The monthly programs are an essential element of CDHS. Our programs support our humanist goals of exchanging ideas, heightening our knowledge of the world and ourselves, fostering moral and ethical growth, and promoting the principles of secular humanism. This archive of summaries of past programs provides an overview of the varied subjects addressed.
EVERYONE BELONGS OUTSIDE: A PRESCRIPTION FOR NATURE ACROSS THE LIFESPAN
Sonya Jakubec is a nursing professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her talk was titled "Everyone belongs outside: a prescription for Nature across the lifespan.
For Jakubec, this all started when her career had her indoors a lot; to change things, she became a volunteer with Alberta Parks, specifically, its "Plan for Parks," with the slogan "Everyone Belongs Outside." Thus she took part in studies of just how exposure to Nature affects victims. That is, victims of much in life that's sort of negative. Like depression, anxiety, disability, illness, social isolation, and dealing with death — both our own and of loved ones.
The basic thesis is that getting out in Nature helps with all that. It's actually a movement — called "Healthy Parks/Healthy People."
Jakubec noted that it's actually hard to get outside when you're unwell. And not all people have equal opportunities when it comes to Nature — those on the short end include not only those with health issues but also people of color, the elderly, the poor, and in fact children. But all can benefit.
A particular focus of attention was gaining comfort at the end of life. Jakubec said the studies showed high levels of physical, emotional, and spiritual comfort gained from Nature exposure. She indicated that for many people, "death is a place," and that a park can be a "container for grief" — a place to go to grieve. Nature teaches us about life and death and loss, Nature itself being full of that. Thus it connects us with death.
Part of the program is not just getting people out into Nature but also bringing it to them. Jakubec spoke of bird feeders, bringing plants inside, and fruits and other Nature-based foods. She further spoke of art as a way to connect people to Nature. And of how adults can help children in making such connections.
During the question period, the phrase "tree hugging" came up. In response Jakubec took note of a Japanese idea of "forest bathing." And, she said, the trees hug back.
Magic in the Lab: Psychological Insights from Magicians
Anthony Barnhart, Ph.D. is a cognitive scientist. Besides being the Chair of the Department of Psychological Science at Carthage College, where he regularly teaches a college course devoted to the cognitive science of magic, Tony is also a part-time professional magician. Tony starting his side gig as a magician at age 15, was a founding member of the Science of Magic Association, and frequently appears in national and international media.
Psychologists first took interest in the methods of magicians in the late 1800s and published several papers. Tony feels that this interest arose from the popularity of mesmerism (hypnosis) and spiritualism in America. The widespread paranormal beliefs lead to the creation of the foundation of the American Society for Psychical Research on 1884. Some members of this society focused on trying to understand the methods magicians used to “trick” their audiences. The behaviorist revolution in psychology in the early 1900s ended evaluation of research into the methods of magicians until the 1990s.
In the last 20 years there has been renewed interest in the methods of magicians by psychologists that has produced several publications. When trying to understand why magicians are able to convince their audiences magicians have an advantage over psychologists – magicians don’t have to understand and explain why an “illusion” works, they only have to know that the audience will accept the illusion. On the other hand, psychologists have to develop an understanding of how the brains of audience function when presented with an illusion, and the mechanisms that lead the audience to accept the illusion.
Magic is difficult to study in the lab because most magic tricks involve misdirection. The magician directs the audience away from the method by using narrative, focusing attention on something irrelevant, using motion or prediction, using humor, or complex language. These allow the magician to direct the audience to an effect. Tony’s studies in the lab have focused on exploiting our psychological and attentional limitations.
Because our perception is calibrated by experience, our systems are biased towards interpretations that are simple and likely. Our minds fill in the blanks when a portion of an object is obscured. Thus magicians are able to manipulate our perception by playing with what we see to fool us into seeing something we assume to be a whole when it actually disconnected pieces.
Another trait that magicians use to their advantage is the inattentional blindness exhibited by most of us. This is often accomplished through manipulation of our attention by making lots of gestures that are unrelated to the key point of the illusion or by conditioning the audience with the expected motion (i.e., moving a coin from hand to hand) before the magician does something else that is the crux of the illusion.
In summary, most magicians’ illusions confound their audiences because our brains are costly to run and we are cognitive misers (some might say lazy). Thus we latch onto the first thing that matches our prior experiences when we encounter something we haven’t seen before.
Getting the Health Care Monkey off of our Backs: The road to Health Care Equity in America
Dr. David Ray works at Albany Medical Center; he has specialized in treating HIV; and heads the Capital District Alliance for Universal Health Care. His talk was titled "Getting the Health Care Monkey Off Our Back: the Road to Health Care Equity in America." Thus he likened our health care system to an addiction, that we can't get free from, even while it does great harm.
His alternative is a "single payer" system whereby all health care bills would be paid for by the government (as with Medicare), cutting out private insurance. He said the 2010 Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was seemingly a step toward that, but lamented that, bowing to the industry's vested interests, a single payer option was never even on the table — a prescription for failure.
Other advanced nations generally have systems along the lines Ray advocates. In consequence they spend far less on health care than we do. And it doesn't buy us better health. Our lifespans lag behind theirs; our maternal mortality is way higher.
The cost difference is due to our having far more middle-men, overheads, and administrative costs, which Ray reckoned at about 30% of health spending that actually does nothing to enhance health. "Too many drivers and too few horses," he said. And the raison d'etre of insurance companies is to avoid actually paying for health care, to whatever extent they can get away with.
Ray addressed what he said are seven myths about a single payer system:
- Its cost. (But two-thirds of health spending already comes from taxpayer pockets.)
- It would eliminate free choice (to the contrary he said, you'd be able to use any provider) and the efficiencies of competition (whereas about half of Americans live so dispersed that local providers are effectively monopolies).
- It's socialism (but the state will not be a health care provider — it would only pay the bills).
- Care would be delayed (Ray cited comparisons with single payer countries, finding no real differences vis-a-vis America in waits for care).
- Doctors are opposed (Ray pointed to a poll where 68% support it).
- Innovation will suffer (actually we're not so great on innovation; pharmaceutical companies spend hugely on lobbying and marketing; and drug prices here are through the roof).
- We have the world's best health care (yet many Americans seek care in other countries, to get better deals).
Ray said a single payer system would be great for U.S. businesses, relieving them of huge costs and risks associated with their health care burdens, which would disappear, making them globally more competitive. He also said coverage for individuals would be much more comprehensive, as against the thicket of restrictions, limitations, deductibles and co-pays that encrust medical insurance. Ray touted a "Medicare for All" bill in Congress that would, basically, give everything to everybody.
He seemed to imagine that such a reform could actually pass in our broken political system.
What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
Our June program started with a video of Nicholas Carr discussing his book, The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, followed by Fred Levine expanding upon the subject.
Carr began by explaining that we crave information like sex — it releases dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, and hence addictions. Our information hunger is an evolutionary adaptation; getting more information enhanced survival prospects. It was also bound up with our social instincts; being knowledgeable can raise social status.
The internet, as embodied on our smart phones, plays on this, creating an environment of unlimited information, leading to compulsive behavior. Carr detailed how fixated on their phones many people are. The average teenager has been found to send a text, on average, every six minutes of waking time. And of course major businesses profit from this, making their money by attracting users to ads. Thus they work hard to keep people hooked, tempting them with "click bait."
The problem is with how our brains work. We have two types of memory systems. One is "working memory," in the forefront of one's conscious mind, with very small capacity, of short duration. The other is "long term memory," more nearly permanent, and with seemingly unlimited capacity. "Memory consolidation" refers to selectively transferring the contents of working memory into long term memory. This is how we put things together, with deep, rich, creative thinking, hopefully producing wisdom and insight.
And this is what we're not doing, bedazzled by smart phones, whipping us from one morsel of working memory to another, without allowing for memory consolidation. Constantly distracted by new inputs, we tend not to focus on anything long enough to form rich connections. Carr said we're sacrificing our ability to decide for ourselves what to concentrate on and think about.
Some people imagine they're able to overcome this syndrome through multi-tasking. Wrong. Carr pointed to studies showing that the most intensive multi-taskers tend to do the worst at everything. Indeed, they're even actually worse at multi-taking itself. It's much more efficacious to focus, concentrating on one thing at a time, rather than flitting back and forth, which itself drains much brain energy.
Fred Levine observed that the brain practices "survival of the busiest" — that is, it beefs up modules where a lot is happening, while less used modules atrophy. And it's hard to transfer stuff from working memory to long term memory when continuing inputs and distractions soak up attention. Distraction is the enemy of long term memory.
Levine said that older "pre-internet" people know what it is to do intensive reading, studying, and thinking. Unlike younger people of the smart-phone era. We are thus heading toward a fragmentation of knowledge.
Levine did allow that in the big picture, we benefit, in countless ways, from advancing technology. But we are on the cusp of a profound evolutionary change in how our brains work, whose ultimate consequences are hard to foresee.
[FSR comment: all this is very relevant to America's socio-political predicament, explaining a lot of our epistemology crisis. Also, I'm frankly baffled why folks are so mesmerized by their phones. Is the content really so thrilling? Or insignificant drivel?]
Native Plant Gardening 101
Carol Quantock is a CDHS member and became a Cornell Cooperative Extension (Saratoga County) Master Gardener in May of 2021. Her interest in native plants began after she did some landscaping around a new backyard in-ground pool in 2008. Over time, the landscaping evolved from non-native plants to a mixture of native and non-native plants. She discovered that native plant gardening: has become “trendy” during the pandemic; is environmentally sound; is low-maintenance compared to non-native plants; and supports native insects, birds, and wildlife. Native plants (trees, flowers, grasses, and other plants) have co-evolved with the insects and animals in each locale. Proponents of native gardening accept that some non-native plants are fine to use as long they are not invasive and don’t overwhelm the native plants.
Even though some people think that native plants are “weeds,” native plants can provide an amazing variety of colors and textures. Each gardener can use a varied pallet of native plants to attract different insects and wildlife throughout the growing season. Carol noted that it is fine to a dd non-native plants for sentimental, ornamental, or other reasons as longs they don’t overwhelm the native plants. Native plants are easy to grow because they evolved in an area and like to live there. Carol suggested that a good way sustain a native garden to let the leaf litter remain in place rather than bagging up the leaves and disposing the bags. Excess leaf litter can be managed by spreading in wooded areas. Native plants also support native insects, such as ladybugs, dragonflies, various bees, ground beetles, and fireflies. These native insects are the primary pollinators of the plants (fruit trees as well as others) in most areas.
Invasive species, whether they are insects, animals, or plants, can spread very quickly and overwhelm native species. They can also attack and kill various trees and fruit crops. In many cases the invasive species spread because there are no natural predators for them in the areas to which they have been introduced. Using native species in gardens instead of imported species helps to reduce the likelihood of invasive species taking over and crowding out native species.
Carol indicated that are nurseries in the area (Wild Things Rescue Nursery and Catskill Native Nursery to name a couple) that specialize in native species and urged anyone that is interested in native gardening to check them out.
Climate Change & Extinction Rebellion
On Sunday, April 10, the speaker for the monthly CDHS members' meeting was fellow CDHS member Ben Wang. Ben is also a member of the group Extinction Rebellion (a.k.a. XR) His presentation focused on the quickening pace of worldwide climate change, its damaging effects on all life on our frail planet, and what XR is doing to combat these climate changes.
XR's aim is to use rational, scientific, ethical, and non-violent means to raise people's awareness of the dire condition of our atmosphere and planet. Ben presented informative slides to demonstrate how greenhouse gases, especially CO2, are causing dramatic increases in atmospheric temperatures. Higher temperatures can lead to droughts, flooding, uncontrollable wildfires, raised sea levels, and super-storms.
Ben pointed out that often people who tell the truth are shunned or attacked by others. A goal of XR is to make doubters understand that science is not just a set of facts but a method to learn the facts and be able to question popular, commercial notions and short-sighted opinions.
The disruptive effects of climate warming could cause sea levels to raise 2 feet by 2050 and this could bring about the dislocation of about 13 million Americans. A social upheaval like this could lead to the rise of radical authoritarian politic groups.
To combat these harmful atmospheric changes XR is advocating the elimination of carbon based fuels by 2030. XR believes we are rapidly driving towards a cliff and that our current political establishment and corporate leaders are not telling us the truth about the condition of our climate.
Extinction Rebellion believes their messaged that the world does not offer unlimited resources and that there is no utility in exploring other planets as potential sites for human colonization when earth’s resources are depleted must be heard around the world. Their truth is that we have to make changes that will lessen modern society’s impact on our planet as fast as possible.
More information about Extinction Rebellion can be found online at: https://rebellion.global
The Knowledge Gap
Keenya Oliver Bemis, a longtime CDHS stalwart, teaches high school biology in Schenectady. Her talk was based on Natalie Wexler's book, The Knowledge Gap - The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System - And How to Fix It.
The main idea is that kids don't know nothin'. For a long time it was thought that education shouldn't be about stuffing them with facts, but rather instilling thinking and comprehension skills. So we get reading lessons presenting some text and asking students to identify its main idea. The problem is that understanding written verbiage requires a certain amount of foundational background knowledge. And that's something a lot of kids today woefully lack.
Bemis illustrated this by presenting some verbiage about baseball that most Americans would grasp, but not Brits. In contrast, a passage about cricket would baffle most Americans.
She invoked the "Matthew Effect" named for the Biblical snippet saying "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." In education, this means that kids coming in with a good stock of basic knowledge find it easier to absorb further knowledge; whereas those starting out behind fall further behind.
Another concept here is "chunking," which refers to seeing information in a meaningful context, so as to put less strain on working memory, thus again freeing up brain resources to absorb additional knowledge. But "chunking" requires some knowledge in the first place.
In all these regards, it's disadvantaged kids whose disadvantage is compounded. They tend to get a lot less basic knowledge in the home environment than do more affluent brats; they rely more on school to get it. But (in addition to all the many ways schools don't serve disadvantaged kids well) they don't get it in school either, with prevailing educational theories again focusing on trying to develop broad skills like critical thinking and comprehension rather than factual knowledge. Indeed, pedagogy in subjects like social studies and science is being cut back in favor of more reading instruction. Which is nevertheless failing — because the kids lack necessary foundational knowledge.
Bemis repeatedly expressed shock and dismay at what basic stuff her own high schoolers don't know. Like geography — understanding a map. Is Australia a "city?" How to use a ruler. How to round numbers and use decimals. What an atom is. What the heart does. What gas we breathe.
She posited that kids actually do better, and engage more, with content-rich lessons, as opposed to abstraction-filled ones of the "what is the main idea" sort. And writing is a useful tool, forcing the recollection of information, to help retain knowledge and build long term memory.
Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them
Dr. Scott Allison is a professor at the University of Virginia at Richmond, a social psychologist studying group dynamics. A particular and relatively new field is "heroism science."
He began by asking attendees to name some heroes — and then the traits making them heroic. Noting that heroes tend to fall into two categories: "cultural" heroes (MLK, Gandhi, Superman) and personal ones (relatives, teachers, etc). Allison listed the "Great Eight" traits of heroes: smart, strong, selfless, reliable, resilient, charismatic, caring, inspiring. But he observed that heroes and villains are not opposites; there can actually be a fine line between them; and villains can indeed exhibit five of the mentioned traits.
Thus one person's hero can be another's villain — he noted that in Richmond, where he lives, there's disagreement about Grant versus Lee. Allison suggested this helps explain our culture wars and political polarization.
He also quoted Oscar Wilde that "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." This led into discussion of Joseph Campbell's oeuvre on "the hero's journey," a universal theme in the world's mythologies, literature, and spiritual traditions. Heroes are not born such, but have to go through "stuff." The journey is not volitional, but propelled by some necessity. The hero starts out missing some vital quality; goes through trials and tribulations; gets help from others; finds what was missing; and then returns to their original familiar world to bestow a boon.
The story entails a transformation — the hero finding their true (and better) self. Allison said The Wizard of Oz epitomizes such a story (though actually lacking final element).
The qualities initially missing can include self-confidence, humility, courage, resilience. They cannot be gained by mere resolution, but require painful struggle. Allison defined heroism as exceptional voluntary action aimed toward a greater good. And said heroes provide hope, wisdom, moral modeling, safety and protection, positive emotions, goal achievement, and social connection. But it's all in the eye of the beholder, always with moral ambiguity.
He noted that today's Germans — for obvious historical reasons — are very skeptical of the whole idea of heroism and the related concept of "leadership." [German for leader is "führer."] While heroes unify people, villains divide them. Our reptilian brains love tribal thinking. And we suffer from "leadership illiteracy," unable to distinguish good leaders from bad. Of course the name Trump came up. Allison said, "we have a problem when we can't recognize evil when it's staring us in the face."
Risk and Ethics in the Attempt to Contact Extraterrestrial Intelligence
John W. Traphagan is a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His talk was about "Risk and Ethics in the Attempt to Contact Extraterrestrial Intelligence."
He began with a question posed to the Pope: would you baptize ET? The problem being that Catholics only baptize humans. The Pope answered yes, if ET asked for it. However, this actually challenges the religious notion that humans are unique and created in God's image. Referring to "Abrahamic" religions; others (and humanists) would not have such a problem.
But Traphagan noted that Christianity has in fact baptized many "aliens," the native inhabitants of colonized lands. Who did seem alien to the Europeans doing it. [Yet not as alien as beings from the Planet Xorb — FSR.]
Anyhow, he noted that those encounters did not turn out so well for the natives, thus introducing his theme of their moral consequences. Central to his presentation was the SETI program — The "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" — mostly by combing the skies for radio signals that would be not just noise but with patterns indicative of intelligent sources. So far, none have been found. But Traphagan suggested that the newly deployed James Webb telescope may greatly expand our capabilities for detecting extraterrestrial life.
Traphagan pointed out that alien civilization is not a new idea; it actually came up in ancient writings. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli observed lines on Mars (actually a mis-observation) that he called "canali" — Italian for "channels" — which got mistranslated as "canals." Thereupon speculation about Martian civilization was off to the races, sparking a whole genre of science fiction, epitomized by the film "Forbidden Planet." [He failed to mention the great 1953 classic, "Cat-Women of the Moon" — FSR]
While Mars now seems pretty barren, life, and even intelligent life, elsewhere is far from far-fetched, given the vastness of the cosmos. We've already sighted at least 100 habitable planets orbiting other stars. On the other hand, the vastness of the distances mean that, barring some technology to overcome the speed of light, messages between planets would probably take centuries to go back and forth, thus obviating any sort of conversation.
Nevertheless, Traphagan posed two basic ethical issues concerning SETI. First, with regard to humanity, contacting another intelligence could be dangerous. He quoted Stephen Hawking saying that intelligence and predatoriness tend to go together. And human history shows that (as mentioned) contacts between disparate civilizations tend to go badly for the less advanced one. He posited that since the risk is not zero, no one has the right to undertake this. And any alien civilization with the capability to get here would so outclass us that we'd be defenseless; better not broadcast our existence.
The other ethical concern is what our messaging might do to them. He presented an elaborate hypothetical description of an alien society which, after contact by us, would be thrown into a tizzy. It turned out this hypothetical was actually based on pre-1868 Japan; and in Traphagan's telling, Japan's first contact with Westerners, in 1854, launched a sequence of events that culminated with Japan's being nuked in WWII.