Join the March for Science-Apr. 22nd

I hope many GRAF members will be interested in joining the March for Science in Grand Rapids on April 22nd.

This is info about the event taken from the organizer’s Facebook page(which can be viewed by Googling it even if you are not on Facebook, like me):

We will meet at KAXE at 11 am to make signs and gather before the march. We will then walk to 169 and head North, go West on Hwy 2 and North at 38 to the High School where we will hear speakers, eat food, and mingle with people who share our passion for science!

The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.


A fool for the ages

Over the past weekend, I noticed a link to a video entitled “America First, Netherlands Second”. Out of curiosity I gave it a click to see what it was about. Perhaps some of you already know or have seen other versions of similar videos. I tried to embed the one I saw, but the sharing was blocked for copyright reasons. However, you can also follow this link to find links to over 10 videos and growing that all mock our current president for his announcement that he was going to ensure that America was always first.

When the page opens, click anywhere in the European map to open a page that will include a list of 11 different countries in Europe that have produced their version of the “America First My Country Second” videos. Each touts the worthiness of their country to at least be second if America must be first. They use Trump’s easily identified verbal quirks, his poor use of grammar and his constant use of superlatives. Some do a good job of imitating his voice. I’ve noticed that a large number of other countries have had comedians produce additional videos. They may eventually be listed on this page, but you can also find them on by searching for “America first”.

It has become a comedy contest around the world to see who can do the best job of mocking him and promoting their own countries in a self-deprecating and hilarious fashion. Here we are, less than one full month into his presidency and he has achieved world wide wide fame not for setting a standard for leadership, but for being an uninformed, chauvinistic dunce. I always thought giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama early in his administration was a bit premature at best, but now Trump has achieved a position of world wide leadership which cannot be denied and is completely earned.

I recommend taking the time to watch at least one or two more of the videos. You will get good laughs from all of them.

Darwin Day 2017

Sunday, February 12th is the official Darwin Day in celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin, one of the most important figures ever in science. We are planning an event in commemoration of this day, but we’ve set it for Tuesday, February 14th at 7:00 PM because we will be using facilities at ICC and they aren’t open on Sundays.

We will be showing a video that explores a small piece of the mountain of evidence that is explained by the theory. The video is titled “Great Transformations” and covers the notion of transitional species in the process of life evolving on our planet. A prime example will be the wolf-like creature that evolved over time into giant creatures that exist only in our oceans, the whales. It also looks at the common ancestry that all life on the planet shares, no matter how different it seems. For example, a fruit fly and a mouse sharing a gene which is responsible for the development of eyes in both organisms. This single gene can be switched from the mouse to the fly during embryological development and still produce a normal eye. Evolution doesn’t start from scratch when a new species begins to appear. It works on what exists and kind of “improvises” from there. In the far distant past, the gene for eyes appeared and it has been used over and over again in countless species. The embryological environment with multiple genes in action determines how the gene for eyes is expressed in each case. Shared ancestry indeed.

The video runs a bit over 50 minutes and we will try to generate some discussion afterwards and maybe even some debate over the contents of the film and the theory of evolution in general.

Join us on Tuesday, February 14th on the campus of ICC in Wilson 120 at 7:00 PM. This event is being sponsored by the Philosophy Club at ICC.

Time to Stand

I tried posting on this blog earlier, but it didn’t work, so I wrote the following for my personal blog. So this is a test: let’s see if this works!

Time to Stand
Posted on January 28, 2017 by Brian Vroman
So over the last several months I have gotten a bit lazy and have ignored this blog, but now it is time for anyone with any kind of a voice — no matter how small — to speak up. Trump and his minions are already doing great harm, and present an enormous threat to American democracy.

I could write about many issues — his stance on immigration, his orders to expunge facts he opposes from federal websites, his vanity, his unfounded assertions that over three million “illegals” voted for Hillary Clinton, and on and on. But today I want to discuss the Voice of America.

The VOA is a venerable organization that has historically played the positive role of providing reliable information to those in other countries where the media is controlled or intimidated by their government. VOA was presided over by a non-partisan board of directors. But now, buried deeply in a defense bill, was a provision which changed VOA in two important ways. First, the board of directors was replaced by a CEO who serves at the pleasure of the President of the United States. Second, VOA will now be authorized to broadcast to the American public.

What does this mean?

The Trump Administration is doing all that it can to discredit the media, because the media is in a position to question what he says and does. So it appears that as part of this war on the media, Trump and his henchmen are creating their own, separate “media” organization which will be under the direct control of the POTUS. In other words, they intend to use a once respectable organization with its fine public image to further propagandize the American people. We do not need a state controlled media outlet — we need an independent media that will hold Trump, and anyone else who holds power — accountable.

This is all part of a larger right wing War on Truth. For many on the right, when the facts don’t conform to your beliefs, you don’t modify those beliefs, you change the facts. Thus, when science shows that species evolve and that climate changes as the result of human activity, you don’t take those things into account — you trash science! Likewise, when the media broadcasts inconvenient truths, instead of responding appropriately, you work to undermine the media.

It is almost certain that some leaders on the right know good and well what the truth is, but see it as opposed to their interests. For example, there is a lot of money to be made by ignoring Global Warming, even though human society will ultimately face a reckoning. But one suspects that the rank and file on the populist right — as well as, quite likely, Trump himself — either no longer no what truth is or never did. For them, there is no objective set of facts, just assertions, which allow anyone to have their own “alternative facts.” Thus, rules of logic and evidence no longer matter, and we find ourselves ever more adrift in a sea of nihilism.

So it is time for everyone who can to stand and be heard and to push back against this nonsense any time we have a chance

Our monthly meeting for January 24, 2017 – Religion evolves?

This is the first post about the content of our monthly meeting in quite some time. Meetings in the recent past have focused on live presentations and discussions which were difficult to present in written format, but the most recent meeting featured discussion about the video embedded below.

The topic was the differences between christian churches representing different denominations and displaying very different views of what is important. Many churches cling to a very fundamentalist orientation while others have more flexible and “modern” versions of the dogma, rituals and atmosphere. Yet most of them are seeing a continued decline in membership as the number of people claiming no particular religious affiliation continues to grow. The “nones” as they are typically described don’t necessarily lose all their faith, they just don’t find church involvement to be particularly important.

In this environment, many churches are seeking answers as to how they should change or evolve to make themselves relevant for the future. This has often led them toward increasingly liberal positions on issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, etc. This evolution has been slow and sometimes painful as membership can decline further when members find the liberal positions less to their liking.

At our meeting we watched a video made in 2013 in which the pastor of a church in Toronto, Ontario Canada responds to question about here decision to define herself as an atheist and the difficulties reconciling this with the members of her church. While many left, others have stayed and the church has continued to explore its new role as a welcome place for those who have not faith or have a very limited faith.

The West Hill United Church of Canada has now begun exploring joining the Oasis program which connects other churches or groups embracing a secular humanist view and seeking to redefine Sunday morning services as serving a primarily humanistic purpose. We shall see if this evolution helps to preserve their existence or if they are just another step on the extinction of religion.

Volunteer to Pack Toys for Food Shelf-Dec. 17th (morning)

One of our favorite volunteer activities is the annual toy packing event supporting the Second Harvest Itasca Holiday Program. Our group is signed up to participate again this year. If you plan to come, please mark your calendar for Saturday, Dec.17th–location: Zion Lutheran Church. Last year packing began at 9:00am so we arrived at approx. 8:50am. If I receive word that the start time is any different, I’ll change the time on our Meetup site. So please check there to confirm the start time shortly before the event, or call me. Otherwise we’ll plan to arrive around 8:45am. The work should be completed before noon.

Our task that day is to select gifts for children ages 0-12 from big piles of new items, donated by our community, that have already been sorted by age and gender. The process is quite orderly and will be explained by the program coordinator before we begin. A few people also will be asked to work at the “battery station” or at tables where they check selected items to make sure they are an appropriate choice for the child identified on the gift tag (for example, we wouldn’t want to give a complicated board game to a toddler). After every child has been “shopped for” in this way, the bags are loaded up to be delivered with food boxes to families in communities throughout Itasca County.

In the past we’ve enjoyed gathering afterwards for lunch, but since this is on the same day as our (much-anticipated!) annual Winter Solstice party, I’m proposing a change in plans. Would anyone be interested in meeting for coffee beforehand, instead? I’m suggesting 8:00am at Caribou since it’s close to the church. Will put that on the Meetup site as well. Please feel free to join us at Caribou even if you can’t help with the toy packing, friends. All are welcome. 🙂

I hope many of you can make it to this fun and rewarding volunteer activity. It helps make the holidays a lot brighter for these kids and their families. Please call me if you have questions-Amy (#259-1476)

Facts vs. Faith — Which Will Win?

I came across this quote in a column written by Charles Blow for the New York Times, but he was quoting Joe Keohane of the Boston Globe, so that is the original provenance:

“Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

Blow was writing about Donald Trump supporters.  But if this is true with respect to “ploitical partisans,” why would it be any different when it comes to dogmatic religious believers?

This is disappointing, because it suggests that our favored tools, logic and reason, will not avail against belief.  In other words — excuse the awful pun — faith trumps facts.

Of course, we can hope that even if this is true in the short term, in the long run, ideas based on reason will permeate the public consciousness, and for pragamatic reasons (such as the efficacy of medical science — all but the most deluded believers go to doctors rather than faith healers because they are more likely to find effecive treatment with the latter than with the impotent and ineffective layer on of hands), change will come in the future as it has in the past.

Still, it is depressing to think that our best arguments and the most effective presentation of evidence may be likely to fall on deaf ears.

Blog Issues

The blog experienced some problems last week when I attempted to install some routine updates to the themes, various plugins and the basic WordPress program. The updates failed because the system was unable to remove the older versions that the updates would replace. There wasn’t any explanation of why the old versions couldn’t be removed and the consequences weren’t immediately obvious. Later the content of the public blog website went completely blank and this made it impossible to see any of the content or make any changes.

I contacted technical support and they worked with the site to restore the ability to see and edit the content. I’m not sure what the problem was, but it took more than a day for them to figure it out. This work was completed as of Thursday, April 21st.

When the blog was restored, some of the settings were not preserved and the main security plugin had to be reinstalled. So far this appears to have worked, but the appearance of the blog has been changed to a different theme and header image. I haven’t restored the original theme, but will try to do this soon. In the meantime, if you post a comment or create new content, things should work okay. If you find things are still malfunctioning in some fashion, let me know.

Make plans to see “Spotlight”

I didn’t watch the Oscars this year and I haven’t watched them much for several years. But this year a picture I wanted to see won the Oscar for best picture. I hadn’t seen it because it never played in Grand Rapids during its initial release. Now, all of a sudden after the Oscar win, it shows up in town. So Carolyn and I made a very rare middle of the week trip to see it on Tuesday night. I was concerned that it would be gone before the weekend and didn’t want to miss our chance. It was well worth taking the time. I’m still puzzled as to why it was so delayed in coming to Grand Rapids. I suspect the Catholic church is very unhappy with it, but I don’t know that they would have raised a stink in town that the theater operator would care about.

The movie documents in a dramatic format the pursuit by the Boston Globe newspaper of a story about the abuse of children by pedophile priests in the Boston area. This occurred in the early 2000’s and involved an investigative reporting team name Spotlight. A team of four journalists who are asked to take on the story by a new editor who has just taken over the news operation. He is responding to some information he noticed in the paper about a single case of abuse that seems to point to a larger problem and wonders why the paper didn’t pursue the story further. The answer is that no one thought it would amount to anything – just a single bad apple priest. The editor challenges them to find out if that is true.

Eventually the team realizes that the problem is massive involving more than 80 priests in the Boston area, hundreds of victims and a community wide effort to suppress the story involving not just the Catholic Church, but government attorneys, the police, a host of public figures and, most disturbing, Cardinal Law and others in the upper reaches of the church hierarchy. Also embarrassing, the Spotlight team realizes that some of them also contributed to suppressing the story when they were in other positions at the paper. They had followed everyone else in deciding it was a limited problem and the church shouldn’t be subjected to further embarrassment for the “good of the community”.

This story is compelling and the dramatization of it is straight forward and feels completely honest. No one comes off as a unblemished hero, but the willingness of the Spotlight team to follow the story to its end regardless is admirable. Almost all of them are portrayed as lapsed Catholics, but we are left to wonder if this story put the nail in the coffin of their faith for good. I also wondered how badly the church in Boston was hurt by this story. The level of disgust and disappointment with the church seems intense at the end of the film. It would be nice if some details on the impact for the church were easily available. Maybe they are, I just haven’t looked hard enough I suppose.

In the end, Cardinal Law is pulled out of Boston and hidden away in the Vatican where he remains. As I recall, the whole scandal fueled the flames of investigation all over the world and we now know that the Catholic Church has been complicit in thousands of abuse cases with hundreds of abusive priests and nuns. It is now suspected that the retired Pope Benedict was up to his ears in the cover up of the problem and resigned to avoid further problems for himself. I’m not sure that the current Pope, Francis, isn’t also guilty at some level. The Vatican is clearly a criminal organization at this point.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is intense and compelling. I don’t know how long it will be in town. Go see it if you can.