Voice of Fairness

My personal opinion on science, religion and politics

Power and Politics of the World

There are always people with more power than others. There are always nations with more power than others.

Even if there is no differential power distribution among people or among nations, some people will try to mislead others to think that he or she has more power than others. We have recently seen Mr. Juan Guaido posing with a few people in military uniform and claiming to have the Venezuelan military behind him. President Trump tweeted that he has "a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!" There are two reasons for such fanfare. First, power, or even just the appearance of power, is often associated with personal fame, financial gain and political respect. Second, there is a mob of opportunistic people who constantly monitor who has more power than others and flock to where power lies. Thus, the appearance of power may materialize into real power with a large mob followers.

It is for this reason that no religion can spread by preaching love alone. The supreme love has to be associated with supreme power to have a chance among the mob. It is for the same reason that some preachers have to fly private jets instead of carrying the cross. The mob flocks to the jet-flying preachers instead of cross-carrying ones.

The mob know that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", so the powerful will eventually start looting others for personal gain. Being with the powerful means that one can share the glory and grandeur of looting. Not following the powerful implies the fate of being looted.

The powerful often reminds the mob that you are either with me or against me.

Napoleon formed a large group of looters and looted far and wide. He was heralded as a great leader for the looting he had done. Paradoxically, he was condemned as a criminal for exactly the same looting when he lost power. It would have been nice if he was heralded as a great leader when he was loving and compassionate, and condemned as a criminal when he was not. Unfortunately, judges and historians are always very fond of acquitting people with power but condemning those without.

At this point it might be wise to digress a few steps into the concept of power. It would be entirely unscientific to discuss power and politics without actually understanding what power means. Leo Tolstoy repeatedly argued that power to society is equivalent to force to objects in physics. To understand changes of motion in a physical object, one has to identify the force and its application to the object. To understand changes in a society, one has to understand the power that moves it. So what is power and its source?

For ancients, there was an almighty deity who interfered with earthly matters either directly or indirectly through his agents such as prophets or ordained kings and emperors. This deity acted as a micromanager and determines the evolutionary trajectory of human society, including the floating of a dust particle. However, scholars by and by discarded this divine power and started seeking power among mortals. Physical power is highly visible, especially in those like Hercules or many modern bullies. One can also perceive manifestation of moral power. Some preachers commanded a large crowd of followers when he behaved righteously, but became almost immediately powerless when he was found to solicit prostitutes. However, as pointed out by Tolstoy, it could not be personal power that enabled Napoleon, who was neither physically imposing nor morally virtuous, to move 600,000 soldiers eastward towards Moscow. After a short pause and reflection, Tolstoy concluded that Napoleon's power arose from a large mob that banked their individual physical and moral power in his trust.

Power banks exist in both democracy and dictatorship. The key difference is that, in a democracy, one is allowed to transfer one's personal power from one power bank to another, typically after a four-year term deposit. In a dictatorship, the power bank gathers power from individuals and ensures that all alternative power banks are eliminated, so it becomes impossible to transfer one's personal power from one power bank to another.

Napoleon was a successful political banker. He had a large mob who deposited their personal power in his bank and pledged to never transfer it elsewhere. The stable genius did the same with his supporters.

A successful political banker without a moral compass always morphs into a looting master.

Some people have classified the most powerful looting masters as First World, the mob followers as Second World, and those being looted as Third World. This classification was criticized for not catching the dynamic nature of this caste system. For example, the mob and their children do not want to remain members of a mob forever. They know that Napoleon was originally a member of the mob, but managed to raise himself to become a grand looting master. In particular, many of the mob were inspired by what Napoleon once said:" Those soldiers who are not willing to be a general are not good soldiers." 

The caste system is therefore somewhat dynamic. The mob members wish to become Looting Master, and the looted wish to join the mob. But this creates an insurmountable problem of increasing number of looting masters and shrinking number of looting victims. The looters either have to loot more savagely, or find some way to increase the number of looting victims. Some politico-economists, as well as economy-minded communists such as Lenin, have sounded the warning a long time ago that the looting practice would not be sustainable. Alternative ways of looting had to be found.

Just as a large number of herbivores are required to sustain a few carnivores, a large colony is required for a small number of looters. An ideal world for looters is "the empire on which the sun never sets".

Napoleon very quickly arrived at the conclusion that Mideast, India or Africa could not sustain the looting in its full glory and grandeur. It is necessary to broaden the looting base to include wealthy European countries.

As a response to the warning on sustainability, military alliance was formed, and the Looting Master said to its allies: "Let's loot those who are not in our alliance. However, instead of getting what you have looted as before, I will now get 70% of the loot and you get the remaining 30%."

The allies, although not happy with the loot allocation, found it acceptable. They would rob the weak more savagely to compensate for the loss they had conceded to the Looting Master.

Then the Looting Master said to its allies: "Let's replace 70% and 30% by 80% and 20%, respectively. The alternative is to place you among the looted. You are either with me or against me."

The allies now face two opposing factions from within. First, some of them, especially the younger ones, consider this looting immoral. Second, some of them believe that they are just as capable as the Looting Master and deserve a fairer share of the loot.

So the leaders of the allies argued with the Looting Master, with the arguments running roughly as follows: We had been faithful allies. We had contributed to making you great, and would continue to make you great again. However, we have looted so savagely that we looked evil in the eyes of our children. This is too much a cost to balance the benefit of unfair share of the loot.

But the Looting Master wouldn't listen. Instead, he fumed: "You total loser! How dare you ask for more?"

The allies were terrified and dashed out of the door as if being chased by mad dogs. In the wildness outside, they had struck an idea of forming their own alliance so that they would not be slaughtered individually by the Looting Master.

So these allies formed their own alliance, which would be known as Hedgemony for two reasons. First, they had jointly hedged a bet on money and power. Second, they wish to hide their intention to challenge the Looting Master, already well-known as Hegemony.

The Looting Master, or the Hegemony, got even angrier upon learning of the establishment of the Hedgemony. "Total disaster!" he shouted.

But the leaders of the Hedgemony were pretty cunning. They had clearly seen the division of the world into three castes, the Hegemony, the Hedgemony and the Rest, and they went to lobby the leaders of the Rest: "You used to have a leader who recognized the world in three castes, but mistakenly thought that the Rest could stand on its own feet. He failed miserably because he, although having succeeded in uniting most of the Rest, did not make an effort to seek help from the Hedgemony. The joint force of the Hegemony and the Hedgemony is far greater than the Rest. However, the joint force of the Rest and the Hedgemony might be greater than the Hegemony. If you follow us, we surely will not rob you as savagely as the Hegemony. We might even accept you into our membership."

The leaders of the Rest were all very glad to hear this proposal. After all, they had helped Hegemony and Hedgemony to loot their own people for a long time, and were now fed up with the humiliating role of being both the looter and the looted. They wanted to be just the looter like those with membership in Hedgemony.

The potential union between the Rest and the Hedgemony had driven the Hegemony crazy, and it had come up with a smart strategy to break up the Rest+Hedgemony alliance. It first approached the leader of its northern neighbor which Voltaire once dismissively described to be no more than a few acres of snow: "Listen, kiddo. I am going to spank you hard, and spank you so hard in front of all people to make you cry like a baby. However, if you condemn and alienate the leaders of the Rest, I will not only refrain from spanking you, but will kindly change your diaper."

The poor "kiddo" never realized that he was a leader in a vast land that is far more than just a few acres of snow, and he immediately caved in and hurled loads of curses upon the leaders of the Rest. As a reward, he did have his diaper changed so that he now looked smart.

Now this being done, the Hegemony went to tell the leaders of the Hedgemony, "See the example of that kiddo? If you follow his example to condemn and alienate the leaders of the Rest, I will treat you the same way as I treated him", and he pulled out a few more diapers from his suitcase.

The cunning leaders of the Hedgemony saw this as a valuable leverage, and they went to whisper into the ears of the leaders of the Rest: "The Hegemony is plotting against you. However, if you give us a very good deal......"

The leaders of the Rest was immensely touched by the timely information from the Hedgemony, and promised to do their best. They also innocently spread out a large banner starting with the words "Our alliance with the Hedgemony for the global economy......"

The Hegemony saw the banner, went across the Atlantic and angrily stared into the eyes of the leaders of the Hedgemony: "You!" He shouted and was about to raise a finger from his small hand.

The leaders of the Hedgemony were all trembling, and all said in unison, "Not me! It is the Rest that has tried in vain to seek alliance with me. I have steadfastly refused. Anyone who has ever thought of an alliance with the Rest is my enemy #1!" and they ran to and fro to evade the pointing finger of the Hegemony.

The Hegemony was pleased, and said, "I am going to punish the Rest for their attempt to divide us. I expect you to know where you stand." Each of the leaders of the Hedgemony said "Yes" seven times, each time louder than the previous one.

So this brought us to the current geopolitics of the world.

(Read the article the next day after its posting, and found it somewhat radical. Surely the world has grown beyond a caricature of class struggles, hasn't it?)

Memory, feelings, and evolution

I wish to share an early experiment with my fellow evolutionary biologists. The key result of the experiment suggests that the length of an event staying in memory may be directly associated with the effect of the event on fitness.

The experiment was done many years ago on white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) when I was a graduate student at University of Western Ontario. It has never been published partly because I developed strong allergy to mice before the study is incomplete.

The story started when I was trapping white-footed mice with Longworth mouse traps and accidently caught a least weasel (Mustela nivalis), the most deadly enemy of wild mice. Out of curiosity I brought it back to our animal facility housing my mouse colonies on which I carried out genotyping and breeding experiment. The presence of a least weasel somewhere was almost immediately sensed by all the mice – they stopped regular eating and drinking.

For wild mice, there is no news worse than the arrival of a least weasel in their vicinity.

The news, while depressing for the mice, was found exciting by Dr. Martin Kavaliers who was at that time studying signal-transduction pathways of analgesics. Martin then did an experiment on my white-footed mice with a hot plate. The control mice, when being put on the hot plate, would lift and lick their feet constantly when the hot plate was turned on. In contrast, the mice exposed to the smell of the least weasel became so focused on the smell as to be oblivious of the burning heat under their feet – they did not lift or lick their feet as they should have when there is no weasel smell. Martin incidentally reported the least weasel as short-tailed weasel (Mustela ermine) which is bigger than the least weasel and would have a difficult time squeezing its way into a Longworth trap.

While Martin’s experimental mice were field-caught, the same phenomenon was also observed in lab-born white-footed mice that never had any real encounter with the least weasel, so that “memory” of the bad thing (i.e., the least weasel) may have been somehow encoded in DNA and re-enacted through proteins (which would be truly intriguing). In this way, the memory of the weasel becomes permanent and will not be eroded by the passing of time. (Of course there is also the possibility of new-born mice learning from others.)

I then did an experiment in my semi-natural enclosure which has been described in some of my early publications. The experiment also involved a hot plate, enclosed within a card box, and placed inside the semi-natural enclosure. In one part of the experiment (Memory-Of-Good-Thing-Expt), sunflower seeds and Purina rat chow were scattered on the hot plate, but the hot plate was never turned on. 

White-footed mice are crepuscular and active mostly during twilight hours. Similar to any other field mice, they are always cautious to new things added to their environment, and would investigate the box carefully before entering. After some initial exposure, however, the mice would recognize the box as a good source of food and would enter the box quickly to eat, and females would bring the rat chow back to their nest-boxes. If you take the box away for one day and put it back at the same location, the mice would still recognize the box and enter it readily without further investigation – their memory told them that it was a godsend.

By the way, the white-footed mice have reasonably good memories and memorize the routes along which they dart from one hiding place to another. If you put a card box on such a route, they will typically dart head-on against the box, producing a loud sound breaking the silence of night, a consequence that the card box is not in their memory of the routes. Sometimes I wonder if they would run right into a predator if the predator knew their routes and just sit there with a wide-open mouth (they don’t, thanks to their smelling capabilities). Of course, there is also benefit of darting from one hiding place to another by using the map in the memory instead of by vision. These mice don’t see very well during twilight hours (Mice are not cats or owls). Relying on their vision might delay their escape from predators.

Leaving aside the many interesting biological aspects of the mice, let’s come to the other part of the experiment (Memory-Of-Bad-Thing-Expt), in which the setup is the same as Memory-Of-Good-Thing-Expt except that the hot plate did get turned on when mice were inside (Make sure that you do not have a thick layer of food on the plate preventing the heat reaching the mice). These mice, experiencing the bad feeling of burning, avoided entering the box in spite of the inviting food inside.

The boxes were then taken away for three weeks, after which the mice were again exposed to their respective boxes. Those mice in the Memory-Of-Good-Thing-Expt seemed to have forgotten altogether the good food associated with the box. They resumed the cautious approach and restarted the investigation. In contrast, those mice in the Memory-Of-Bad-Thing-Expt appeared to instantly recognize the box as evil and avoided entering the box.

In short, memory of bad things lasts longer than memory of good things, at least in this particular case. From an evolutionary point of view, this is not difficult to understand. While the good thing may not enhance their fitness very much, the bad thing (the burning and the weasel) could do serious damage. I very much wish the conclusion generalized because it is important.

Mistakes are typically associated with bad feelings, but we learn from mistakes, with the consequence of a lot of bad feelings staying in our memory and lasting for a long time.

One corollary from the conclusion is that, when one gets old, if there is no constant reinforcement of good things and good feelings, then one could potentially be left with memory of bad things and bad feelings. This corollary was made particularly pertinent when a former colleague, a well-established Peromyscus researcher, Dr. Jerry O. Wolff, committed suicide, exactly seven years ago, on May 10, 2008. I met Jerry several times, mainly through conferences and through his visit to my former supervisor’s (Jack Millar) lab. We regarded Jerry as an excellent colleague and did not, and still do not understand why he would have chosen suicide to end his life. Had he lost good things and good feelings in his memory? Did bad things and bad feelings took an upper hand? While our knowledge of science and technology has progressed so much, our knowledge of hope and love has lagged so far behind.

We often see old people indulged in the so-called “good old days”, the kind of nostalgia that historians, psychologists and politicians all unanimously dismiss as mass delusion, i.e., a Garden of Eden that has never existed. Indeed, if we measure wealth, health, life span, degree of democracy and rationality in human behaviour, etc., we will find the present day beating all “good old days” by a wide margin. But do we have more human interactions to reinforce good things and good feelings in our memory if we get old today? Will our brain be gradually poisoned by the bad things and bad feelings?

The mouse experiment described above might also be relevant to parenting as well. Parents perhaps should be particularly cautious when dispensing punishment to their children, especially when parents sometimes do wish their children to remember the bad feeling of punishment for a long time. A child is likely to become troublesome and lost without constant reinforcement of good things and good feelings in his/her memory. A home should not be a transient Biblical Garden of Eden with a cruel one-strike law.

May we keep alive our fond memories of love and friendship until the end of our days!

(Written on May 10, 2015)

Science and Religion: II

Religious people often feel offended when they are told that God has no place in science. They should not if they know the fundamental difference between science and religion.

Suppose we have a financially stressed government official who suddenly became a billionaire. People with a certain degree of curiosity would want to know how he suddenly became so wealthy. One may suggest that the official might have a recent raise in salary, but such a salary raise typically can explain very little of the dramatic change in his wealth. 

Now suppose that the official, through one of his representatives, issued a statement that God had made him rich by dumping a billion dollar in his bank account. Of course, an almighty God has infinite explanatory power of everything. Making someone wealthy surely would not raise any difficulty to His almighty hands. However, a right-minded person probably would not believe in such a statement and would most likely demand a thorough investigation of the financial dealings of the official.

The simple truth is that, when we are dealing with earthly matters, we are satisfied only with earthly explanations. A holy explanation has no place in such earthly matters and will simply be rejected outright.

Now suppose we have another scenario in which a fully grown and sexually active young man came to us with the information that he was only one day old. Any modern scientist would reject the age information as false because the information is incompatible with our observation of the young man being fully grown and sexually active. Given the cell replication rate in human development, one day is simply not enough for a zygote to transform itself into a fully grown and sexually active young man. Modern science will simply deny the existence of any man who is only one day old yet is fully grown and sexually active, and will conclude that the man is much more than just one day old. Even deeply religious people would probably deny the existence of such a man if the Genesis story of Adam and Eve was not recalled in time.

Just as modern science would conclude that a fully grown and sexually active man is more than one day old, it would also conclude that the earth, which has recorded many time-consuming changes, must be much older than a few thousand years. An earth that is only a few thousand years old raises the same difficulty as a fully grown and sexually active young man who is only one day old. Just as most of us will reject the idea of the one-day-old young man, most scientists will also reject the idea of a young earth. A holy explanation has no place in the physical world and will consequently be rejected.

Yes, an almighty God can make a billionaire out of a pauper, or a fully grown and sexually active young man who is only one day old, or an earth (or even a universe) jumping out of nowhere a few thousand years ago, but scientists deal with only earthly matters where invocation of a holy explanation is simply forbidden. Based on earthly laws (which are often better known as natural laws) governing the earthly matters, we reject the possibility that a pauper can suddenly become a billionaire through God, that a fully grown and sexually active man can be only one day old, or that an earth (or a universe) that has experienced numerous time-consuming changes was formed only a few thousand years ago.

The most fundamental difference between religion and science is that God is allowed as an explanation in the former but absolutely not in the latter.

When scientists state that God has no place in science, they do not mean that scientists do not need love and are not caring. In fact, many of them are very loving and caring. By “God has no place in science” they only mean that God should never be invoked as an explanation for observed variation in things of nature. 

Scientists need public understanding and support in their practice of excluding God as an explanation for their observed changes in physical entities around us. Such a practice is sometimes quite challenging and difficult. For example, cancer remission has been observed in many cases, and many scientists have been wracking their brains day and night for an understanding of the remission so that they can better help those less lucky one. If we do allow God as an explanation, then the life of these scientists would be much simpler. Whenever they see a case of cancer remission, they will just give each other a knowing smile and say “He did it again”. But I doubt if any church or any religious group or any government would be willing to grant our scientists such an easy life. The world will indeed become quite a bit more hazardous if they do.

So don’t be offended if you are told that God has no place in science. If God does desire to be part of an explanation of the dynamic universe, He most likely will give us a clear sign. At the moment, I believe that His priority is with helping the victims of natural disasters and human atrocities, not with offering holy explanations of natural phenomena.

(Prompted by an article on the debate about including "creation science" in the science curriculum of public schools)

(Re-posted from my Google+)

Science and Religion: I

One thing particularly strange in this world is that one can achieve much and do a great deal of good even if his or her religious belief is entirely wrong.

An engineer can design great cars or trains or ships or airplanes, and his belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with his accomplishment.

A physics professor can create photonic sensors to monitor minute changes in temperature in a minute particle, and her belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with her accomplishment.

A surgeon can direct his lancet to a tumour with amazing precision, and his belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with his accomplishment.

A farmer can plan all his crops and execute his plans beautifully, and his belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with his accomplishment.

A real estate agent can sell 50 houses per year, and her belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with her accomplishment.

If these people believe that the universe was created 6000 years ago, let them keep their beliefs, because their beliefs about the universe do not really matter in their career.

But there are people who will almost do everything wrong in their career if they believe that the universe was created 6000 years ago, and these include astrophysicists and evolutionary biologists. For these people, their beliefs about the universe matter a great deal. Indeed, nothing they observe in nature makes sense without believing that the universe is very old.

So what can we say about science and religion? The world is quite complex and we cannot be expert in everything, especially not in both the physical and the spiritual worlds. If you know something that works for you, or some theory that makes sense to you, then stick to it and you will be fine. However, it is important to keep an open mind when that something stops working for you or that theory no longer makes sense.

The world changes, so do religious views and scientific theories, but one thing probably will stay for a long time with little change, and that is the scientific method of validating our beliefs and establishing new theories about the physical world through observation, experimentation, and conceptualization.

(Re-posted from my Google+)

War and Peace

Canadian media today is full of claims that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment for Canada, and that “For many historians, Canada truly came together as a nation in April 1917, when our troops sacrificed lives and limbs to win the Battle of Vimy Ridge in northern France.” [1]. It seems that "many historians" have apparently forgotten that the 1st Canadian Prime Minister started his duties in 1867. The poor ghosts of Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie must feel deeply troubled upon learning that Canada had never been a nation under their watch.

At the same time, American media is full of claims that bombing Syria was a defining moment for Trump presidency, stating that Donald Trump became president of the United States only when he authorized airstrikes on Syria [2].

Will Canada never emerge as a nation without a bloody war? 

Will Trump never become an American President without flexing American military muscle?

Does a nation really have to gain her identify by wars?

Is raining missiles on another nation the only way for a president to gain recognition and legitimacy? Did Richard Nixon become a less president when he went to China to initiate a dialogue for peace?

Why does the western world, which often claimed to be civilized, have so many idiotic war-maniacs as news reporters and news anchors?

CBC Radio this morning (Apr. 9, 2017) was asking listeners what one can learn from these two wars, one in Vimy Ridge and one in Syria, separated in time by 100 years. I am not sure if Donald Trump ever tunes himself to CBC. If he did, he probably would say that the most important lesson is that one should never pick a fight against an enemy that is roughly equal in strength. Instead, one should find an enemy who is so weak as to be unable to return a punch. George W. Bush might add that, to avoid being perceived as a coward, one has to leak out some information to the idiots working in the media to initiate a propaganda campaign that the weak enemy is actually mighty strong.

Capitalists have learned from wars that they always get cheap labor whenever a prosperous society is bombed back to the Stone Age.

Media Moguls learned that people suddenly pay more attention to their news and their business profit jumps up every time a new war erupts.

Some retired generals learned that a new war is the only way for them to regain some limelight.

Bar owners learned that their customers are suddenly transformed into a group of agitated rednecks.

Ordinary people know that they will lose loved ones in wars, and their widows and poor children will then get brainwashed to prevent them from learning the most fundamental lesson, i.e., we should say no to warmongers, and that civilized societies should introduce legislature to allow citizens to refuse service in an aggressive war.

[1] http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/why-the-battle-of-vimy-ridge-was-a-defining-moment-for-canada-1.3345828
[2] https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/04/08/essential-pundit-take-trump-became-president-bombing-syria