfectly safe. The world will still have murderers, rapists, terrorists, and other evildoers in it. Trying to make the law accomplish more than it can is wasteful and increases the negative effects.
  4. Once legislation is in place, test it. Find out what has happened and do your best to determine what the cause was. Review the law and its results.
  5. Be ready to hear about revision. Fear of what may happen if we change often prevents reform efforts. For example, for those who believe that there should be a welfare safety net, the idea of welfare reform is frightening. Fear prevents progress. It can also prevent deterioration, but that’s not at all guaranteed!
  6. Don’t believe the labels. The name of a law doesn’t mean the law does what it says. Politicians are veteran label manipulators.

In this information age, there is a great deal of data available to you. Read it instead of the anecdotes (many of them false), shared on your Facebook feed.

On Refugees

On Refugees

And now for a short post. Here’s one of many links to the stories: Trump vows ‘new vetting’ to weed out Islamic radicals.

I try to avoid partisan politics on this blog, but on this issue I must be clear. I believe that we should be open to refugees even at very substantial risk to ourselves. I do not believe the current risk even approaches significant. I am totally opposed to the actions taken by the current administration on this issue. I would regard it as my duty to aid any refugee at any level of which I am capable.