08 November 2010


SKEPTIC. Scientific American posted a provocative article called "The Skeptic's Skeptic. A teaser -- "Science values data and statistics and champions the virtues of evidence and experimentation. Those of us viewing the world with a rational eye .... also have another, underutilized tool at our disposal: rapier logic like that of Christopher Hitchens, a practiced logician trained in rhetoric. Hitchens has something deeply important to offer on how to think about unscientific claims .... his unique and enviable skill at peeling back the layers of an argument and cutting to its core."

In science, the word "skepticism" denotes an approach to accepting, rejecting, or suspending judgment on new information that requires the new information be well supported by evidence. This is entirely consistent with the guiding principles of the scientific method. Hitchens himself observed with regard to pseudoscientific fakery that "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." He does precisely that in his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, methodically dismantling the baseless assertions of religious doctrine under the guises of creationism, intelligent design, and their clones. The Scientific American article is a concise introduction to Hitchens' mind, and to a stellar model for analytical thinking.

WEALTH GAP. In Our Banana Republic, Nicholas D. Kristof suggests that "You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe rapacious [financial] inequality. We now have it right here at home -- and in the aftermath of last Tuesday's election, it may get worse. The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of [the nation's] income .... arguably a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. CEOs of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 532 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent."

Kristof goes on to challenge Republican plans to extend the Bush tax cuts to the most affluent 2 percent of Americans, noting that "At a time of 9.6 percent unemployment, wouldn't it make more sense to finance a jobs program?" You would think.

MURDER. A recent article in the Missoulian and other regional newspapers recounts the rather wild story of two hunters who claimed to have been surrounded by a pack of wolves, then after escaping, being pursued until one of the hunters shot and killed a wolf. Their tale reeks of (a) woodlore ignorance, (b) bloodlust, and (c) a desparation to avoid prosecution for killing a member of an endangered species. To wit -- they claim to have shot an elk, leaving portions of the elk at the kill site overnight. Upon returning to retrieve the remaining meat, they claim that a wolf pack approached, scaring their horses and forcing them to fire shots into the air. The wolves continued to howl, and the men allegedly abandoned the elk meat and fled, followed by the wolves. "We got 50 to 75 yards down the road when the wolves were howling right next to us on the side of the road. I said, 'The bastards are following us, maybe trying to kill us or the horses.'" One of the hunters shot several times at the pack, killing one wolf as the two men made their purported escape.

Federal wildlife officials are investigating the incident and will determine whether the killing was justified. Here's what I'm wondering -- in a part of the country known to be home to territorial predators like wolves, grizzlys and coyotes, why would a hunter leave part of an elk kill overnight? Is that not asking for trouble? And is it not further provoking an encounter by returning the next day, after blood scent has permeated the area? Was this a case of poor planning (too few pack horses for an elk kill), or was it hubris and a disregard for not only the law but common sense?

Ethically speaking, there is also this -- all nature's creatures, prey and predators, were here long before we were. They lived in a world of dynamic balance. We, as sentient beings with (presumably) free will and conscience, are guests in their home. We are not masters of the planet, we are part of it -- possibly a carcinogenic part at that.

It is too soon to tell, but my gut feeling is that these guys should never have been issued hunting licenses. But then, that's true for the majority of hunters, in Montana or any other state. Any prospective hunter should be able to demonstrate an intimate knowledge not only of the species in season (deer, elk, antelope, etc.), but also an intimate knowledge of the habitat and the predators who live in the hunting area. Now the West is poorer by one wolf, and we are all impoverished for the loss.

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