Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Importance of Critical Thinking

A lot of us have been curious about the Tea Party which most of us first saw as a part of organized protests with inflammatory posters depicting President Obama as Hitler or as a socialist or fascist.

So the recent New York Times/CBS News poll and its accompanying NYT article
Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated provided some interesting insights on the group.

Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public… The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.

Their responses are like the general public’s in many ways. Most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools. A plurality do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.

Tea Party supporters’ fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.

But even more revealing was an Interactive Feature accompanying the article, Voices of the Tea Party which featured 20 videos submitted by Tea Party supporters on why they support the movement.

Listening to all of them, it's easy to get a general consensus of their feelings. They want a limited government with less spending and taxation along with a balanced budget. And they felt that any government actions to intercede into the economy with a stimulus or bailouts along with more regulation is tantamount to socialism.

While others may criticize these Tea Party supporters as being unintelligent or uneducated, I don’t agree with that. But I do see a general lack of critical thinking on their part.

Of course, it’s easy to say that I feel that way because their views are different from mine. But what strikes me most are their extremely simplistic solutions to complex problems without any underlying thinking to support their (for me) tenuous positions.

This is how Wikipedia begins its article on
Critical thinking.

Critical thinking involves determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true.

They also write
later in the article about important obstacles to critical thinking including:

[T]endency towards group think; the amount your belief system is formed by what those around you say instead of what you have personally witnessed.

I believe this video link neatly sums up the concept of critical thinking.

When Tea Partiers say they are in favor of lower taxes and spending along with a balanced budget, they never say specifically how this is to be accomplished. If they are in favor of maintaining Social Security, Medicare and military spending, what else can be cut that would balance the budget especially if tax increases are not an option? This and other questions like the ones below deserve an answer!

If tax cuts are a panacea as claimed, why did the tax cuts of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations result in historically large deficits? Where were the deficit hawks when George W. Bush (whom most of the Tea Party view favorably) turned a budget surplus into a huge deficit?

If health care reform is so bad, what would be their solution to providing affordable health insurance to the working poor whose employers can’t or won’t provide coverage?

If providing universal health care in other countries is so bad, where is the outcry in these countries to change their system to what we had in the US before the recent reform bill passed?

While they express their fear of big government controlling our lives, why are they so silent about big corporations controlling our lives? While speaking out against so-called government “death panels”, why were they so silent about health insurance companies enriching their profits by denying life saving treatment to some of their policyholders which is in effect a real death panel?

They say that government doesn’t listen to us. But why do they fail to mention that the biggest cause of this is the millions of dollars of corporate money put into elections and lobbying to make sure that as many of our legislators as possible are bought and paid for?

If indeed President Obama is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya, why didn’t his presidential opponent, John McCain use this against him in the election? If McCain believes neither of these are true, why is that not good enough to satisfy the rest of the Republicans including many in the Tea Party?

I feel that too many of those in the Tea Party are into group think, which as mentioned previously is a tendency to have a belief system based on those around them rather than on personal observations and experience. And while these people most likely get their information and opinions solely from Fox News, it is clear that Fox has also benefited in the ratings from being a driving force behind the Tea Party movement.

If liberals are viewed with such obvious contempt by these people, what is the chance that they would ever want to listen to an opposing viewpoint from any of them? From personal experience, when listening to those who oppose health care reform, I have often urged them to at least watch the first 30 minutes of Michael Moore’s movie Sicko to at least try to understand the other side of the health care debate. But if it's Michael Moore who is saying it, it must be wrong in the minds of these people and thus I have never gotten any of these people to agree to seeing any part of Sicko. The same attitude is reserved for other liberals such as Al Gore. Because it’s Al Gore warning us about global warming or climate change, it must be wrong. Case closed!

But it’s not necessarily about where we get our information. It’s about whether we question those who give us their information or viewpoints. Admittedly, I mostly watch MSNBC because their liberal viewpoints are usually compatible with my own. But I still insist in my own mind that MSNBC or anybody else has the obligation to provide some factual back up to support their opinions. For example, if an MSNBC host says that Rush Limbaugh made some racist remarks that day, I expect them to show the video clip so I can make up my own mind. And as for Michael Moore and Sicko, he provides
factual backup for this and other movies he has made.

The world is (and will continue to be) full of complex problems for our leaders to try and solve. Many issues simply cannot be broken down into simple black and white viewpoints. Relying on simplistic solutions may not do much to solve these problems, but it sure makes for heated conflict between the different sides which makes for good TV sound bites. And there are all too many politicians who exploit this lack of critical thinking to their own benefit getting by with little more than repeating ideological talking points instead of using substance and reasoning to make a point. But alas, listening to substance and reasoning means that we have to rely on more than just sound bites that the media is all too often content to feed us.

The Tea Party supporters say that we are going in the wrong direction. Whether we are or not will greatly depend on whom we elect as our future leaders. To elect the right leaders, it requires making the effort to actually acquire an understanding of the issues that we passionate believe in. It requires empathy to understand the plight of those who are less fortunate than us. And most importantly, it requires us to be open minded enough to seek the truth no matter where it leads us. So do we have what it takes?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Preventable Tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine

Last Monday turned tragic when 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. But this time mixed with the grief over the tragedy was anger at the owner of the mine, Massey Energy which had been cited with a history of violations.

The Upper Big Branch coal mine, where an explosion Monday killed 25 miners (now 29), has a history of serious violations that at points were five times more extensive than the national average, according to federal records.

The mine in Raleigh County, near Beckley, W.Va., was cited for 458 safety violations last year, with 50 of them listed as unwarrantable failures to comply -- citations reserved under federal mining regulations for instances of willful or gross negligence.

Nationwide, an average of 2 percent of safety violations are unwarrantable failures. Slightly more than 10 percent of Upper Big Branch mine's violations last year were unwarrantable failures.

At the time of Monday's explosion, Upper Big Branch mine was facing more than $150,000 in fines for pending safety violations, after routine scheduled inspections resulted in more than 100 citations three times in a 12-month period.

When a mine gets this many citations as a result of inspections that are actually announced ahead of time, it’s safe to say that its management is thumbing their noses at the inspectors and the agencies they work for. But this time, its management is being represented by the outspoken and controversial chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship.

Whether it is because he is the head of Central Appalachia's largest coal producer, a financier of Republican campaigns whose spending has rewritten constitutional law, the lead organizer of a Friends of America Labor Day rally on the site of a mountaintop mine, or a blunt spoken businessman who has taken on environmentalists -- "greeniacs" and "enviros" as he refers to them -- Mr. Blankenship's statements and actions elicit strong emotions.

Those emotions intensified in the wake of the nation's largest mining disaster since 1984. Critics of Mr. Blankenship cite what they say is Massey's long history of violating safety and environmental rules.

But Blankenship has been controversial not just for his strong anti-regulatory views but also his political influence over West Virginia’s Supreme Court which went as far as Blankenship vacationing with its Chief Justice while the court was hearing Massey's appeal of a $50 million dollar jury verdict against him.

So again we have an ideological battle between those on the political left who feel that stronger and better enforced regulations are necessary to help prevent future tragedies and those on the right who argue that regulations are an evil of big government.

Union miners can at least refuse to work in areas that are unsafe until they are repaired. But most miners today do not have union representation and thus have little leverage against an unscrupulous owner. Especially for those workers who live in remote rural locations in Appalachia, they are forced to make a choice between working in substandard conditions and not working at all.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has been reacting to violations by issuing what are called “withdrawal orders” which means shutting down only the affected parts of the mine until the violations are corrected. This seems reasonable but how effective is this when a mine has shown a continual pattern of violations?

Officials from the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 54 withdrawal orders to the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2009 and seven so far in 2010, according to the documents. Fifty-four of those withdrawal orders “were issued when inspectors found Massey subsidiary Performance Coal exhibited an ‘unwarrantable failure’ to comply with federal health and safety standards,” Ward writes.

There’s a distinction to be made here. Issuing withdrawal orders is different than closing the mine altogether, which would require MSHA to get court approval first. In cases of closure, officials would have to prove that mine operators showed “a pattern of violations” — a step that’s been complicated by the skyrocketing number of appeals being filed by mining companies to protest citations. (After all, how do you prove a pattern based on violations that are in dispute?)

Indeed, MSHA never even tried to cite the Upper Big Branch for such a pattern, despite the fact that more than 1,300 citations were filed against the mine in the last five years.

But here is the worst part.

The company was tied to eight fatal accidents at West Virginia mines in 2001 and was blasted by investigators for failing to prevent a 2006 fire that killed two miners. It was cited by federal regulators for 1,342 safety violations over the past five years, including two the day of the explosion. Davitt McAteer, former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and chief investigator of the earlier Massey accidents, called that "a huge number" and said that Monday's explosion "should not have happened. It was preventable."

So what we have here is the worst of both worlds. Weak regulations that only require wrist slaps for violations in the form of fines (a civil penalty of no more than $220,000) to go with a regulatory agency that is lax in doing its job. For companies such as Massey Energy who had 2009 earnings of over $104 million, these fines (which are often reduced through appeals anyway) along with political contributions to try and influence politicians and judges are no more than the price of doing business.

There are two obvious changes that need to be made — one to address past violations and another one to address future violations and thus save needless loss of lives.

As for the past, we obviously can’t bring the lost miners back. But in the case of Don Massey (and others like him) who may well have committed repeated criminal negligence pursuing profits at the expense of safety, criminal charges (including manslaughter) must be considered when the preventable loss of life has occurred.

As for the future, we need to start enforcing the existing regulations that totally shut down the mines where a repeated pattern of serious violations is found until all of the violations are corrected to the satisfaction of the inspectors. Fines are just a pinprick. Totally shutting down a mine stops the flow of revenue and profits which would really get a company's attention since it would hurt their all-important bottom line.

Everybody agrees that coal mining is inherently a dangerous occupation and that some accidents and deaths are unavoidable. But it stands to reason that if the offending mines were forced to close until the serious safety violations are fixed, the great majority of accidents and fatalities could be avoided. We rightly safeguard passengers from flying in a plane that was found to have serious mechanical issues until it is satisfactorily repaired. Why can’t we do the same to protect our coal miners?

So in the end, it comes down to what we value more — profits or human lives. The only moral decision is to resolutely come down on the side of human life! Regrettably, it has been shown that some, e.g. the mining and health insurance industries, that profits are often indeed more important than human lives. We must do what we can to correct those on the other side whether it is by coercion, legislation, or where appropriate, punishment by jail time.

If we are to truly call ourselves a moral society, we can do no less!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Will the Pope Resign?

It does seem a bit strange on Easter Sunday to speculate on whether the Pope is going to resign. But it is clearly on the minds of the Catholic faithful along with those in the Vatican as evidenced in Pope's Abuse Record Defended Before Easter Mass.

In an extraordinary departure to the ritual of Easter Mass at St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a senior Vatican official and Dean of the College of Cardinals, staunchly defended Pope Benedict from what he called ''petty gossip'' and hailed his ''unfailing'' leadership and courage in leading the church's response to the crisis.

Petty gossip? Cases of sexual abuse around the world have become so widespread that there is no longer any doubt that many cases of sexual abuse by priests against children have occurred with the Catholic Church being part of a cover up to protect many of the guilty from prosecution. Perhaps the most well known case here in the US is that of the former archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law.

Cardinal Law came to personify the clergy abuse crisis. He was the first member of the Catholic hierarchy shown to have actively covered up clergy abuse. Immediately after the Boston Globe broke the abuse story in 2002, Law refused to step down. But 11 months later, when priests’ records were released by court order showing that Law took elaborate steps to cover for abusers, he stepped down.

So whatever became of Cardinal Law? Dismissal from the Catholic Church? Hardly.

After leaving Boston, Law was named [by Pope John Paul II] to the prominent position of archpriest of the St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. He also serves on several Vatican boards and committees and he participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict.

But now there are serious allegations that the Pope himself was part of a cover up as summed up by blogger Andrew Sullivan in his March 16th posting How Is the Pope Different from Cardinal Law?

A priest is discovered to have been actively molesting children. His superior is notified in 1980. One of the things he is told of is the priest's forcing an 11 year old boy to perform oral sex on him. The superior does not contact the police. He approves a transfer of the priest to a different city, where the priest is required to undergo therapy but is also subsequently able to resume his work with access to children. Six years later, the priest is again found guilty of abusing children. This time, he serves a sentence, but he is subsequently allowed to resume work as a priest, with the church authorities hiding his past from future parishes, and is only removed from his position
three days ago.

Joseph Ratzinger was the superior, he reviewed the man's files in 1980, and he was subsequently in charge of reviewing all sex abuse cases as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine Of The Faith in Rome. He was integral to the policy of hushing up as much of this as possible.

Of course, Joseph Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI.

Further damning evidence on Pope Benedict was presented in the 39 minute, 2006 BBC Panorama documentary Sex Crimes and the Vatican which is available for viewing online in this link.

So far, to nobody’s surprise, the Vatican has resorted to a policy of denial and stonewalling with the Pope refusing to directly address the allegations. What complicates things tremendously is that the Pope as a head of state is given diplomatic immunity from prosecution. (Panama’s former dictator
Manuel Noriega is an exception but that was justified on the grounds that he was accused of drug trafficking and racketeering.)

Without a practical way to prosecute high ranking Vatican officials, it is easier for them to dismiss these serious charges as “petty gossip” without having to respond to direct questioning. And while previous popes in the history of the church have resigned, the rules of the church clearly state that a pope cannot be forced to resign.

So the question by many including myself is not whether the pope should resign but whether he eventually will resign for the good of his church. While Pope Benedict can probably stay for as along as he wishes, the rapidly eroding support by many of its members will continue to exact its toll. How many churchgoers are going to financially support their church when they see the millions of dollars being paid out to settle lawsuits? How many young people will dedicate their lives to serving in the clergy if they see their church hierarchy as being corrupt? And a church that has its so-called moral leader accused of serious crimes will surely become more and more irrelevant to its members while possibly making some of them go as far as to even question their faith.

Surely, a major housecleaning needs to be done to try and repair the damage to the church. But without replacing the man at the top who controls everything, any efforts at reform will justifiably be looked at as no more than window dressing to preserve the power of its existing bureaucracy. Or in other words, preserving the status quo.

But as the recent sexual scandal around Tiger Woods proved, continued denial and stonewalling will only make matters worse for the church. Without answers from the Vatican, people will assume the worst and come up with their own answers which will further damage the church’s credibility and reputation.

I’m not a betting man. But if I were, I’d bet on the pope eventually resigning for the good of his church. Apparently others are too. Legal online bookmakers like are posting odds on not only the pope’s resignation but also on who will replace him. So far, most of the money is on him resigning causing the odds to be shortened from 12/1 to 3/1. And the current odds as of this posting have fallen to an astounding 6/4!

But lest we forget, this is ultimately not about the pope or even the church. It is about the victims who need our support to get some closure and to move on with their lives as best they can. It is about treating these acts of abuse (and their cover up) not just as a sin, but as a crime that requires prosecution and punishment.

And equally important, the Catholic Church has to put its top priority into protecting its children instead of just protecting its bureaucracy. Hard questions have to be asked about why the priesthood seems to attract so many pedophiles. Again, Andrew Sullivan who is both gay and Catholic offers his interesting perspective on the subject in
this posting.

I don't believe…that you can tackle this problem without seeing it as a symptom of a much deeper failure of the church to come to terms with sexuality, sexual orientation and the warping, psychologically distorting impact of compulsory celibacy in the priesthood. If women and married men were allowed to be priests, if homosexuality were regarded in Catholic theology as a healthy and rare difference rather than as a shameful disorder, this atmosphere would end, and these crimes would for the most part disappear and the cloying, closeted power-structure which enabled them to go unpunished for so long would finally crumble. And the church could grow again.