September 23, 2010

Oil Spill Takes Flase Blame for Dead Zones

I've been doing a fair amount of reading and I noticed an article on Technorati, and felt that I had to respond to it. For that reason I put up my response on Technorati so, this article first published as Oil Spill Takes Flase Blame for Dead Zones on Technorati. Now on to what troubled me. 

I've written about dead zones (1, 2) and have been learning about them through reviewing different web articles. Recently, I read two articles and felt I had to respond to a false implication they both promoted.

In the blog post, 'Not a Road: is BP to Blame for This Massive Fish Kill?' and on Technorati the article, 'Is This BP's Mess, or Not?' an implication is not so subtlety made that BP is responsible for dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico that are killing fish. This is utter nonsense.

Oil spills don't cause dead zones; they are caused by agricultural run-off creating an algae bloom.  While the oil spill has been speculated to have made the dead zones worse then they have historically been, there is yet be be any real evidence to show that speculation is true.

So writing an article claiming that BP can take 100% of the blame for a dead zone, while making no effort to talk about the root cause, agricultural run off, is not only lazy, it's irresponsible.

The worst part of the two articles is their conclusion where they both say, "For the record: there is no proof (yet) that the BP oil spill is to blame for this particular fish kill, but no matter what the cause, it’s Grade-A nightmare fuel – and I, for one, can’t think of a more ringing endorsement for alternative fuels than photos like these [Pictured Below]."
This picture has been featured to prompt surprise when it is noted this isn't a road, but a group of dead crabs.
Well, for the record, even if the oil spill made the dead zones worse, the dead zones still are the major problem that killed the fish. In no way are the pictures a ringing endorsement for alternative fuels. In fact, those pictures would be a ringing endorsement against some alternative fuels, due to the increased farming that would be needed to provide bio-fuels would cause more dead zones like the ones pictured above.

What those pictures really are, is a ringing endorsement for more environmental awareness and better farming methods. I believe that both of those writers had their hearts in the right place, but just simply overstated the implications they heard from a news story that they both used for a source (it even corrects its stance) without doing any background research.

The BP oil spill has be a horrible event, with many horror stories attached to it; it doesn't need to be exaggerated. It fact, its exaggeration in taking the blame for dead zones will only allow the root cause to continue without being considered.

Thanks for reading,

-the moral skeptic

September 17, 2010

What The Hell is Going on in Africa?

This photo was taken from a video which was too graphic to be linked.

For anyone who read my post, I advise rereading it. I did some editing and it is more intelligible than it was previously. I'll have to look over my work better than I did before, and now have someone reading over posts before they are submitted. Anyway, onto the crazy shit that is going on in Africa.

Africa is a continent in need of some serious skepticism. I'm not sure they are ready to accept any, but there is a real need. I know this post will be a harsh generalization and I'm alright with that. Not everyone in Africa is guilty of what will be stated below, but too many people are, far too many.

A couple years ago, I was unaware of almost anything that happened in Africa, but then I started hearing about penis shrinking sorcerers and lynchings. Needless to say this was interesting enough to pique my interest. Apparently, mass penis shrinking delusions (Known as Koro) originated in Asian nations and has spread, becoming prolific enough to be included in the 4th edition of the DSM.

I found the proposed definition of a Koro on the American Journal of Psychiatry online and it says that, "Koro [is], a culture-specific disorder consisting of complaints of genital retraction and fear of death associated with genital retraction, has been recognized in Asian cultures in single cases and in epidemic proportions."

The use of the word epidemic is not an exaggeration on the part of the people who proposed the definition. Due, to the weird, interesting and risque nature of Koro it has been pretty well covered and a little searching online turns up quite a few different incidents. If your interested here is one from the Congo where 13 people were arrested while there are others that took place in Benin, Ghana, and Nigeria that were on a similar scale.

While the areas are different the incidents have the same pattern.

1. There is an underlying belief in sorcery and the specific understanding that penis, and even female breasts or vaginas can be shrunk. The belief is so prevalent that people can been seen, discretely, or not so discretely walking while also holding on to their gender specific private areas.

2. This mindset leads people to be worried and suspecting, and it only seems to take one person yelling, "My penis has been stolen!" to bring together a mob to attempt to find the person responsible.

3. The mob then forms and looks for anyone that fits their conception of what a sorcerer would be. In the Congo an apparent sign was someone wearing gold rings.

4. The mob then lynches the person who had been accused which often results in that person being put to death through any of a variety of horrible methods. This usually happens before the authorities can get a lid on the situation, and it has resulted in quite a few deaths.

In short many people in African countries live in fear of their genitals being shrunken, and will kill anyone accused of the act on the spot.

After learning about Koro's I could tell you that Africans are also blaming invisible telepathic bigfeet for the lack of rain during times of drought and it would seem reasonable. The fact is that it just continues to get stranger and more violent from this point on.

The second problem that I recently learn about in Africa is what is happening to albinos. ABC news gives a good summery of what it is like to be an albino in Africa through the story of 14 year old Joyce Charles  of Tanzania. Now it would be hard enough to be so different in a tolerant environment, but that is far from what Tanzania is as "In Tanzania, like most of sub-Saharan Africa, people with the hereditary condition are often thought of as having supernatural powers, which makes them a target." As you could see with what happens to people who are perceived to have the power of penis shrinking, being thought to have supernatural powers in Africa isn't a good thing.

Witch-doctors want the body parts because they are believed to increase the powers of the potions they make. Aljareeza tells the story of a man trying to sell an albino's body for 263,000 dollars and while this was at the high end of what someone would pay according to the other numbers I saw it does shows the demand for those unfortunate people.  Joyce experienced that craving first hand when the body part hunters came for her. She, like other albino people in Africa, now have to be accompanied at all times.

Joyce escaped, but many, like the 20 mentioned in the story weren't so lucky. The BBC notes how in Burundi a six year old's body was found without her arms, legs and head. That unfortunate person was the 6th albino to be found that way between September and November of 2008. Aljareeza gives further information notifying that at least 53 people have been killed there in the last 3 years. While, according to the Red Cross, at minimum 56 albino people have been killed in the last two years between the two nations of Tanzania and Burundi .

The trade seems to be expanding as well as two kids in Swaziland were targeted and killed in front of a group of people for their body parts. Still those numbers don't reflect the true scope of the problem because it doesn't take into account those who have merely been left mutilated after losing limbs to the albino body part trade.

Those two deplorable trends are part of a third larger trend, the African Witch Hunt. Now, when people hear the term Witch Hunt they think of the early modern period, Inquisition and Salem where about 100,000 people were killed in a period of a few hundred years. It's a black mark in history that many thought was over with, but it has begun again in Africa where the persecution of albinos and the worry of Koro are a symptom of a larger system of destructive beliefs. The scale is on the same level as the early modern hunts, but they are taking place in a much different way.

Historically there was the trial for witches, today they skip the trial, and receive only its sentence. That sentence often amounts to death or exile. The International Humanist and Ethical Union describes Africa as a a place where, "The belief in witchcraft is strong, common and widespread." The IHEU also tells of many of the tragic events, but I'd I think the many individual news stories do a better job of telling the true story.

The Huffington Post tells the story of Gambian authorities rounding up 1000 'witches' who were then forced to drink an unknown hallucinogenic concoction. People are being rounded up and held for 3-5 days, and some of the people are beaten to the point of near death, two of which have died. This all took place after the president of Gambia's aunt died to what he believed to be witchcraft.  

The Epoch Times concentrates on the treatment of child witches in Nigeria where the lucky are kicked out of their homes and the unlucky, "Are doused in acid baths, buried alive or poisoned, others are chained and tortured in churches in order to extract 'confessions' of sorcery." UNICEF is noted as saying the instances of witchcraft persecution is on the rise. It then gives a few specific examples and shows the role of the church as people exploiting and promoting the situation.

The BBC tells about that same treatment of children going on in the Congo. It then tells the story of two parents who are sure that their two children are witches, and a sect that has confirmed that 230 children that have been brought to them were witches. It also notes that 14 000 are estimated to have been thrown out of their homes after being thought by family members to be witches. 

And the stories just keep coming, 39 homes burnt in a witch-hunt in South Africa, 5 people in Kenya are set on fire, 843 killed in the Congo gives a small flavor to what has been going on. United Nations, "Officials tracking the problem said deaths ran into at least tens of thousands, and beatings, deprivation of property and banishment and isolation from community life meant victims of "witch frenzy" ran into millions." The scale of the past witch hunt may have already been well surpassed, and little is being done to change it. 

How could such a huge problem affecting a whole continent be so roundly unknown? People are dying at a much greater rate than the historical great witch hunt, but the older one still casts it's shadow over the recent on-going's. 

When someone asks, 'Whats the problem with a little superstition or belief in magic?' this is the answer. A false belief makes other false beliefs seem plausible and there can be a slippery slope that slides a 'witch' into the fire.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic.

September 14, 2010

Belief in God Compared to Ethical Beliefs

I'll have to apologize for this post taking longer than it should have as I was facing a number of problems. My internet has been his and miss, with more misses than hits over the past few days and I've been busy doing a few other things. Anyway, I'm sure this post will be enough to remedy those in need of a good skeptical healing.

Previously, I compared the belief in God to personal taste and concluded that the two beliefs weren't alike, but it got me to thinking that perhaps belief in God arises like a belief in what is ethical. I got this idea through contemplating David Hume's understanding of morality.

To give brief outline of Hume's Ethics I'll quote a few lines from A Treatise of Human Nature.

"For before reason can perceive this turpitude, the turpitude must exist; and consequently is independent of the decisions of our reason, and is their object more properly than their effect." Hume then uses this to show that if reason isn't a part of morality and it is something natural. Than it is present in the actions of animals and they should be held in account to the same moral standard as people. Hume does this through saying, "Their want of sufficient degree of reason may hinder them from perceiving the duties and obligations of morality, but can never hinder the duties from existing; since they must exist in order to their being perceiv'd."

Then comes Hume second part, which is more applicable to the notion of God. His idea is that morality doesn't exist in actions or acts, but in the viewers mind.

Hume states that, "Take any action allow'd to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. the vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards the action."

No matter where you look for he moral part of an action, it can never be found, and it is only when  you look internally at yourself that morality begins to appear. 

"So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar'd to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind."

Morality then is a perception of the mind, which Hume will call a sentiment. 

"It maintains that morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental actions or qualities fives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary."

This is more like how people understand God. They look at different complexities and come to an understanding that is based on sentiment and exists solely in the view of the spectator. So when a person looks at the sky, stars, or ocean and get a feeling that God did this, it is based on personal sentiment.

While this is all hearsay because I can't demonstrate that this is how people come to an understanding of how God works, it works functionally. Just as Hume showed with morals, God can't be found in any individual thing. A person instead needs to look inside themselves to finally understand where God is.

Take, for instance, someone who looks at the the ocean and sees God in it. In what part of the ocean are they seeing the god part? Where is god among the ocean is God? God is only found in the minds perception of the ocean. 

So while God didn't create and cannot be found in the ocean, the mind of the person can still none-the-less attribute it's occurrence as proof of God's handiwork. This in no way proves that God created the ocean. It is as much proof as someone having the perception that homosexuality is wrong proves that homosexuality is actually wrong. It is a completely circular understanding. It is so far removed from proof or even evidence that it doesn't even impact how plausible God is.

This analogy works in another way as well, it shows the black and white nature of both decisions. When someone finds an action to be moral or immoral in their mind, there is no room for any gray area; An action is either viewed as immoral or moral. This is the same with the view of God. No one expresses the view that there is a 50% chance that god is responsible for the creation of the earth. There is a great confidence in the answer when it is given.

So there you have it, the best analogy for the belief in God is comparing it to Hume's description of Ethics.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

September 4, 2010

What is a Jubilee? Why does it Matter?

I came across something I have never heard of before when I was reading through the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe's forum. What I had never heard before was a term, a Jubilee, or specifically, a 'Crab Jubilee'/'Shrimp Jubilee'. The only time I heard the word Jubilee previous to this was when people were referring to the crappy X-men character that could shoot energy plasmids out of her hands. This new use had me pretty curious, and it proved to be even more interesting than I could have imagined.

The first information I came across was a well written, but quirky story entitled, "Breathless Jubilee" by Kevin Bay. The only thing more interesting than the Jubilee description might be Kevin Bay himself. The story starts with Kevin being woken up early in the morning by a phone call from an eccentric friend who says, "...Wake up! Crab Walk! Crab Walk!"

Kevin, like myself, had no idea what this meant, but woke up and joined his friend that morning anyway. They drove to the Chesapeake Bay and it was "There, he [His friend] said, droves of crabs were scuttling out of the water onto the shore as if led by some sort of Pied Piper intent on making seafood bisque." When they got to the Bay they were met by many people with nets standing in the water, but they were too late, the crabs were no longer running ashore, but instead into the depths.

Then Kevin's story takes a more personal turn. He drops out of medical school to become a worker at a fish market and tries to find out what happened that day at the Chesapeake Bay. What he finds is that,

"A jubilee, I discovered, is an event once thought to be endemic to Mobile Bay in Alabama. There, it is an odd summer phenomenon where rapid depletion of oxygen in the water forces a mass migration of all sorts of bottom dwellers to the shoreline. It happens only at night when the bay becomes a sort of temporary dead zone. Thousands of crabs have been seen marching out of the water, blowing bubbles as they try to respire. Flounder pass their upper gill flaps above the water’s surface trying to gather oxygen. Stingrays pile up on the beach like so many Frisbees washed ashore. And the eels bat their heads about on land, lapping at the air, trying to drink it in to survive. But then, when the sun rises, all of these creatures return to the depths from whence they came."

That's a pretty incredible description, but that is what a Jubilee is and looks like. It may not be a full explanation, that I will get to later, but it is accurate in its simplicity. What it really shows is vividly the animals literally throwing themselves out of their homes in an attempt to breathe.

He does give a more technical explanation after that, but that's less interesting than when he tries to experience the Jubilee first hand, via pillow smothering.

Now I'm not sure what would bring someone to want to experience the lack of oxygen first-hand, even reading the description gave me an uneasy feeling, but that is what Kevin thought he needed to do. I don't recommend anyone to do that, or think that it is in anyway needed.

A better account of the history and details of the Chesapeake Jubilee comes from the Chesapeake Bay Journal and Dr. Kent Mountford.  Kent spends a lot of time describing how plentiful a source food the Bay has historically been so the true tragedy of today can be seen. As a Canadian, I see this issue like the collapse of the Cod fishing industry on the East Coast. They both were sad events that should have been seen coming, in which seemed like an inexhaustible food source completely collapsed.

The start of the true collapse is pinpointed by Mountford when tropical storm Agnes went through the region and really put a lot of stress on the aquatic inhabitants. It was after that storm that the local authorities really started to pay attention to the ongoings of the Bay. Through that the first map of the oxygen-deprived summer area was mapped and that areas related to agricultural nutrients was convincingly made. This tracking has shown, "The growth of this huge 'dead zone' each year [and] has become one of the bellwethers for the Chesapeake's decline."

The situation happens as,

"A large shock of runoff nutrients results in widespread plankton blooms, which decay and settle beneath the Bay's stratified layer. Next comes hot weather, the solar and thermal reactor that cooks these products and consumes millions of pounds of life-giving oxygen. Offshore winds sweep oxygenated surface waters away from the coast. The Bay seeks to maintain its surface level in equilibrium (like sloshing in a disturbed bathtub) and replaces the blown away water with deeper-in this case anoxic-water that flows up along the shallow shelving bottom until it fills the void. The result is a barrier of oxygen-poor water completely inundating and trapping resident organisms."

The areas of oxygen deserts in the water continue to grow, the most famous of which is the dead zone around the Gulf of Mexico, and kill many creatures, yet Jubilee's and dead zones get less coverage then ocean pirating. These two stories talk about the what's and how's, but there doesn't seem to be any questions relating any solution. In fact, the Skeptical Environmentalist (page 201) goes so far to say that, "In this respect, euthrophication [the depletion of oxygen in water] is the price we let some marine organisms pay for our success in feeding humanity, while maintaining large, forested habitats."

I know there are tradeoffs to be made, but the world's oceans seem to always get the worst part of those trade-offs and it is only after a collapse that any substantial changes are made. Could you see this happening to bunnies or deer and people not being up in arms about it? When it happens to fish and aquatic creatures people just don't seem to care.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic