Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, April 10, 2007

As a general rule, the more media coverage an item generates, the less I pay attention, so I confess that I haven’t followed the Iran-Britain hostage situation as closely as I might have. That said, at NRO today, John Cullinan highlights some statements on the matter by two British bishops (one Anglican, one Catholic) that have provoked some controversy in the U.K. I don’t know whether the analysis of Cullinan and other critics is entirely justified, but it does seem that, at the least, Bishop Burns’ remarks skirt the question of truth: that is, whether the Brits were or were not in Iranian territory is prior to any judgment about the Iranians’ “good deeds” and “generosity.”

I’m sympathetic, moreover, to Cullinan’s general advice about bishops being more rather than less careful in their public statements on political matters, in the interest of retaining genuine moral authority—a familiar refrain to readers of this blog.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Last month the Pacific Research Institute released a report estimating that costs associated with the American tort system exceed $865 billion per year (HT). Check it out for a detailed breakdown and comparison of these costs with other sectors of the economy and government spending. (Here’s a WSJ op-ed from the authors of the report.)

ABC’s 20/20 had a segment last week on the largest lottery winner in history, Jack Whittaker of West Virginia, who won $315 million in 2002. It’s a sad story for many reasons, but I want to point out one aspect of Whittaker’s tale.

At the time of his jackpot, Whittaker owned a successful construction company that was “doing $16 million to $17 million worth of work.” According to the story, Whittaker “enjoyed years of success with few complaints, but less than a year after winning the lottery things began to change.”

“I’ve had over 400 legal claims made on me or one of my companies since I’ve won the lottery,” said Whittaker.

When asked why that might happen, Whittaker said it’s because “everybody wants something for nothing.”

Rob Dunlap, one of Whittaker’s many attorneys, said Whittaker has spent at least $3 million dollars fending off lawsuits.

Another recent development in tort news is the mainstream acceptance of animal law, which will likely be front and center in any class-action lawsuit resulting from the poisoning of thousands of pets via Menu Foods products. Are pets persons or property?

Amy A. Breyer, one of the only full-time Chicago-based attorneys who specializes in animal law, says that when animals are considered property, as they are in Illinois, they have no voice in the courts.

For more reading on the devolution of the American tort system, check out Trial by Fury: Restoring the Common Good in Tort Litigation, by Ronald J. Rychlak, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Don’t be hitting it just yet, buddy.

Here’s an interesting piece from the April 16 issue of Newsweek by Richard Lindzen:

Judging from the media in recent months, the debate over global warming is now over. There has been a net warming of the earth over the last century and a half, and our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing at some level. Both of these statements are almost certainly true. What of it? Recently many people have said that the earth is facing a crisis requiring urgent action. This statement has nothing to do with science. There is no compelling evidence that the warming trend we’ve seen will amount to anything close to catastrophe. What most commentators—and many scientists—seem to miss is that the only thing we can say with certainly about climate is that it changes. The earth is always warming or cooling by as much as a few tenths of a degree a year; periods of constant average temperatures are rare…

…Is there any point in pretending that CO2 increases will be catastrophic? Or could they be modest and on balance beneficial? India has warmed during the second half of the 20th century, and agricultural output has increased greatly. Infectious diseases like malaria are a matter not so much of temperature as poverty and public-health policies (like eliminating DDT). Exposure to cold is generally found to be both more dangerous and less comfortable.

Moreover, actions taken thus far to reduce emissions have already had negative consequences without improving our ability to adapt to climate change. An emphasis on ethanol, for instance, has led to angry protests against corn-price increases in Mexico, and forest clearing and habitat destruction in Southeast Asia. Carbon caps are likely to lead to increased prices, as well as corruption associated with permit trading. (Enron was a leading lobbyist for Kyoto because it had hoped to capitalize on emissions trading.) The alleged solutions have more potential for catastrophe than the putative problem.

Well, surely Mr. Lindzen is a bought-and-paid-for mouthpiece of Big Oil, right?

Lindzen is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research has always been funded exclusively by the U.S. government. He receives no funding from any energy companies.

You’ll want to read the whole essay – it’s well worth your time. And here’s one more quote to consider, which is perhaps Lindzen’s most important: “the evidence for global warming thus far doesn’t warrant any action unless it is justifiable on grounds that have nothing to do with climate.”

I neglected this earlier, but a Hat Tip goes to my good friend Adam Barr.

German theologian and philosopher Michael Welker describes in his book God the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) the biblical relationship between the prophet and majority opinion:

The prophet does not confuse truth with consensus. The prophet does not confuse God’s word with the word of those who happen to hold power at present, or with the opinion of the majority. This is because powerholders and the majority can fall victim to a lying spirit—and this means a power that actually seizes the majority of experts, the political leadership, and the public (88).

He previously outlined some of these lying spirits that have dominated recent decades. Welker writes,

“Water and air are inexhaustible natural resources”; “Dying forests are not connected industrial and automobile emissions”; “With permanent armament we are making peace more secure!”—those were some of the many astoundingly public opinions of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that, as has become clear in the meantime, can be ascribed to a lying spirit (85).

But if we were to ask what is the increasingly dominant opinion of the experts, the political leadership, the media, and the public of the ’00s, what would the answer be?

I have little doubt that the answer is, “Human beings are causing global climate change.”

After last week, we even have a clear “consensus” opinion on human-induced climate change from the Supreme Court. But while Welker himself might be inclined to concur with this particular opinion rather than those of previous decades, his warning about the dangers of consensus are well-taken.

And those who have taken up the prophetic mantle of climate change, like Jim Wallis and Rev. Richard Cizik, would do well to heed Welker’s words.

What does it truly mean to be “prophetic” about the issue of climate change? Does it mean the partnering of the Evangelical Climate Initiative with the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Or might a “lying spirit” behind the “consensus” position on climate change? How are we to tell?

Scripture itself gives us a pretty good rule of thumb to discern the spirits. In Deuteronomy 18:14-22, we read the answer to the question, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” Verse 22 contains God’s answer to the people’s question about discerning the true prophet: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

So with this in mind we might have an avenue to respond to the sorts of predictions and claims about climate change popularized most notably by Al Gore. The advocates for government action to combat human-induced climate change ought to provide a specific set of predictions and criteria for the verifiability of their claims. Let them decide in which predictions they have the most confidence and which are the most easily provable. Give us a set of clear benchmarks for the next 1, 2, 5, or 10 years. Then perhaps we can begin to judge whether the prophets of climate change have “spoken presumptuously” or not.

But to demand such explicit and verifiable criteria is to expose what is perhaps the greatest weakness of the theory of human-induced climate change: its patent lack of testability. It is at once a theory that can account for any and all future climate contingencies, and is therefore really no theory at all. It is a theory of everything and of nothing.

In the most recent Interfaith Stewardship Alliance Newsletter (April 5, 2007), Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, adjunct scholar at the Acton Institute and spokesman for the ISA, links to a story that includes the following quote from an organizer of a mountain-climbing expedition intended to bring attention to the problem of global warming (which had to be canceled because of low temperatures): “They were experiencing temperatures that weren’t expected with global warming,” Atwood said. “But one of the things we see with global warming is unpredictability.”

Beisner writes,

Re-read that last paragraph and let its epistemological implications soak in. Now literally everything constitutes evidence for global warming. Something you predicted? It’s evidence for global warming. Something you didn’t predict? It’s evidence for global warming. Something you couldn’t possibly have predicted? It’s evidence for global warming. Can you spell tautology? American Heritage Dictionary gives as its second definition, specialized use in logic: “An empty or vacuous statement composed of simpler statements in a fashion that makes it logically true whether the simpler statements are factually true or false; for example, the statement Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow.” Likewise tautological: “If what we predict happens, that’s evidence for global warming; if it doesn’t, that’s evidence for global warming.”

That of course is the beauty of the favored phrase “climate change,” because that term doesn’t necessarily imply warming or cooling. It could be either. And perhaps in some places neither, since we are so consistently reminded that these changes are really regional phenomena.

As so many of our scientifically-minded friends have been more than ready to remind us in the context of other debates, this raises the question: If it isn’t verifiable, is it really science?

And the theory of human-induced climate change isn’t science, what is it and what are the implications for the political debate about action to combat climate change? Welker gives us fair warning that the answer to the former question might well be, “A lying spirit.”

On this Good Friday, CNN commentator Roland Martin delivers a well-needed corrective to the errors of both the religious Right and Left.

It’s good to see that he doesn’t confuse action on poverty and divorce as primarily political but rather a social issues. Just because you aren’t explicitly partisan doesn’t mean that you cannot be as much or more political than some of the figures that are typically derided in these kinds of calls to action. It doesn’t look to me like Martin falls into that trap in this piece.

And although Martin rightly says that abortion and homosexuality are not the only issues on which Christian morality has important words to say, he needs similarly to be careful not to confuse Christian political action with the whole compass of Christian social action. That is, just because a person or group engages in political activism on one or another of these issues doesn’t mean that they don’t think these other issues are not important…it may just reflect their judgment that they are not primarily problems that government needs to be lobbied about.

Here’s one other aspect of the problem: the media decides which personalities from the Christian community to cover, and these choices aren’t always attuned to those who are really the most influential, but instead those who will fit easily into the desired stereotype of evangelicalism. So, when Martin says “it’s time to stop allowing a chosen few to speak for the masses. Quit letting them define the agenda,” his message needs to be heard as much by the mainstream media as it does by lay Christians.

Politics tends to be of the most public interest, so it’s Christian political activism that tends to get the most coverage. This doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t at the same time active on other social fronts.

Blog author: dwbosch
posted by on Friday, April 6, 2007

Q: What do the Global War on Terror and the War on Terrifying Global Warming have in common?

A: Neither proponents admit to a lack of complete consensus, to wit:

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I guess consensus, at least where intelligence and climate estimates are concerned, is in the eye of the beholder.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Thursday, April 5, 2007

…on Mars:

Global warming could be heating Mars four times faster than Earth due to a mutually reinforcing interplay of wind-swept dust and changes in reflected heat from the Sun, according to a study released Wednesday.

Scientists have long observed a correlation on Mars between its fluctuating temperatures — which range from -87 C to – 5 C (-125 F to 23 F) depending on the season and the location — and the darkening or lightening of swathes of the planet’s surface.

The explanation is in the dirt.

Glistening Martian dust lying on the ground reflects the Sun’s light — and its heat — back into space, a phenomenon called albedo.

But when this reddish dust is churned up by violent winds, the storm-ravaged surface loses its reflective qualities and more of the Sun’s heat is absorbed into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise.

The study, published on Thursday by the British journal Nature, shows for the first time that these variations not only result from the storms but help cause them too.

It also suggests that short-term climate change is currently occurring on Mars and at a much faster rate than on Earth.

We’ve got it all – violent storms, rapid temperature change, receding polar ice. All we need is to pinpoint the source of all the martian CO2 emissions and send an emergency mission to start a carbon offset program, and we’re well on the way to saving the Red Planet as well as our own from the horrors of climate change!

Naturally, the article contains this caveat:

For Earth, global warming is mainly associated with human activities — notably the burning of fossil fuels — that release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, trapping more of the Sun’s heat.

Naturally.

I wonder if planets in the solar system have any common trait that might help to explain the variations in their climates… Yep. It’s a headscratcher…

Once again, I’m left with questions about this whole thing. We know that the average global temperature on Earth has been creeping upward over the last little bit. We also know that climate change seems to be occurring on other planetary bodies in the Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn’s moon Triton, Mars, and even Pluto, for example). We also know that average temperatures on Earth have been much higher (there’s a reason that Greenland is called Greenland) and much lower (there’s a reason that Greenland was abandoned by its inhabitants) over the course of recorded history. Given these facts, why is it that Earth seems to be the only planet about which scientists have reached the untouchable conclusion that the climate change process isn’t natural?

During a conference I attended last year, I got into some conversation with young libertarians about the nature of moral duties. In at least two instances, I asserted that positive moral duties exist.

In these conversations, initially I was accused of not being a libertarian because I affirmed positive rights. This accusation was apparently meant to give me pause, but I simply shrugged, “So be it. If being a libertarian means denying positive moral duties, then I’m not a libertarian!” I then pointed out that I never said that government must be the agent of respecting or meeting those duties, to which the accusatory tone of my dialog partners subsided.

I gave the biblical example of the case of the Good Samaritan, who recognized the love imperative to stop and assist a victim of violent crime. I think it is an established element of Christian theological ethics that both negative and positive rights exist as a basic reality. That’s why we can commit both sins of commission and sins of omission, and the Book of Common Prayer includes confession to God that “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

This, for instance, is in part why the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the Decalogue, describes both the positive and negative elements that are obliged in each commandment. So in the case of the commandment against murder, the Catechism outlines both “duties required” and “sins forbidden,” the former of which include “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent,” and the latter of which include avoiding anything that “tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q&A 134-136).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic text, Life Together, that

The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all. The other person never becomes a burden at all for the pagans. They simply stay clear of every burden the other person may create for them. However, Christians must bear the burden of one another. They must suffer and endure one another. Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled. The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it.

The confusion of these young libertarian thinkers on the distinction between positive and negative rights as well as the knee-jerk assumption that positive rights entail government action speaks to the important difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a full-blown world-and-life view. The former is certainly not without its problematic elements, but is far superior to a Weltanschauung that cannot account for positive moral responsibilities to family, friend, and neighbor.

By the way, I don’t mean to equate the errors of a few representatives with the entire variegated classical liberal tradition. Arnold Kling’s articulation of a “civil societarian” perspective seems pretty well immune to the criticisms noted above.

As I noted above, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the claims upon my time and abilities that are made by other people. Bonhoeffer writes,

We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–pass by the man who had fallen among robbers.

Ironically, Bonhoeffer rightly observed that religious professionals face a particular danger in not respecting the concrete claims of individual moral responsibility.

It is a strange fact that, of all people, Christians and theologians often consider their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it. They think they are doing God a favor, but actually they are despising God’s “crooked yet straight path” (Gottfried Arnold).

I explore the truth of this observation in my own experience in a previous Acton Commentary, “The Good Samaritan: Model of Effective Compassion.”

Why would a hip hop group called “Crime Mob” be invited to the campus of a Historically Black College? And why would the group’s “Rock Yo Hips” music video — featuring college cheerleaders as strippers — get so much play on television? Anthony Bradley looks at the effect of misogynistic and violent music on a black culture that desperately needs healthy models of academic achievement and honest economic progress.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Over the weekend I had the chance to see an airing of the 1998 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg on Detroit public television. The film does an excellent job portraying the life of a baseball superstar complicated by social and political events in the 1930s and 1940s.

One of the film’s featured commentators was Alan Dershowitz, who said Hank Greenberg was the most important Jew in the world in the 1930s because he exploded Hitler’s propaganda myths about the physical superiority of Aryans. Greenberg stood 6’4″ and in 1938 Greenberg finished the season with 58 home runs, making a remarkable run at the home run record of Babe Ruth.

During that decade Greenberg thought of himself as hitting “home runs against Hitler.” But in 1941, Greenberg traded in his bats for bullets, serving in the armed forces between 1941-1944 during WWII.

While he was not particularly observant religiously, the film does a good job of showing how important Greenberg’s Jewish identity became to him as his career wore on, as his prominent standing within the local, national, and global Jewish communities increased along with his accomplishments on the field.

“Hank Greenberg was a great hero in Detroit, especially to the Jewish population,” said Tigers Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell.

In a strange twist of fate, the still-productive Greenberg was traded before his final season from the Detroit Tigers to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was present for Jackie Robinson’s entry into the majors. Greenberg and Robinson faced each other on the field, and Greenberg was able to give Robinson words of encouragement in the face of virulent racism.

In seeing the hatred that Robinson faced Greenberg was able to relativize the powerful anti-Semitism he had faced in his own breakthrough to the major leagues. Greenberg felt that after his feats on the field of baseball and the field of battle that it was only after WWII that the question of his ethnic and religious identity was pushed to the background. He had finally become simply a baseball player…and he hopefully predicted that Jackie Robinson would one day come to achieve that recognition as well.

As we mark the beginning of baseball season this week in 2007, it’s a good opportunity to remember the contributions of Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg on the baseball field and to the cause of social and religious tolerance in the modern world.

Greenberg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, and in just nine full seasons finished with a career batting average of .313, along with 331 home runs and 1276 RBI.

Tiger great Hal Newhouser said of Greenberg that if he had to pick one batter to drive in a run in a crucial situation, he would pick Hank Greenberg over greats like Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. Unless, of course, the batter would be facing Greenberg’s arch-nemesis, the great Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller!

This post has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.