Friday, January 24, 2020
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MLK’s Relevance To Anti-Atheist Bigotry

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Martin Luther King Jr.

Back in 2008, Nanovirus wrote an excellent post for MLK Day in which he addressed Dr. King’s relevance to anti-atheist bigotry by modifying King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to address moderate Christians on the subject of Christian extremists and how they treat atheists. At the time, it struck me as powerful stuff with considerable relevance to atheists living in the United States. All these years later, it still leaves that impression.

In commenting on Nanovirus’ post in an early version of this post, I noted that racial bigotry remains an important problem in the U.S. but that few would deny that progress had been made since King’s time. Sadly, I was not sure the same could be said for anti-atheist bigotry. It still seemed pretty bad in 2008, so much so that some political candidates viewed running on it as a viable campaign strategy.

Fortunately, I do believe there has been some progress since 2008. While it is true that anti-atheist bigotry is still far too socially acceptable, I think things have improved since 2008. I attribute this primarily to the well-documented decline in religiosity and to the increased availability of content by atheists made possible by the Internet. These and other factors have made it more acceptable to discuss atheism. As a result, young people today are likely to have heard of atheism and even have a basic understanding of what it is in a way that was not the case for me. I think that has made a difference.

It is tough to know what the future holds, but I would like to see anti-atheist bigotry become far less socially acceptable than it is today. Perhaps more attention will eventually be paid to the civil rights of atheists, as well as all the other groups we need to be attending to. If that is to happen, I expect that secular activism will continue to be an important part of it. After all, it is difficult to retain rights others want to strip if nobody is willing to stand up for them. Perhaps we will eventually get to the point where not believing in gods is no longer equated with moral depravity.

An early version of this post appeared at Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2020.



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Spirituality

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I often hear people say, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” What does that mean? That they don’t believe in the “holy spirit,” the basis of Abrahamic religions, but they believe in other spirits? Despite the long history of superstitious beliefs, there is not a shred of evidence that any kind of supernatural […]



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On Defending Billionaires | Jonathan MS Pearce

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In the recent UK general election and in previous and present US political discourse, there has been a propensity to defend billionaires by those who aren’t billionaires. In fact, those who defend them are far, far closer to poverty and bankruptcy than to being a billionaire. By a considerable margin.

The defence of billionaires seems to come from some sort of trickle-down economics ideal, an economic model (that I like referred to in its old amusing nomenclature of horse and sparrow economics) that has been shown not to work. The idea that we should let rich people, supposedly all wealth-makers, have tax cuts and an easy run because they generate jobs, economic benefit and whatnot for the wider society. If we tax them appropriately, so it is claimed, they will run off to a foreign country and set up their businesses there.

Except this doesn’t really happen. Just look at the rather solid case of Kansas, where (under the leadership and advice of Governor Sam Brownback and supply-side economist Arthur Laffer), the tax cut experiment wholly failed. Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 have since been shown to have failed in what they set out to do (improve worker productivity, raise wages, and supercharge economic growth – goodness, I could write a whole piece on how it has been an expensive failure on all fronts). There is a strong case for higher taxes in the US. After all: “Bill Gates: Tax rates on the wealthy were nearly double when we started Microsoft and ‘it didn’t hurt’ us“. Indeed, Gates has a net worth of $113 billion. That’s a lot of a lot. He recently says he has a disproportionate amount of wealth (reward):

“The wealth gap is growing. The distance between top and bottom incomes in the United States is much greater than it was 50 years ago,” Gates writes. “A few people end up with a great deal — I’ve been disproportionately rewarded for the work I’ve done — while many others who work just as hard struggle to get by.”

He proposes a wide range of ways to make higher taxes on the rich a reality, many of them ideas he’s suggested before: raising the capital gains tax, raising the estate tax, removing the cap on income subject to Medicare taxes, closing the carried-interest loophole that mostly lets savvy investors pay less in taxes, and taxing large fortunes (he prefers to tax them once they’ve been held for a long time, such as 10 years).

None of these are unique ideas, and many of them have been proposed by tax policy experts (which, Gates admits, he isn’t). They’re also strikingly similar to proposals that have been raised in the Democratic presidential primary (though Gates writes that he “will not take a position on the proposals that are being debated during this campaign season”).

Deservedly or not, Gates has a lot of influence in our national conversation about the ultrarich and what they do, so it’s significant to have him among the prominent billionaires pushing for higher taxes and rebutting many of the arguments that such taxes would be unfair to the rich or discourage innovation. Taxes, Gates points out, were much higher when he founded Microsoft, which didn’t get in the way of his motivation to start the company.

“A dynastic system where you can pass vast wealth along to your children is not good for anyone; the next generation doesn’t end up with the same incentive to work hard and contribute to the economy,” Gates writes, defending higher estate taxes. And the difference between capital gains taxes and income taxes “favor wealth over work,” with no good justification.

He can’t seem to even philanthropically spend it quickly enough… I have written before about maintaining privilege through inheritance.

Nick Hanauer, one of these rich types, agrees with me:

When I was asked to join 17 other zillionaires in signing on to a letter supporting a modest wealth tax, I didn’t hesitate for a nanosecond — not just because it is the right thing to do for the American people, but because it’s the right thing to do for the American economy. In fact, as a venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur who has made a personal fortune founding or funding more than 30 companies, I have come to the conclusion that a wealth tax would actually increase investment, boost productivity, grow the economy, and create more and better jobs.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: That’s crazy talk! For decades, rich guys like me have been selling you tax cuts on the merits of pure economic stimulus. The rich are “job creators,” we’ve told you. The more money we have to invest in creating jobs, the better the economy is for everybody.

Bullshit.

To be clear: There is simply no empirical evidence to support the claim that raising top tax rates slows economic growth. When President Bill Clinton hiked taxes, the economy boomed. When President George W. Bush slashed taxes, the economy ultimately collapsed. It wasn’t until after most of the Bush tax cuts expired during the Obama administration that the post-Great Recession recovery started to pick up steam — an ongoing recovery that, as uneven as it has been, has grown into the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.

And then, of course, there’s Kansas.

So, what’s the point of me writing today? Well, I want to make a claim that people don’t understand big numbers. They just don’t quite get what a billion actually is.

Let’s hit you with a favourite meme to help show this:

If you worked every single day, making $5000/day, from the time Columbus sailed to America, to the time you are reading this tweet, you would still not be a billionaire, and you would still have less money than Jeff Bezos makes in a week.

It’s one that’s done the rounds on Facebook and elsewhere, and it is verified. That, above, is true. Just let it sink in, the sheer scale of it.

And then think of the scale of Jeff Bezos’ wealth (and remind yourself that the richest woman in the world is now his ex-wife, simply on account of the divorce settlement, but that this still leaves him with $115 billion).  See the latest billionaire figures here.

The world’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people. That’s another staggering fact. Here’s a really mind-blowing piece on the amount of money these guys have and what they could do with it, and generally what a billion is, and how we just can’t visualise it.

Jeff Bezos alone, according to UN figures, could end world hunger (at $30 billion a year, though some say it is a lot higher). IT’s like someone on $52k a year spending $3 a week to end world hunger. Indeed, “Billionaires Made So Much Money Last Year They Could End Extreme Poverty Seven Times” – but that was 2 years ago, and the article states that a new billionaire emerges every 2 days, and there were over 2000 billionaires then. You can argue that a simple, solitary billion is too much money for any one person to have. I read somewhere that if you took all the billions off every billionaire, but still left them each with a billion, you could solve world hunger for 282 years. Or something. I’d like to think, in such a position, I would be trying bloody hard to solve the environmental calamity in which we find ourselves embroiled.

You get the picture.

We live in a world where the inequality gap is growing, where the super-rich class is growing, but where many in the poorer classes defend these super-rich because, you know, the American dream – they could one day be a billionaire.

Except they won’t. Except, they have a much, much, much, much greater chance of being penniless.

Let me remind you of John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance:

Spencer J. Maxcy outlines the concept as follows:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.[2]

It has been argued that such a concept can have grand effects if it were to be practiced both in the present and in the past. Referring again to the example of slavery, if the slave-owners were forced through the veil of ignorance to imagine that they themselves may be slaves, then suddenly slavery may no longer seem justifiable. Perhaps the entire practice would have been abolished without the need for a war to settle things. A grander example would be if each individual in society were to base their practices off the fact that they could be the least advantaged member of society. In this scenario, freedom and equality could possibly coexist in a way that has been the ideal of many philosophers.[3] For example, in the imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, the device forces the parties to consider society from the perspective of all members, including the worst-off and best-off members.

If you didn’t know where you would be born, into which class, and with what level privilege, then what rules and taxation would you set? If these non-billionaires had a really proper understanding of maths and probability, I wonder whether they would change their tune?

I’m not some billionaire-basher, and I wouldn’t want to quash aspiration, but if Bill Gates is admitting something is wrong, that something is very disproportionate in the system, then something is probably wrong and needs changing.

TL;DR? A billion is a feck of a lot, and people don’t understand it, or its context, erroneously thinking they might well be a member of its class one day, and that by highering taxes on them, we will lose them to elsewhere and send our localised economy into a freefall spiral, and by cutting taxes for these rich, we are doing the country a great service.

The American Dream, underwriting the GOP, has a lot to answer for.


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Pope Reminds Bishops To Keep Opposing Bodily Autonomy for Women and Trans People | Val Wilde | Friendly Atheist

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Earlier in the week, Pope Francis approached the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities to encourage them with a reminder that, even though he has spoken publicly about issues like poverty and refugees’ rights, he still agrees that abortion is and should be “a preeminent priority” for the Church.

The Committee’s chair, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, passed information about his chat with the pontiff to Catholic News Services, reminding the world that, at the very top of the organizational structure, priorities still haven’t changed:

He said, ‘This is not first a religious issue, it’s a human rights issue’, which is so true… I think sometimes as he elevates [issues of immigration and poverty], people mistakenly think, ‘Well, that means the abortion issue will become less important.’

We can’t have that, not for a second — especially not now, as the March for Life in Washington, D.C., approaches within the week. Heaven forbid that somebody vulnerable to becoming pregnant might fall into a sense of bodily autonomy!

According to Missouri’s Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, Pope Francis elevated the abortion argument as the fundamental core of his take on social justice:

Without life, what other rights are there? So you have to begin with that. It’s not the only issue — I don’t think anybody has ever said that. But when you’re looking at the core beliefs and the more essential rights, the right to life of the unborn is very important. [Pope Francis] put it in a very beautiful way: Do we always want to simply eliminate those who are inconvenient? And, unfortunately, that’s part of our culture in the United States — the practice, the habit if you will, of just eliminating the uncomfortable, the unwanted, as the solution.

That’s a point that might be worth considering if the “pro-life” crowd didn’t immediately use it to value potential future lives over those already living in the world.

Francis remains masterful in downplaying the way he devalues the pregnant person in the abortion equation; he knows how to speak the language of social justice. In his January 1st homily he preached on the importance of valuing and upholding the dignity of women, who constitute the majority of those affected by restricted abortion access.

But his homily referenced the evil of “coerced abortions” with apparently little consideration of the problem of coerced pregnancy. He seems far less bothered by coercion if it’s being used to force people to do what he wants of them.

The sermon also emphasized the idea that men and women are innately suited for different sorts of work, with little overlap in between the two disparate gender categories, which are expressly and irrevocably tied to genital categorization at birth.

Speaking of gender categories, that was another topic Francis wanted to discuss during his conversation with the Committee. According to St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, the pope himself brought up the subject:

At the same time [Francis] said there’s another significant issue and that would be ‘transgender’ — where we are trying to make all human beings the same, it makes no difference, you can be whoever you want to be.

Generally speaking, trans people want to be allowed to express their gender outside of strict binary norms connected to genitals, and they want to avoid being punished by society for doing so. That is literally the opposite of “trying to make all human beings the same” — it supports human diversity.

But as far as Francis is concerned, this is a “significant issue in our day” because it flies in the face of Catholic doctrine on gender. Catholic News Services reported on the pope’s advice to bishops concerning “the transgender debate”:

Archbishop Carlson said the pope touched on the way proponents believe people are “all one and that there’s no difference, which would fly in the face of what John Paul II talked about on complementarity and it would fly in the face of the dignity of the woman and the dignity of the man, that we could just change into whatever we wanted.”

In other words, the advice is to repeat the party line and avoid getting too familiar with what trans people are actually saying about their experience.

It almost doesn’t seem like genuine news — same old Catholic Church, nothing to see here.

But as long as people keep mistaking Pope Francis for an actually progressive pope interested in improving the position of women and LGBTQ people in Catholicism and everyday life, it’s important to keep in mind what he actually says he believes, and what he tells other church leaders to believe as well.

(Image via Shutterstock)





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Why I Am an Atheist

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I am an atheist

I am not generally a fan of memes. A few of them strike me as counterproductive, but as I’ve noted in previous posts on the subject, I find most of them lazy. It bugs me that so many atheists seem to be willing to do little more than regurgitate the same few over and over again. And yet, I have to concede that there are some good atheist memes out there that probably should be shared more often. The one included here is one of them. It isn’t perfect, but it has to be one of the most effective yet concise explanations for why many of us are atheists.

There are many different ways we can complete the “I am an atheist because…” stem. For example, I mentioned how I often do so here. But this meme goes a bit beyond that in a format that many atheists seem to prefer. After setting aside a few of the incorrect reasons some theists think we have for not believing in their preferred gods, the essential message is delivered: many of us are atheists simply because theists have not met their burden of proof. We do not need to argue against anyone’s preferred gods; we are atheists because they have not provided sufficient evidence to support a rational belief in their preferred gods. It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

Many of us would prefer to believe as many true things as possible and to believe as few false things as possible. I suspect this is not true of everyone, but I’d guess that most atheists would claim that it is true of them. That means we’d eagerly embrace belief in gods if the evidence supported it. But it also means we are not going to accept something as far-fetched as the existence of gods without sufficient evidence. To do so would open us up to believing one of those false things.

Christians love to claim that we don’t see evidence for their gods because we haven’t been looking for it. Many of them refuse to accept the fact that so many of us are ex-Christians who spent several years or more looking. But perhaps an even more important insight they seem to be lacking is their role in our de-conversion.

Suppose you grew up in a small town located next to a large forest. Everyone you knew told you that they saw a Bigfoot creature every single time they entered this forest. You believed them until you started spending time in the forest yourself. You never saw a Bigfoot creature. You kept returning to look. In fact, you spent countless hours in that forest desperately searching for Bigfoot because everyone you knew continued to insist that they always saw Bigfoot. If you replace Bigfoot with Jesus or gods and replace going into the forest with prayer, you will have captured my experience with Christianity extremely well. The fact that the Christians around me insisted that they experienced some sort of divine presence every single time they prayed even after I told them I never had made it impossible to maintain god-belief.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2011. It was revised and expanded in 2020.



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American Atheists’ Holiday Banner Adds Diversity to Florida State Capitol

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Tallahassee, FL—Today, American Atheists installed its holiday banner at the Florida Capitol. This is the first time that the atheist organization has hosted such a display in the rotunda.

“The purpose of this banner is to share a positive holiday message with all Floridians, faithful and faithless alike,” said Devon Graham, American Atheists’ Assistant State Director, who petitioned to have the banner displayed.

The display depicts a snowy background with the phrase, “This season, no matter what you celebrate or why, Happy Holidays!  —Your atheist neighbors.”

“About a quarter of all Florida residents do not identify with any faith tradition whatsoever and many holiday displays neglect this substantial segment of the population,” said Graham, who also serves as the Vice President for the Humanists of Tallahassee (HOT), a newly formed group in the region.

“This is the time of year when people gather with their family and friends to celebrate the season. We hope that by having an all-encompassing holiday message everyone feels included in the festivities,” she added.

American Atheists’ banner will remain on display on the House side of the Rotunda until December 20.



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The Australian Bush Fires and Climate Change denial

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I have a friend; shocking, I know. He is not a climate change denialist, but he does believe that well-meaning greenies too often lay the blame for any unseasonable weather event at the feet of Climate Change (hereafter ‘CC’), and then use it as a stick to beat any of the usual green/left targets into submission. His complaint is that CC is becoming a religion. Whilst he hasn’t used this phrase, I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by saying that his concern is that a lot of the people on the left are guilty of deploying ‘climate change of the gaps’ arguments.

For those that don’t get the reference, there is a certain breed of religious person that will explain anything that they don’t understand by saying ‘God did it’, thus they are using God to plug gaps in their knowledge, hence ‘God of the gaps’.

What I want to do with this post is examine some of the support he’s provided for his position. He stated that the Australian fires are not the result of climate change but of resource mismanagement in the Australian bush. Here is a quote from one of his friends that he provided to me that I think adequately sums up his position:

“…the chief reason for the bush fires is poor land management – trees have been planted and allowed to grow unfettered – largely because it’s seen as the ‘environmentally correct’ thing to do; a philosophy driven, I’d guess, by well-meaning CC activists. A great example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.”

Prior to the above quote he had posted this video.

He subsequently posted a link to this article.

And then directly posted this extract from it:

The eucalyptus oil in the leaves is highly flammable. Eucalyptus oil, leaf litter and peeling bark can produce during dry, windy weather terrifying firestorm. If not managed, the bush fuel piles up to produce extremely dangerous conditions that will eventually end up in catastrophic bush fires.

Regretfully, extraordinarily little is now done to prevent bush fires in Australia. While there has been negligible precautionary burning, and reducing cleaning of public areas, citizens have also been prevented from cleaning up their own land, and the nearby reserves, by impossible rules. For example, citizens living in the bush were not authorized to clear their block of land when building their home, as it was requested to them to plant a new native tree for every tree removed on the same land, no matter how small the land was, passing through lengthy and expensive planning permit approvals are not authorized now to get rid easily of the big branches, and the bulk biomass, as city councils collect only a small green bin for leaves and small brunches twice a month, and burning of biomass is always forbidden;

In what is called native reserves or forests, nobody can remove fallen branches, cut the grass, or perform any cleaning, as that environment is “untouchable”; fuel build up along the boundary of properties is also ignored as a problem; as the preventive burning of the large areas has been dramatically reduced, the chance to have bush fires started from the surrounding and moving to inhabited areas, or vice versa, are extremely likely during the hot dry season.

The Australian bush cannot be left as-it-is without any management. If some of the biomass is not collected or burned, then the bush will burn, and climate change has nothing to do with this.

The main points, paragraph by paragraph, being:

  1. Eucalyptus oil is highly flammable so fallen branches should not be allowed to pile up.
  2. Not enough clearing of potential fuel is being done, and legislation actively discourages such actions.
  3. This legislation is especially problematic in native reserves or forests.
  4. Climate change has nothing to do with these failures.

I think the above evidence provided in support of my friend’s claim is enough to be going on with. Rather than the broader claim that CC has become like a religion I’ll be looking at the smaller claim that the skeptical and scientific view is that the current Australian bushfires are due to resource mismanagement and not CC, as outlined in those four points above.

For me, the single biggest red flag is the swapping of one essentialist claim for another. This creates a false dichotomy. My position is that CC is a larger contextual factor that exacerbates local factors (such as localized climate patterns, resource management and so on) and that whilst some people may indeed reflexively blame CC in isolation, these people are a vocal minority and no more likely to be right (or wrong) than those that claim that it is some other single thing.

So let’s look more closely at the evidence provided.

When does two equal one?

The video and the “scientific” paper linked to above were provided as two distinct pieces of supporting evidence for the overall claim that resource mismanagement is solely to blame. The problem is, they probably are not distinct pieces of evidence. First, note that the radio station that had the interview with David Packham is called 2GB. A quick check finds that the ‘2’ refers to the state of New South Wales (all NSW postcodes start with a ‘2’). GB refers to the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (who was famously burned at the stake for contradicting Catholic orthodoxy on the nature of God). Why is this relevant? Well, take a look at the chosen nom de plume of the author of the paper. This could of course just be an irrelevance, but having a radio station named after Giordano Bruno corroborate a paper written by someone under the same (assumed) name is certainly a red flag for coordinated misinformation.

When is a scientific publication not a scientific publication?

The article posted to support the video is on the impressive-sounding Principia Scientific International website. This “journal” uses a method of peer review called ‘PROM’ (Peer-Review in Open Media) that is one step removed from a social media comments thread, as can be seen in their description of the system, here. It is clearly open to abuse, not least because the ultimate arbiters of what counts as “good science” is the PSI editorial team, not independent scientists with the relevant credentials. This might explain why the title of the paper includes the thoroughly unscientific (but very Breitbart) phrase “the insane true cause…

This “journal” also scores a supreme own goal. They refer to the process as peer review and make it sound all very egalitarian by opening it up to the public – more or less – but in doing so they change the very meaning of the word peer. If the general public reviews papers, the author is admitting that their peers are members of the general public not members of the relevant science community. To reference any paper published by this journal, then, is the very definition of an appeal to authority.

Note that, contrary to what a lot of climate deniers believe, referencing an actual authority – or several – is not an appeal to authority; referencing a self-proclaimed authority, or someone who is an authority, but in a different area to the topic of discussion, is an appeal to authority.

What is also interesting (to me, at least) is that there is a feud going on between IPS and the climate change skeptic website, Watts Up With That (WUWT), as can be seen here:

As readers may know, Dr. Roy Spencer and I have had a long running disagreement with the group known as “Principia Scientific International” aka the Sky Dragon Slayers after the title of their book. While I think these people mean well, they tend to ignore real world measurements in favor of self-deduced science. They claim on their web page that “the Greenhouse gas effect is bogus” and thus ignore many measurements of IR absorptivity in the atmosphere which show that it is indeed a real effect. Rational climate skeptics acknowledge that the greenhouse effect exists and functions in Earth’s atmosphere, but that an accelerated greenhouse effect due to increased CO2 emissions doesn’t rise to the level of alarm being portrayed. Yes, there’s an effect, but as recent climate sensitivity studies show, it isn’t as problematic as it is made out to be.

All of this is sufficient cause to ignore the contents of PSI as a whole and this article in particular, but let’s give it the (very large) benefit of the doubt.

On a side note, WUWT uses the term “well meaning” to dismiss PSI. My friend (and his friend, whom I quoted earlier) has used this exact phrase to dismiss the greenies and lefties (also dismissive phrases) and their “meddling” in political decision-making (which we’ll get to). PSI, a self-styled online scientific journal, is having a spat with a blog run by a former meteorologist. This is not the behaviour of a reputable scientific journal (and, for the record, a meteorologist is not necessarily a climate scientist).

As this all started with a link to a video, I suppose it’s a propos that WUWT also have an ongoing spat with my preferred source of Climate Change-related videos, YouTuber (former geologist and BBC science presenter) PotHoler54. To be clear, I am not suggesting that a geologist is any more of a climate scientist than a meteorologist, however, part of what geologists do is to analyse such things as weathering, sedimentation and other impacts of historical climate. PotHoler54 consistently does what I’m trying to do here, unpick the tangled web of blog posts and opinions pieces (and, lets be frank, pseudoscience).

Some good (and relevant) examples of what PotHoler does are here:
Have 400 papers just DEBUNKED global warming?
Top 10 climate change myths

We have reasonable cause to believe that PSI is a bad source and that the radio interview is simply a restatement of the same “self-deduced science”. But it would be fallacious (poisoning the well) to dismiss the claims simply on that basis. It is, however, a very good reason to be dubious. That having been said, David Packham does have published papers under his name, and on this topic, see for example, Climate Change and Biomass Burning, so let’s address the specifics of the above claim (not those in the paper I just linked).

Packham on ‘Greenies’ and Policy

David Packham is retired now (since at least 2009) and there does seem to be more than an element of bitterness (or exasperation) to his claims that the current fires are “only” due to resource mismanagement and that this mismanagement is due to greenies. He is quoted in a paper analyzing media narratives regarding bushfires, here:

David Packham, a former supervising meteorologist for fire weather nationwide at the Bureau of Meteorology, accused environmentalists of behaving like “eco-terrorists waging a jihad” against prescribed burning.

“The green movement is directly responsible for the severity of these fires through their opposition to prescribed burning,” Mr Packham said. (The Australian, 12 February 2009)

Here’s the paragraph that preceded the above quote from that paper:

Environmentalists were a second principal target for blame [after the government]. Often in concert, nearly a third of the 230 instances targeted environmentalists for allegedly opposing prescribed burning. More than half of these were news stories; almost 1 in 10 voiced blame for environmentalists alone. The Murdoch owned newspapers targeted “greenies” the most (9 of 37 Australian stories and 4 of 14 Herald Sun stories). The blame was categorical.

The Greens have been the targets of related misinformation attacks, here:

A purported screenshot from the website of the Australian Greens party has been shared hundreds of times in multiple posts on Facebook and Twitter alongside a claim that it shows the party altered its policy to support backburning in November 2019, just as deadly bushfires intensified in Australia. The claim is misleading; digital archives show the Greens have maintained supportive policy positions on hazard reduction burns and backburning on their website since at least March 2019, months before the bushfires began in September 2019.

 

Australian MP Barnaby Joyce says “greens policy” gets in the way “of many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it.” Joyce is an MP for the National Party of Australia (roughly equivalent to one nation Tories). As is so often the case, when a nominally centre right politician is deflecting blame onto Greens or other more left-leaning politicians, it is to distract from the current reality. Australia are the world’s largest exporters of coal, and they have the fourth highest per capita carbon footprint in the world (see image below, from here). Between 2005 and 2030 the Australian percentage of the world’s CO2-e output is projected to go from 1.5% to 1.3% – that is for a country that makes up 0.3% of the world’s population. So Greg Mullins, former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, is clearly correct when he says, “Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim”.

Debunking this blame-framing is, again, trivially easy. The Greens have never been in power in Australia and they are not one of the major parties, as such their influence is minimal. Unless the claim is that they wield significant influence behind the scenes that is far out of step with the size of the party. Such a claim is not credible, and haring off down that rabbit hole quickly leads to absurdity that should be an embarrassment to those making the claims. However, as the primary promulgators of this dross are social media bots, embarrassment seems unlikely.

In addition, the policies (or lack of) that block property owners from carrying out fire reduction measures don’t exist, in fact, quite the opposite. Professor Ross Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, says property holders are largely free to carry out fuel removal activities themselves without needing to seek permits.

The Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy seems to support this – here is a smattering of the fuel clearing and fire prevention activities that landowners can undertake without a permit:

  • continued lawful land uses that were occurring before July 2000. This includes activities that have continued in the same location without enlargement, expansion or intensification, including activities done cyclically over long periods of time such as works to reduce the fire risk. The types of activities that might fall within this category include:
    • maintaining access tracks and fire breaks
    • maintaining existing fire infrastructure, services and utilities
    • doing routine controlled burns of the type that have occurred in the past
  • forestry operations done in accordance with a Regional Forest Agreement (as defined in the Regional Forest Agreement Act 2002)
  • activities done in accordance with an endorsed strategic assessment policy, plan or program under national environment law

Fire prevention activities that are unlikely to require approval by the federal government may include:

  • routine fuel reduction burns, including roadside burns, done in accordance with state or territory law requirements
  • routine maintenance of existing fire breaks, fire infrastructure, services and utilities
  • clearing of a defendable space around a home or rural asset in accordance with state/territory and local government requirements.

The full list of inclusions, exclusions, and the application process for those actions that aren’t allowed is viewable here.

So Packham is wrong about both the green influence on fire reduction legislation and what that legislation actually is.

Over and above this legislation, the Australian governments (both central and state) have been actively encouraging the clearing of large areas of bush and forest, at the rate of 395,000 hectares a year (in Queensland).

According to Bill McCormick, in an Analysis for Parliament of Australia, Queensland and New South Wales implemented more stringent vegetation management controls in 2006, resulting in decreased deforesting. From 1991 to 2014, the effective greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation dropped from 98 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2-e in 1991 to 34 Mt CO2-e in 2014. However, a change in state governments (in 2012 and 2011, respectively) resulted in a loosening of the restrictions on land clearing in both states. In Queensland clearing (by area) tripled. This of course means that there are fewer trees to burn, which will be an important point later.

Land cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14 Statewide Landcover and Trees Study
(note: HVR stands for high value regrowth vegetation)

Packham on Climate Change, Science and Fires

Packham ridicules fire chiefs and scientists for suggesting that climate change is in anyway causal to the current fires. Yet, in his own interview (at around the 8 minute mark), he makes reference to the necessary (but sufficient only in combination) aspects of the phenomenon of bushfires:

  1. Hot, dry, windy weather
  2. Fuel
  3. An ignition source

Science it may be, rocket science it is not. In his rush to blame, in isolation, the mismanagement of fuel, now well and truly debunked, Packham ignores the unholy trinity of hot, dry and windy weather and whether or not that is to do with climate change.

Hot?

Australia, for the first time ever, has experienced a number of days where the top temperature, in all seven states simultaneously, was over 40 degrees Celsius. It definitely is hot. Even if you disagree with the degree to which carbon leads to warming (and Packham seems to), you cannot plausibly deny that it does (as noted by WUWT), because that would be to ignore physics. The fact that carbon is in the atmosphere at 50% greater rates than it was in pre-industrial times means that carbon is, to some degree, causal in these high temperatures.

Dry?

Australia has been in drought since January of 2017. In November of 2019 Australia had a number of areas noted as having had the least rainfall since records began (see image below). If we’re denying physics (as noted above) we can claim that this is not due to temperature, otherwise that interpretation is not available to us.

Rainfall deficiencies continue with Australia’s driest December on record

 

Windy?

Simply put: yes.

Other Climate effects

There are, as with any complex system, other causal factors that create these hot, dry and windy conditions. In Australia’s case there are the opposing El Niño and La Niña effects in the Pacific and other current-derived effects in the Southern Ocean (the Southern Annular Mode) and Indian Ocean (Indian Ocean Dipole). These, however, are still within the context of Climate Change more generally, and are impacted by air temperature, the dissolving of carbon into the ocean and the exchange of heat and carbon between the oceans and the atmosphere. These are facts that only rabid denialism can ignore, primarily by, you guessed it, denying physics.

 

Fuel

It is clear that fuel and the management thereof is key to the Australian situation, as noted above. However, to claim that – somehow – fuel is not also affected by just how hot, dry and windy it is, again, ignores physics. Furthermore, given that this current fire season started two months early, there hasn’t been the necessary window in which to do the necessary burning. Bill McCormick notes in his paper ‘Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer?’

While fuel reduction burning is the principal means to reduce the risks of bushfire, under extreme conditions bushfires can burn across land with very low fuel loads, which would have been halted under milder conditions.

In addition, and in Greg Mullins words, “…the windows for standard hazard reduction measures during winter months [are] becoming increasingly sparse.” That said, one paper suggests that,

…prescribed burning can theoretically mitigate wildfire, but that an unrealistically large area would need to be treated to affect fire behaviour across [Tasmania].

Clearly, the island of Tasmania is much more contained than the continent of Australia, but this illustrates the point that different approaches may be necessary for locations that are otherwise quite close to each other, seemingly similar and with the same central government.

Packham on emergency leaders

Finally, I want to discredit Packham’s claims about the failure of the fire chiefs. The best way to do this is to point to an actual request by Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) – a collection of fire chiefs and other emergency leaders (past and present) – to government. These are the headlines from that list of 20:

  1. The Federal Government to take immediate measures to aid current firefighting and community protection efforts by the States and Territories.
  2. Longer term, the Federal Government can make effective strategic interventions to increase community resilience and support fire and emergency services to cope with a more dangerous environment.
  3. Risks and strategic fuel management requirements. A suitable reporting and auditing framework should be integral to this work.
  4. Government action on climate change, the key driver of worsening fire and extreme weather risks.

This list seems to me to be the right things and, crucially, in the right order (i.e. Climate Change last). Points two and three are in agreement with Packham’s general thesis, so he should be supporting these calls, not muddying the waters on talk radio.

Other bushfire seasons

Finally, and to move away from Packham, many climate change denialists seek to attack the Climate Change narrative by pointing to prior fire seasons and how they have been more severe (though the definition of “severe” changes as needed). The key season being mentioned is the 1974-1975 season. In this case “severe” means ‘amount of land area burned’. The comparative severity of that season is trivially dismissed by the fact that the current season still has at least two – and as much as four – months to run (see image and caption below). In addition, the mid-70s are still during a time when carbon was much higher than in pre-industrial times, so the comparison actually doesn’t help their case.

Satellite image of heat spots in Northern Territory in May of 2019.

The fire that these denialists are referencing did indeed take out a larger area of land (based on the area burned to date), however, critically, the bulk of that area was grass- and scrubland. Whilst the 50-70,000 fires that occur per bush fire season are not exclusively limited to such “bush” that is where the majority of fires take place; no surprise, given that grass and scrub are quicker to dry. This current season is unusual because it is taking out sizeable areas of established forest and woodlands. Of course, as noted previously, sizeable chunks of such woodland that might otherwise have burned have been felled so, as a percentage of available land area, the current fires have many thousands of hectares less area that can burn. If the ’74-’75 fires are to be compared to the current fires maybe it should be on the basis of a percentage of land that could be burned.

Summary

To revisit and rebut the points in the “Giordano Bruno” article (which is more or less a restatement of Packham’s position):

  1. Eucalyptus oil is highly flammable so fallen branches should not be allowed to pile up.

They aren’t. Or at least there is no legal impediment to clearing them.

  1. Not enough clearing of potential fuel is being done, and legislation actively discourages such actions.

The issues here are resources (time and people), which is mostly an issue of policy (and nothing to do with “Greenies”), and the length of the season available to do this via burning is as short as three months (as in the Northern Territory), and certainly far shorter than it was when Packham was actively working in the field (at least 10 years ago).

  1. This legislation is especially problematic in native reserves or forests.

In reality, Australia’s east coast is a world hotspot for clear felling, thanks to Government rather than Greenie policy. Protection laws have in fact been loosened, but it’s not just the fuel that’s being cleared.

  1. Climate change has nothing to do with these failures.

The fact and impact of fuel and its flammability are affected by how hot and dry the bush is. Fuel clearance programs that require burn-off require large windows of appropriate conditions to carry out; these have been reduced by a hotter, drier climate. Forest clearing, simultaneously removes areas of fuel but also reduces the carbon-sink land area of Australia, and it is continuing apace.

The four main points made by ECLA address all of the issues noted by Packham and then some:

  1. take immediate measures to aid current firefighting and community protection efforts.
  2. make effective strategic interventions to increase community resilience and support fire and emergency services
  3. a suitable auditing framework for strategic fuel management requirements.
  4. action on climate change

Packham is not wrong about fuel clearing, he’s just wrong in how he goes about promulgating his views about it. He is attacking the very group of people that would be most likely to enact the measures he believes are necessary (and more besides) and in doing so is adding fuel to the fire of denialism. In Australia, such denialism is in bed with massive amounts of clear felling and the exporting of coal. 

Conclusion

In the maelstrom of misinformation that is the public square, it is incredibly easy to be seduced by reasonable-sounding bad actors, and even just people with good ideas who are using deceptive means to get their ideas accepted. What is clear is that Climate Change is a large contextual factor for the Australian bushfires with implications and ramifications for how fuel and other resources should be (and can be) managed.

The unpopular take home is that Australia, in the medium term, needs volunteer bush fuel clearers. This is more thankless and less “romantic” than being a volunteer bush fire fighter, but prevention is clearly better than cure. This, ironically, makes the management of fuel loads in the Australian bush an excellent metaphor for Climate Change more generally.

 

Further reading:

Debunked Australian Bushfire Conspiracy Theories Were Pushed by Alex Jones, Murdoch Media

Media reaction: Australia’s bushfires and climate change

Factcheck: Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction?

It’s Clear Who’s to Blame for Australia’s Fires, and It’s Not Arsonists

 



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Talking To Climate Change Deniers

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In this one Cory, Dan, Rene, Lisa, and Dave talk about how we talk to the opposition about climate change, among other things. Then they talk about Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and how she deals with Republican trolls. Then you get our What’s the Deal segment on globalism and Cory rants about mainstream media conspiracies.

What’s the deal with globalism?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_World_Order_(conspiracy_theory)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalization

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/globalism-right-trump.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/explaining-rights-obsession-george-soros/572401/

For anything else you can contact us at mail@brainstormblog.net

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Thanks for listening and remember, the truth matters

Author Details

Cory Johnston is a dad, boyfriend, and oilfield worker who has a passion for learning and working towards a better world. While he has very little in the way of formal education, he spent much of his life reading everything he could get his hands on as well as listening to lectures, podcasts, and audiobooks. An avid comic book nerd, Cory has always thought that the world required work in order to be truly just and as a result tries to affect change that will make that happen in a number of ways. Podcasting is a hobby that has helped that endeavor as well as a way to have fun and maintain friendships while meeting new people.





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Eternity, Free Will, and the World” Refuted — Part 5

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A few months ago over at the Catholic apologist’s site Strange Notions, where I sometimes debate theists (but am now banned from), a post was written by Catholic philosopher Dr. Dennis Bonnette that was almost entirely addressed at some criticisms I’ve made on the site in the past year.

This is the final response of my series of that rebuts his post. For parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 click here, here, here, and here.

How God’s Eternity Relates to the Temporal World

In the final section of Dr Bonnette’s post he attempts to logically reconcile the existence of an unchanging, timeless god with a changing dynamic universe, and as before we will see his attempts fail at nearly every step. He writes,


Some argue that every change in the temporal world requires a change in God to initiate that new causation that changes the world. For, how can one thing initiate new motion in another without itself changing in the very act of “sending forth” its causal influence to the world?

Such reasoning may make perfect sense to a mentality mired in philosophical materialism. But, it makes no sense at all in existential metaphysics. Physical agents change as they cause effects. But to think that this also applies to spiritual agents is absurd and illogical.

This is flat out wrong. In my criticisms of the impossibility of an unchanging being doing things that require time (which requires change) I pressed its logical impossibility. That is to say, nothing in my view depends on materialism being true. The theist has a logical problem, not a material problem. When I argue that:


P1. It is logically impossible to do something without doing something.
P2. It is logically impossible to do something without change (even if everything is immaterial).
P3. It is logically impossible for change to exist without time.
C. As such, a timeless, changeless being cannot do anything.

I am stressing the fact that logical impossibilities hold true regardless of metaphysical materialism or immaterialism. No amount of hand-waving can wiggle you out of this, as we will see. He continues,


Since whatever is in motion or is changed must be moved or changed by another, maintaining that a cause cannot cause change without itself changing would entail an infinite regress among simultaneous caused causes and make impossible an Uncaused First Cause. This is because it would mean that every cause would be an intermediate cause in need of a prior proper cause. If every cause has a prior cause, any causal regress among proper causes would have to regress to infinity. But, I have shown elsewhere that an infinite regress among simultaneous proper causes is metaphysically impossible. For one thing, the sufficient reason for the final effect would never be fulfilled. Therefore, it is manifestly false to claim that every cause must itself change in order to cause a change in another.

Regarding the infinite regress issue, his argument presupposes the principle of sufficient reason, which I’ve argued is self-contradictory on the Scholastic view. Without the PSR, Bonnette’s argument cannot be made plausible. It’s assuming a first principle that can easily be challenged, which is a recurring theme in most if not all the arguments made in his post. Bonnette’s assuming the PSR, showing a supposed problem that an infinite regress of causes entails given the PSR, and then is deducing from this that there must be an unchanging cause. If your conclusion is incoherent, it cannot be true, and so something must be wrong with your premises or assumptions, or both. And that’s exactly what we have here. Bonnette makes no attempt to actually demonstrate the logical coherency of a timeless god who does things which would require change and therefore time. He just assumes such a being must exist given a deduction from the first principles he adheres to.


Causality in metaphysics is simply a subdivision of the principle of sufficient reason. The notion of causality arises from metaphysical analysis of the effect, not of the cause. If every being must have a sufficient reason for its being or coming-to-be, then either a thing is completely its own reason for being, or else, to the extent that it does not completely explain itself, something else must. That “something else,” or extrinsic sufficient reason, is what we call a “cause.”

This is another misleading claim. Causality in Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics is a subdivision of the principle of sufficient reason, but that is not true of metaphysics simpliciter. In metaphysics, there are many views of causality that deny such a Scholastic perspective. And as I’ve stressed before, the Scholastic version of the PSR is either self-refuting, or so watered down that it would allow an atheist to justify the same claims the theist is claiming. God cannot be its own reason for being because the god of Thomism is not just some generic deity, it is a very specific god with a specific non-necessary will that also happens to be identical with its nature and essence. Hence, god’s essence is at least in part non-necessary, and ergo god cannot be said to be its own reason for being. As Bonnette says earlier in the post, he admits his specific god is not logically necessary.


Thus, the causality principle states that every effect requires a cause. What is changing or in motion fails to explain its own coming-to-be, and hence, needs a cause. Nothing in this explanation of causality logically implies a change in the cause as causing – only something happening to the effect.

The problem here once again is that Bonnette makes no attempts to actually demonstrate the logical coherency of a timeless god who does things – which requires time and therefore change. He just assumes such a being must exist given the first principles he adheres to. He furthermore assumes philosophical presentism, by which things objectively come into and out of being simultaneous with a universal “now.” All of AT metaphysics is built on this presupposition, and Bonnette has never made a single plausible argument justifying this claim’s truth. In other comments on his site, he’s denied both presentism and eternalism, and proposed a view made on a site called Arcane Knowledge, which I recently refuted as inadequate, incoherent, and forcing one into denying anything at all exists, which is metaphysical solipsism, in order to avoid eternalism.


God Remains Immutable as Temporal Events Unfold

In the final section Bonnette tries to wrap up his arguments, writing,


God, in a simple eternal act of will, causes all events in physical creation to take place at their appointed times. All beginnings and changes take place in creatures, not God. Indeed, time and space themselves are part of the world’s created limitations. If Christian belief that the world began in time is true, God simply willed the creation of the world to be with a beginning in time – again, something happening to the world, not to its timeless Creator.

But nothing here demonstrates how it is logically possible to eternally and timelessly continuously create a dynamic changing universe. How can it be that there is a state of existence when only god exists, and then god creates a universe without any change in god? God literally does nothing and somehow a universe springs into existence from god’s causal power! This is claiming you can do something without doing something, a logically possibility. You can try to deny creatio ex nihilo, a belief in Christianity since the religion started, and claim the universe eternally coexists with god, but then you must affirm a form of eternalism, the view that all moments of time in the history of the universe—past, present, and future—have equal ontological status. The caveat with that is that eternalism makes god unnecessary, since the block universe cannot have come into existence: its intrinsic eternality demand it exists. And that means any claim that the block universe still requires an explanation will only force you to provide an explanation why god eternally willed a specific block universe, rather than another, in addition to assuming a view on causality that eternalism would negate!

There are too many problems for us to fully reiterate here, but we can summarize Dr Bonnette’s mistakes as such:

  • Dr Bonnette makes no case for god’s actual coherency being timeless yet doing things in relation to the spatio-temporal dimensions. He just assumes it must be the case since his first principles (like the principle of sufficient reason) seem to entail an infinite regress of causes is impossible. 
  • Dr Bonnette has no case for god’s free will, and just assumes god is free due to god not having any external causes affecting it. That alone is not free will.
  • Dr Bonnette’s definition of free will is inadequate. He’s asserted a claim about free will on his view that are contradictory with what his metaphysics entails: 
    • That we have real alternative possibilities available to us to choose, yet our universe is a manifestation of god’s eternal, unchanging will, which means our specific universe and all the events within it—including every decision we make—are the only possible ones that manifest. There are no real alternative possibilities.
  • Dr Bonnette simply has no case for god’s necessity and admits his god is not logically necessary. When he says his god is necessary, what he really means by “necessary” is “suppositional” necessity—really just an after-the-fact claim for his specific god’s existence
  • The atheist could make the same argument about an eternal block universe, claiming it is suppositionally necessary, though not logically necessary: it exists the way it exists, therefore it was necessary to be that way. This shows the Scholastic version of the PSR is inadequate to justify theism.

And that’s why there is no need for any rational person committed to truth or reason to accept the view that god is either necessary or has free will.



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Christian Mom: Women Who Feel “Fat Shamed” Should Admit They’re Overweight | Beth Stoneburner | Friendly Atheist

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Last week, fitness trainer Jillian Michaels, who appears on “The Biggest Loser,” asked on a news program why people were “celebrating” the body of rapper Lizzo. (“It isn’t gonna be awesome if she gets diabetes,” Michaels added.) The comments, not surprisingly, sparked all kinds of backlash.

Fundamentalist blogger Lori Alexander, however, had no problem with it. She’s not exactly known for being graceful or polite, but shaming other people is right up her alley.

The word “shaming” is a common word being used these day. Mommy shaming. Fat shaming. How can women feel shame if there’s no reason to feel shame? Can shame be another word for conviction? Are women who are feeling “fat shamed” being convicted about being overweight and don’t want to admit it so they use the word “shame” instead of “convict” because they don’t want to be convicted of their sin?

… Eating too much makes us feel badly and affects our health. A lot of problems people are suffering from are due to their own negligence concerning their health and care of their bodies. There’s a good reason God warns us to be temperate and have self-control

While she says later in her piece that she’s not referring to those who exercise or eat healthy, she fails to point out that there’s a distinction between the harsh condemnation of internet strangers and a word of caution from an actual doctor or licensed dietician.

Shame doesn’t motivate people to take better care of themselves; shame is an integral part of body insecurity and eating disorders. Fundamentalist Christians, who shame others for all kinds of reasons, ought to know that better than most.

She gets worse in the comments, too, wrongly asserting that obesity is “only” caused by overeating. That’s a lie. Genetics, medication, and diseases are also possible factors. But, par for the course, it’s easier to sit on a high horse and condemn people than understand them.





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