Opinion Column: Widespread protest creates freedom around the globe

The following is an opinion editorial that I submitted to a local paper.

Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again…

– Les Misérables

It started, of all places, in Tunisia – a small North African country mostly ignored by the wider world. Authoritarian crackdowns, high unemployment, and repression of speech were commonplace there, thanks to the corrupt leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1983. Conventional wisdom held that Tunisia could not change, that it was just one of those countries destined to dictatorship and unfairness for eternity.

But for all the Tunisians had weathered, last December brought the final straw. Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor who supported his family of eight with less than five dollars a day. He refused to pay a bribe to a police officer, who then publicly threw him to the ground and confiscated his cart and supplies. Humiliated and in despair, on the same day he set himself aflame and committed suicide.

And so the winds of change began to blow.

First the people of his neighborhood turned out by the thousands to decry this oppression. The protests soon spread to the entire country. Almost all Tunisia’s lawyers and teachers went on strike, while peaceful demonstrators were attacked with tear gas and beaten. On the orders of President Ben Ali, police dispersed demonstrations through force, but they simply could not handle the onslaught of ordinary civilians. Ben Ali fled the country on January 14. The country has now elected an assembly tasked with creating a new constitution.

This alone would be a momentous and uplifting event – but it has turned out to be the first act in a still ongoing drama of liberty, tyranny, and passion on a truly global scale.

Citizens in neighboring Egypt were galvanized by the Tunisian victory and demonstrated for three weeks in central Cairo and Alexandria. Despite being beaten, gassed, and killed by the thousands, despite being completely cut off from the outside world, despite Orwellian throttling of expression and assembly, resident despot Hosni Mubarak resigned. He is now on trial for his crimes at Egyptian courts in Cairo.

In Libya, ruled by bloodthirsty despot Muammar Gaddafi for 41 years, similar protests were met with slaughter on an appalling scale. Ordinary citizens could either join the revolution against Gaddafi’s mercenaries or watch their friends and neighbors get mowed down in a hail of bullets. Against all odds, the Libyan people prevailed with international assistance, finally deposing Gaddafi. Now their only challenge is to create a democratic government from scratch.

But protest didn’t stop there.

Even in our own Madison, Wisconsin, over 100,000 citizens came out against a governor who gave tax breaks to big business and corporations but saw it necessary to rescind state employees’ bargaining rights, even though they had already made financial concessions. The extent of Governor Walker’s perfidy and corruption certainly does not match those of Mubarak or Gaddafi, but the people whose livelihoods were shattered by Walker’s actions protested – in the exact same manner of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests – and made great political strides, showing the true power of peaceful, determined demonstration.

The most recent wave of change this year is the Occupy Wall Street movement, also known as the 99% movement. One percent of Americans own more than a third of America’s wealth; while they pay much lower tax rates than those who make less. Their corporate influence negatively affects politics and law, using shady campaign contributions to create attack ads and shape legislation through intense lobbying. By refusing to accept this situation, Occupy Wall Street has shown Americans that a nation without power in the hands of the rich and corporations can be possible. The 99% movement has irretrievably changed the national political discourse to include the economically disenfranchised, the poor, and the unemployed.

From Egypt to Wall Street, from Greece to Wisconsin, from Yemen to Syria, people are awakening. They are realizing that however imposing, however rigid an injustice may seem, it can always crumble under the weight of an informed, dedicated populace. The sheer magnitude of popular protest is changing the world, right now, one demonstration at a time. It is we, the people, that have the final say over all laws and regulations, all censorship and corruption, all progress and awakening.

Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free!


Recognizing Pseudoscience

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.

Carl Sagan

Four and a half centuries ago, a boy was born in Pisa, Italy. He soon became a prominent inventor, professor, merchant, philosopher, and (in the modern usage of the term) the very first scientist on Earth. Almost having become a priest, this man instead laid the groundwork for an objective study of the universe. His name was Galileo Galilei.

Using the telescopes he constructed for himself, Galileo The Galilean Moonsdiscovered Jupiter’s four largest moons, Saturn’s rings, and topological variance on the Moon’s surface. But more importantly for science as a whole, he used the observational evidence he gathered to champion the theory of heliocentrism, that the Earth and other celestial bodies revolved around the Sun, to a point where the reactionary Catholic Church could no longer ignore it.

Heliocentrism contradicts Scripture, the church authorities maintained, so Galileo was denounced, vilified, insulted, and eventually put under indefinite house arrest for his heresy. But ideas are not so easy to imprison. Eventually, of course, his ideas withstood objective tests and were accepted by the scientific and religious alike.

However, Galileo’s work is not yet over. For as long as pseudoscience crouches in the shadows of society’s discourse, it can do harm to actual science as well as the practical realms of technology and medicine.

So how can we recognize pseudoscience in the wild?

There are several useful approaches of deciding whether a theory, hypothesis, or medical treatment is pseudoscientific. (Note: some items may appear in more than one category.)

  • Lack of definitive evidence. Examples of this category are regarded as truth by some without any rigorous experimental evidence, so they should be disregarded by a scientific mind.
    • The paranormal, defined by some as lying “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” Ghosts and psychic powers fall into this category.
    • Beliefs in an afterlife or reincarnation. Any scientific proof of either of these would grab world headlines.
    • Alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, unproven herbal remedies, and faith healing. “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” – Tim Minchin
    • Modern mysticism. Astrology, feng shui, tarot, numerology, and general superstition make definite predictions that have never seen success in the laboratory.
  • Conflicting evidence. Items here predict outcomes specifically at odds with reality.
  • Unfalsifiability. When there is literally no evidence that can even hypothetically shed doubt on a claim, it is unfalsifiable and thus its veracity cannot be determined from evidence alone. Like the claim that the world is filled with invisible and inaudible ghosts that cannot be detected by anything whatsoever, the following are unscientific and meaningless in a rational world.
    • Religion. Almost all hypotheses and tenets of major religions, such as the existence of an omnipotent being, an afterlife or reincarnation, creationism, and a “soul” or dual component of the human body, proudly depend on faith rather than reason, and so cannot be proven or disproven.
    • Conspiracy theories. There is no fact or evidence that could make proponents of the “moon landing hoax” hypothesis or the New World Order stop doubting the Establishment.
  • The anthropocentric fallacy.This is the conviction that in some manner, the laws of the universe treat humans differently than anything else. Somewhat of a litmus test for pseudoscience, the presence of this fallacy has never been found empirically in the real world. From the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time to the telepaths and zealots of today, some have never been able to accept that fact.
    • The paranormal. If humans had souls or could read minds, that would necessitate new laws of the universe dealing with just people, for which evidence has never been found.
    • Religion. Always the domain solely of humans, or humans and the animals on the same planet as humans, all major religions postulate specific beliefs pertaining to humans alone, the most characteristic and hubristic of which is “Man was made in God’s image.”
    • Mysticism. The best example of the anthropocentric fallacy is astrology, which posits that the stars, in all their universal glory, are mere vessels for predicting human events.

While unscientific claims may be topical in churches or at parties, they have no place in our schools, laboratories, and hospitals. #


Taxes, part two

As I explained in Taxes, part one, taxes are a necessity. However, there are different types of taxation, and some are more just or practical than others. The earliest type of ‘tax’ was a corvée, or head labor requirement. Corvées were used to provide the labor for the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China (under the Qin dynasty), and formed the basis of the feudal system of government.

In the modern day, corvées are seen by most who encounter the idea as barbaric and unjust. But why is this?

To address this question, we regard the two major ways in which tax systems have changed from ancient and classical times to the present. Firstly, the accepted method of payment has changed from concrete labor to abstract currency. This is a major factor in the seeming backwardness and impracticality of corvées. However, rounding up every single citizen and making them pay a certain fixed sum to the government, called a head or capitation tax, still strikes us as somehow too general, unfeeling, or simply unfair. In fact, Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution specifically prohibits capitation taxes by name.

The other gradual but important historical change in tax policy was the advent of proportionality. (I am not using the word here to refer specifically to “flat” taxes, rather to the proportional concept in general.) This is simply the principle that not everyone should pay the same amount; that not everyone even has the ability to pay a capitation tax equally; that corvées, head taxes, and any other tax policy that fails to consider payment ability is simply unjust.

Most tax policies seen today in the modern United States pass the test of proportionality. However, a blind eye must not be turned to the anomalous and arbitrary practice of property tax policy, specifically real estate taxation. This taxation, carried out mainly by state and local governments, does not in fact consider the proportionality principle. Ownership of a parcel of property does not guarantee the ability to pay a certain specific amount of money – property cannot be, in general, directly or indirectly translated into income – or vice versa. Therefore, real estate taxation is biased against the lower classes of society (it is an example of regressive taxation), because the upper classes, in practice, will be able to pay any such tax, whereas the poor may not have a sufficient source of income. Income and sales taxes avoid this problem by taxing money specifically earned or used.

Again, taxation systems more closely follow the principle of proportionality in modern times than in any other eras of history. However, America’s tax policy still contains injustice, to which I will later present possible remedies. #