Showing Jesus’ Historical Existence – 1

On April 22, 2016, in History, Religion, by prosario2000

Recently, I’ve been involved in some debates online regarding Jesus’ existence. One of them was in the Facebook account of LiberalAmerica.org, regarding this particular (bogus) article. I’ve refuted some of these claims before in a previous post written some years before my deconversion from Roman Catholicism, and my opinion on this matter hasn’t changed in the least.

Since, I’ve already refuted the claim, I want to make a more positive approach, that is, to present clear cases where the mythicist views of Jesus clearly fail, and the evidence for Jesus’ existence is positive. I want to begin with one of the known but least discussed stories about Jesus: his baptism.
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Almeida_Júnior_-_Batismo_de_Jesus,_1895

The Texts We Will Evaluate

There are no first-century texts outside the New Testament about Jesus’ baptism. The Gospel claims are pretty much all we have for now. Before we begin, we must remember the way they were written. The earliest Gospel we have is the Gospel of Mark (ca. 70 C.E.). The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were written later using Mark as a source, but also using another one scholars call Q. Even though Q is a hypothetical document, most scholars consider its existence as highly probable. For many, Q took its final form about the year 60 or 65 C.E.  Matthew and Luke were written about 80 to 90 C.E.  It is said that these gospels also had some other sources that scholars have called M and L respectively. The last of these first century writings is the Gospel of John (ca. 90-100 C.E.)  What do these Gospels have to say?  Let’s have a look (all of our quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version).
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The Gospel of Mark

What follows is our earliest account of Jesus’ baptism:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John [the Baptist] in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).

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The Gospel of Matthew

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13-17).

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The Gospel of Luke

So, with many other exhortations, [John the Baptist] proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from the heaven: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Luke 3:18-22, I have adopted the rare text as the most probable original, for more on this read Bart D. Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).

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The Gospel of John

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29-34).

I hear some of you saying:

—“That’s it?!”

Me: “Yep, that’s it!”

—“But doesn’t John tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism?”

—“As I’ll show you, that’s exactly part of the evidence … John does NOT tell us anything about Jesus’ baptism. And THAT fact is a great piece of this puzzle.”
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Qualifying the Evidence

Qualifying Mark

Historians in general do not immediately suppose that whatever they read in a document is true. Quite the contrary. As Bart Ehrman has argued in his most recent book, eye-witness testimony is very unreliable. Yet, none of these Gospels come from eye-witnesses, but have received these traditions from earlier sources by word of mouth. Mark was written 40 years after the events, so that means that this took at least 40 years of oral tradition to reach the author of Mark. And THAT is a problem. We must keep this in mind when using this Ancient writing.

Yet, that does not mean that we cannot get some historical facts out of it. For instance, what was the purpose of the Gospel of Mark? Answer:  to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. How do we know that this was the purpose?  Simple. If you read all of that text you will realize that it has one very basic literary theme: that Jesus was the Messiah, but the people who heard him did not get that he was the Messiah, because Jesus didn’t want it revealed to the public; and that he also got upset with those who were close to him, because they didn’t understand his Messianic role.  Regarding the first part of the theme, we can see that Jesus often gets angry when people (and demons) confessed his Messianic role public; he literally tells them to shut up, and, despite the fact that later his fame spread like wild-fire (e.g. Mark 1:23-28,32-34,40-45; 3:10-12; 5:42-43; 8:11-13,22-26, 27-30). It is as if Mark were showing this particular fact about Jesus as “a secret” that he didn’t want to be known.

We could ask, why was there such an insistence on Mark. Think about it!  If Mark was written to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah, but shows him forbidding everyone to tell this “secret”, then what the text is doing is providing the readers the reason why Jesus never publicly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah! Notice that already the theory of Jesus’ non-existence starts to crumble. Someone may ask,

–“But wait! Didn’t everyone watch the heavens open and the Spirit speak?”

Ummm… no!  Read again the texts of Mark and Matthew. According to them only Jesus saw the heavens open up and watch the Spirit descend on him!

So, here is our first historical fact that happened to be very inconvenient to Christians: the historical Jesus never publicly claimed to be the Messiah or Son of God. These were claims made after he died. The Gospel of Mark was written to explain away this problem. If Jesus didn’t exist, then it would be hard to explain why the author of Mark wrote his Gospel as if he actually existed but never publicly claimed to be the Messiah. Why wouldn’t he have written the Gospel in such a way as if he did announce it?!

Yet, there is still another inconvenience in our story: Jesus’ own baptism! Isn’t Jesus’ vision of the Holy Spirit descend and proclaim his Sonship as convenient? Actually, no. If you read the first chapter of Mark in its entirety, you find what the writer had to say about John’s activity as a baptizer:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized to him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:4-5).

Why would Mark or any Christian at the time make up the story that Jesus was baptized if John’s baptism was for the repentance from sins? In their view, would it be acceptable that the Messiah repented from sins?  Obviously, there is a problem.  How can we explain this from a historical standpoint?

It is clear just from this text that before Jesus’ ministry, he began as John’s disciple who repented from his sins and was baptized (our second historical conclusion). Mark‘s story about Jesus’ vision was apologetic, he wanted to explain away why despite the fact that the “Messiah wasn’t a sinner”, he let himself be baptized. For Mark‘s author, Jesus was not baptized because he was a sinner, but because was going to adopted by God as His Son with this act. Mark wanted to persuade readers why, despite the fact that John’s baptism was about the repentance of sins, Jesus could still be considered the Messiah.

But wait … why didn’t Mark just omit the whole story of Jesus’ baptism in the first-place?!  Again, take into consideration that this is the earliest Gospel. This means that most probably some of the eye-witnesses to Jesus’ baptism could be living at the time, and someone like the author of Mark could not deny this simple fact. He needed to address this inconvenient fact when confronted by other people like, let’s say, John the Baptists’ disciples that still persisted at the time, or from other Jews who were acquainted with that same information. After all, Christianity’s custom of baptism clearly derived from John the Baptist’s activity, right?!

From Mark‘s text, we can also see that it omitted any reference to Jesus’ own activity as John’s disciple. As we can also observe, Jesus began his ministry, shortly after John was arrested (our third historical fact, Mark 1:14).

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Qualifying Matthew and Luke

The confirmation of the Christian embarrassment regarding Jesus’ baptism doesn’t stop with Mark, but continues with the gospels of Matthew and Luke. We can see that clearly they borrowed their respective stories from Mark. Let’s have a look at Matthew‘s account first.

One of the things that we notice at first glance is that Matthew‘s author adds a small dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus. This exchange is made to address a concern that he attributes to John, but obviously is everyone‘s question when reading about Jesus being baptized, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”.  In other words, “Hey!  You are the Messiah!  You are above me!  You are sinless and blameless! If anything, this poor sinner should be baptized by YOU!” The account gives us Jesus’ (non)answer to his question: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Why did Matthew include this awkward eye-brow-raising dialogue? Because, as in Mark’s case, he tried to explain away the reason for Jesus’ baptism:  it’s all God’s will, so that Jesus’ sonship will be revealed.

But the embarrassment in Matthew doesn’t stop there!  Matthew shares with Luke a story not found in Mark, which is a strong indicator that it comes from Q. After John was arrested, Q tells us this story:

When John heard [about all of these things], he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come,  or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” … And [Jesus]  answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the [skin-diseased] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23; Matt. 11:2-6)

At first, we might be impressed by Jesus’ claim, but the most embarrassing section is the first part of the story.  Any attentive reader should stop and say: “Wait a minute! In Matthew‘s story of Jesus’ baptism, John knew perfectly well who Jesus’ was!  Now he is asking if he’s the Messiah?!  What is going on!” Scholars in general agree that this story contains what is perhaps a core historical event, when John really questioned whether his disciple, Jesus, was “the one who is to come”, the Son of Man or the Messiah. There is no certainty whether Jesus’ reply is historical or not, although it does seem to resemble apocalypticist language very well, as we can attest with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The story itself as a whole served both gospels in order to confirm their views of Jesus as the Messiah, but at the expense of revealing a historical inconvenience:  that John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah (our fourth historical fact).

As a matter of fact, Q’s story seems more coherent in Luke. There is no dialogue between John and Jesus in that text, and, most interestingly, there is no case of John baptizing Jesus in that gospel. Jesus was baptized, yes … but after John’s arrest. In other words, Luke is establishing a distance between John’s activities and Jesus’ baptism, so that it no longer looks as if Jesus was baptized because of his repentance of sins, which is what John proclaimed.

Yet, if we look thoroughly at Luke (that rhymed!), how come John never knew that Jesus was the Messiah, if chapters 1 and 2 made them cousins?  They should have known each other!  Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, it seems that its author’s original project intended to begin his gospel with chapter 3. After finishing his work (whether in that edition or a later one), the same author added chapters 1 and 2. As many scholars have pointed out, these chapters are too fantastic and too inconsistent with historical data to be historically reliable. Luke‘s author’s original intention was to present Jesus’ sonship as God’s adoption at the very moment of Jesus’ baptism. Yet, he went further back, and justified his sonship because he was the fruit of the Holy Spirit. So, in Luke‘s “original project”, apparently he made it as to make John totally oblivious regarding Jesus’ status as the Messiah.

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Qualifying John

As we have pointed out, there is no story of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of John. As many scholars know, many times when John omits information that is found in the Synoptic Gospels, it usually is a form of denial. For instance, in all three Synoptic Gospels we find the scene of Jesus’ agony in the garden, either throwing himself at the floor or kneeling, and asking God to keep his future suffering away from him (Mark 14:32-42; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:40-46). Yet, in John we find no agony at all! On the contrary, the soldiers are the ones who throw themselves to the floor when Jesus reveals his divinity when he says “I am” (John 18:1-11). At one point in the Gospel, Jesus even denies that he is going to ask God to keep the crucifixion away from him (in John it is portrayed as his “moment of glorification”; John 12:27-28).

Notice also that this time, Jesus is not the one who sees the Holy Spirit, but John the Baptist! In other words, John recognizes Jesus as being the Messiah, does not baptize him,  and has the vision revealing him to be the Messiah. Being the one to write the Gospel at the very end of the first century C.E. has its advantages … the main one is that despite the gospel writer’s evident conflict with the disciples of John the Baptists, none of them are eye-witnesses of the event … hence none of them can deny the “truth” as John understands it.
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Conclusion

All of the evidence thus far screams for Jesus’ historicity as the best explanation for the way these texts have been written. Mythicists really have a very, VERY hard time explaining all of these texts from their standpoint. Some people might say that the story of John the Baptist as a whole is a carbon-copy of Horus’ Anup’s the Baptizer. People who argue this way forget two things:

  • The story of Anup baptizing the god Horus is a hoax. Scholars all over the world have recognized it as being a complete fabrication from late 19th or early 20th century so-called “scholars” who wanted to make up evidence to “disprove” Christianity’s “lies and fabrications”. People who keep believing that the Horus’ thing nonsense is true will never know the irony!
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  • The historicity of John the Baptist is well attested, not only by the Gospels, but also by external sources such as Josephus’ writings, particularly, Antiquities of the Jews. The way he is portrayed in that writing has convinced scholars that this was not a later addition by Christian hands. There is no debate that this is Josephus’ actual story about him.

From all of our analysis we can state the following as the most probable historical theory about Jesus:

  • He existed.
  • He probably began his apocalypticist journey by being a follower of John the Baptist.
  • Jesus was baptized by John, because he believed that he was a sinner, and repented.
  • After John was arrested, Jesus began his ministry.
  • It seems that at no point Jesus proclaimed publicly that he was the Messiah.
  • John the Baptist didn’t know that his disciple, Jesus, was the Messiah.

All of this tells us that Christians found Jesus’ baptism by John as being highly embarrassing to the point of us being able to see the efforts of explaining it away, or denying that Jesus was baptized by John, or even that he was not baptized at all! All of this only makes sense if he was actually baptized, which would inevitably mean that Jesus existed!

We will keep exploring more in the series. For now, just be aware that from just this post alone, we have established the unequivocal existence of Jesus, not only as the most probable theory, but as a very strong one.

For these, and many other reasons, scholars in general no longer argue about his existence. It is non-issue!

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I was going to write about my problems with Batman v. Superman movie, but others have expressed themselves better than me. I think that this article makes the very best reasons why BvS fails.

However, I want to write about what is screaming in my mind for some time now, and was voiced by a friend of mine online. I have the feeling that Batman has been ruined “forever” in the most recent DC world on the screen. I want to be clear that Ben Affleck is not responsible for this at all. If anything, he has proven to be a GREAT actor in BvS, and he should feel proud of it. I also want to say that almost all of the actors in this movie did GREAT, and did their very best with the mess of script given to them.

Yet, after watching the movie, as I thought about it time and again, I realized that the damage done to Batman in the film is beyond repair. Only two persons are to blame for this: Zack Snyder and, most especially, Frank Miller.

Miller has had a reputable history with comic books. I remember when I was young, I read for the first time one of his most popular graphic novels: Batman: Year One. If it were not for the fact I was so irritated with him right now, I would love for people to buy it. I also loved the animated feature version on DVD. I am less warm, but still OK, with The Dark Knight Returns graphic series. You can actually see some references to these in films. Christopher Nolan was inspired by Batman: Year One in many ways (like the use of bats for Batman to escape from the police). In BvS, you can see places where Snyder reminisces about some iconic scenes from The Dark Knight Returns.

Despite this fact, in the most recent years, Miller has changed for the worse, especially in the (in)famous All Star Batman and Robin (ASBAR) series, where Batman is literally presented as a psychopath with certain pedophilic desires, and whose detective abilities are close to zero. All of this is mixed with the most sexist versions of women possible, mixed with a Superman who is an a**hole. Don’t believe me? Here … watch these reviews made by Linkara in Atop the Fourth Wall regarding these series.

And THAT is the main problem we see in BvS.

Not taking into account that Frank Miller is behind its scenes and this newest version of Batman, will lead some people to have some misconceptions about Snyder’s intentions with the character.  For instance, in one of the trailers and the movie we see this:

Robin's Suit in BvS

Robin’s Suit in BvS

This is the Robin suit, which has been painted by the Joker. Yet, look at Robin’s weapon.  In the so-called “canonical” graphic novels, usually Robin is seen with a quarterstaff, but here, there is a different sort of weapons. The best guess made by anyone online about this object states that it is a sort of Halberd. It is a staff with a spear, and a sort of “axe-like” point that is deadly.

I want to show this because it goes to the heart of what is going on in Snyder’s version of Batman. I’ve heard too many times online that Batman “became more brutal” and “crossed the line of his own former code of ethics” when “Robin was killed by the Joker”.  I say that this reasoning is total B.S.  If you look at the Robin suit, you’ll see that Robin must have been just as brutal before his own death. His weapon is reminiscent of ASBAR (#7), when Batman gave Robin (aka “Dick Grayson, age twelve”) a choice in order for the latter to be “an avenger or a detective”, i.e. kill his parents’ killer with an axe or not (at least as I understood the pseudo-choice).

Batman is damaged beyond repair. Apparently, he has been a killer all of this time, and has taught Robin to do the same! And THAT was the reason why Snyder selected this particular view of Batman, because only this Batman would irrationally choose to kill Superman … no matter what!

It is not clear in BvS that by not killing Superman (because of coincidence of their respective moms’ names), Batman will stop killing altogether, but I can say this: Batman is no superhero in this film. He has no moral high ground in any way. He is just a mindless avenger with a very small mental capacity to be a detective.

Snyder has no understanding at all of these characters … and honestly, DC and Marvel must stop hiring Frank Miller.  His best years have been over a long time ago. I think that no amount of effort invested in this new version of Batman will “fix” this character.

 
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

OKAY!!! OKAY!!!! …. I’m going to talk about the Batman v. Superman (BvS) disas … oops… I mean … movie. Jeez!!! ~ Shaking my head ~ Sigh ~.

When I was little, I grew up with the Adam West version of Batman, and the Superfriends version of Superman. The former was too silly and the latter just lacked all personality and character (if it were not for the uniforms and the powers, you could literally interchange any of the superheroes with any of the others in those cartoon series, and you wouldn’t notice the difference).

The Superman being presented to us in both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman is another example of the latter. I hoped that in this movie you would watch far more character development than Man of Steel had. Nope. It focused more on developing Bruce Wayne/Batman! So, in that sense I was disappointed. I also was upset at the fact that I didn’t see the relationship between Clark and Lois develop. She still continues being an emotional support for Superman (something that I like about her), but there is nothing beyond that. I also wish that she stopped playing the role of “Damsel in distress” (she played it too frequently in BvS).

If you are too worried about Ben Affleck being Batman, you can place your concerns to rest. As many of you have already noted in several non-spoiling reviews, Affleck is very easily the best Batman on screen to date. I can guarantee you, that in terms of acting, he is a shining star that will convince you that he is both Bruce Wayne *and* Batman. The fight scenes involving him are the most enjoyable moments in the movie.

If you are also worried that Gal Gadot does terrible as Wonder Woman, place also those concerns to rest. She does GREAT! If there is some hope that was fulfilled by the movie is the one I was whining about all of these years: that I wanted to see a WARRIOR Wonder Woman and not a “babe”, that Snyder should concentrate more on the fact that she is an Amazon, and worry less about “sexy outfits”. Gadot does NOT disappoint at all. All of us who complained about her not being the best choice for the role, can be considered hit on the face by Zack Snyder.

THAT BEING SAID, I want to identify the main reasons why this movie failed (at least for me):

  1. As I mentioned before, there is no character development on Superman. This will be the main reason why the emotional impact of the ending of the movie was not as great as should have been. (And what does happen? Well … I can’t say, because of the “no spoiler” thing … But if you think about it, hey!… We all know that Doomsday is in the movie, right? And if you are a comic book fan, you KNOW what THAT means!)
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  2. Even when every scene with Batman is enjoyable, and I loved Jeremy Irons as Alfred, I can’t help to note how irrational Bruce Wayne’s feelings are. Snyder rescues what Batman should have been in Christopher Nolan’s _Dark Knight_ trilogy: not exactly a “symbol of hope” (that properly Superman’s role), but a man who is moved by the grief of crime and the loss of his parents. That’s fine! … BUT, I understand that this movie goes too far with it. Sometimes it seems that Batman is suffering from a super-duper-hyper-non-plus-ultra PTSD. And I understand that he was traumatized with the impact of Superman’s fight with Zod …. but (MY GOD!) even to the point of not really caring about more immediate and much more serious threats than Superman?! Sorry, but I don’t buy it! His whole emotional motive to kill Superman seems too forced in the movie. At several points I thought that Batman was great with technology, but that his detective thinking was sometimes reduced to zero. I can’t say specifically what do do I mean, because that would drive me to spoil some stuff.
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  3. The Lex Luthor in this movie was a GREAT disappointment for me. Yes, he does a lot of evil, but when he took steps for it, my mind was telling me: “Why did he do that? … There was no reason to do that … THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE…. Why is he doing that???!!!!” For a bad guy to be compelling, he must not drive your pinky finger to your mouth and say: “I’m evil! Bwhuwhahahahaha!!!” NO! He or she must give me *a reason* for the madness. Give me SOMETHING! However, this Lex Luthor not only has zero motivation for what he is doing, but he is also the WORST Lex EVER! It seems as if Zack Snyder threw in the mixer Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jim Carrey, Jesse Eisenberg’s acting, lame Manichean cosmology, Nietzsche’s lamest views, and turned it on. Whatever came out of that, is BvS’s Lex Luthor!
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  4. Lex Luthor is the main antagonist in this movie, and his actions are senseless … this leads exactly to the main problem in this movie. Lex’s actions prepare a setting, but it is a *senseless* setting for a Batman and Superman fight that *has NO reason for being*. This combines with Batman’s unwarranted and non-sensical obsession with killing Superman. This is a confusing scenario. NOTHING MAKES SENSE IN THIS MOVIE!
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  5. The destruction porn in the movie did not concern me this time. Yet, the CGI (especially the one related to Doomsday) is horrible! Not for one second did I believe that Doomsday was menacing. Some other CG scenes were great, but this was not one of them. And I don’t mind that a CG scene doesn’t work IF the movie had a great plot and script. Yet, this was no such movie.
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  6. As other reviews have pointed out, anyone trying to follow the thread of the stories will be really confused by the “organization” (or rather “disorganization”) of the narrative. It feels all-over-the-place, because Snyder wants to throw many things at us in such a short time.
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  7. Last, but not least, about half of the movie is dedicated to set up the Justice League film, sometimes to the point of total confusion: there were some scenes where you didn’t know if they were dream sequences or not, but apparently they seem to be a set up for JL (like the scenes of Apocalypse) … And yes, Darkseid will be the villain in the next JL movie. Who the heck else?! This set up takes sometimes too much time, and a lot of the scenes of the movie could have been removed. In this sense, I totally agree with Chris Stuckmann, that now there is a continued aspiration of movie producers not to self-contain the stories, but to create movies that set up other movies. That movie producers and directors should just stop doing this and focus on the story.

There are so many other things that I either concerned me or made me upset about this movie. Yet, talking about them will lead me to spoilers. So, for now, I will end my review here.

 

Follow and Support this Skeptic ===> Jeff Holiday

On February 6, 2016, in Science, by prosario2000

Very recently, after I adopted the path of skepticism, not only as an intellectual but also as a spiritual path (as a Religious Naturalist), I’ve been watching a lot of skeptics who have become very popular on the Internet such as Rebecca Watson, Kavin Senapathy (follow her page in Forbes.com), Myles Power and James Gurney (both: The League of Nerds),  Yvette d’Entremont  (aka the SciBabe), José Miguel Mulet, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, among many others. Through Patreon, I have supported three of them. Two whom I have mentioned: Rebecca Watson and Myles Power.  Yet, the third one has not received the attention he deserves: Jeff Holiday.

Don’t get me wrong, he is getting popular. He has more than 1,000 subscribers in Youtube, and that is a respectable number. What I like about him is a neuroscience student who wants to comment about the best science today with a great sense of humor, while demystifying certain BS people find on the Internet.

However, his comments are not limited to science, but he also talks about politics. Many times I’ve seen the headings of his political comments videos, and my initial reaction is a raise of an eyebrow. It may be that I end up disagreeing or agreeing with him, but whichever the outcome, I feel that he wants to provide the best rational basis for his views. He also posts some silly stuff just people to enjoy.

Here are some of my favorite videos:

… and one silly video:

He seems to be a great guy, and I honestly wish him all of the best.

I started supporting him in Patreon recently (within the capacities of my low budget, of course), because I believe that he should do many more videos, and talk to more people about science and skepticism. After some time, he posted a video thanking his supporters … or (to my surprise) his supporter … me! The ONLY Patreon supporter (“technically” at least)?!

In my humble opinion, I should not be the ONLY supporter in Patreon. I invite everyone to please support him if you have the chance. Honestly, it doesn’t take much. We need more people like him in Youtube, in Facebook, in Google+, in Twitter … everywhere!

Please, go and support him in Patreon.com. Visit his page: https://www.patreon.com/jeffholiday.
Also subscribe to his Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAldq8BAAGdsX9UyK_09-ZA.

 

No poder olvidarte (with English translation)

On January 8, 2016, in Poetry, by prosario2000

Licencia de Creative Commons
Este obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons
Reconocimiento-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional
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Cuando quiero besar las aguas del Leteo,
interrumpe mi sed el recuerdo de tu rostro
y en desesperación suspiro cuando mi mente ve
cómo tus ojos se convierten en luz de vida.

¡Ay! ¡Cómo desearía morir de una vez,
para renacer en la otra vida!
Quisiera sentir cada célula de mi cuerpo
expirar de mi corrupción material,
para tansmutarse en tu tierra, en tu aliento.

Ojalá pudieras saborear el sudor de mi frente.
Como el vino, embriagarte de locas visiones,
y así destilar regocijo al sentir cómo gotas de fuego
se insertan en nuestro íntimo baile nocturno.

Y entre realizaciones de sueños y aventuras
al nos inquirir nuevas maneras de perecer al otro
te contemplo reír como cuando una niña descubre
en su inocencia que del día se puede enamorar.

Y de la noche … poder respirar junto a las estrellas.

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Whenever I wish to kiss the waters of Lethe,
my thirst is broken by the memory of your face,
and in despair I sigh when my mind looks at
how your eyes become a light of life.

Oh!  How much do I wish to die for once,
to be reborn in the afterlife!
I wish to feel every cell of my body
expire from its material mortality,
to be transformed to your soil, to your breath.

I wish you could taste the sweat of my brow,
with it, like wine, make you drunk with mad visions,
and distill joy when we sense the drops of fire
be among us in our nocturnal dance.

By realizing dreams and adventures,
when we inquire new ways of perishing for one another,
I watch you laugh like when a little girl discovers
in her innocence how to fall in love with the morning

And how much in the evenings she can breathe with the stars.

 

Leaving the Political Left

On October 3, 2015, in Economy, Philosophy, Politics, Puerto Rico, Science, by prosario2000

Some Original Revolutionary and Progressive Values which Have Been Lost

If there was any thinker in the world I admire is Karl Marx. Contrary to many people’s opinions, I do not consider him a philosopher, but an economist and one of the fathers of Sociology. I think that most of what he proposed as solutions for capitalism have been refuted by philosophy, sociology, and history. Yet, that does not mean that he didn’t have any valuable insights. Capital stands as a unique classic that, along with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and has enabled us to understand capitalism regarding its process and dynamic. The work itself is not infallible, but it is immensely valuable. I also think that the Communist Manifesto, how ever small and simple it is as a historic document, should be considered an eye-opener for most Progressives and Left-wing leaning people today. I particularly love these words when he makes an explicit admiration for capitalism:

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

For Marx, the technology developed by the bourgeoisie was incredibly valuable and created “wonders”. Of course, all of this technology was directed to one end in particular: the bourgeois’ profit. Even Marx recognized the great advances that this technology meant for the public, but he recognized the need to eradicate the injustice and class struggle generated by the system, so that the proletariat would, not eliminate these technology, nor dismantle these means of production, but to use them for a just world. In this case, science was seen as the basis for making the world better. Marx was Mary Shelley’s fan, and read Frankenstein (and you can see it all over Capital), and this novel referred extensively to the problem of “how man should not cross certain boundaries established by Nature”. Yet, Marx underscored the great importance of science for making the proletariat and the poor better. His friend, Engels, described his proposal as “scientific socialism”, as opposed to “utopic socialism”. Although I do believe that Marx’s proposal for this “scientific socialism” is as utopic as the rest, I can’t avoid appreciating how much Marx and Engels regarded science so highly.

There was also the Progressive Era that stemmed from the ashes of the Gilded Age in the United States. In part (but only in part) to the economic collapse of the 1880s, the Federal government wanted to invest in education, medical services, and the sciences in general. Of course, this was no ethical golden era. Native Americans had to suffer new ways of exploitation under these ideals, and … at least in my case … the Progressive values mixed with Imperialistic ideals led to US’s efforts to establish policies to assimilate different ethnicities which did not agree to WASP values, such as Puerto Rican culture. Needless to say, practically black people in the U.S. were virtually left out of the Progressive equation. Despite this, not all Progressive values should be rejected. New technologies that started appearing more vigorously during these decades were extremely valuable, and made people’s lives better. These led to a basic ideological and physical infrastructures that led to more government investment in new technologies during WWII and the Cold War.

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Something Gone Wrong with the Left

Apparently, even when the radical Left and the more Center-Left or Progressive policies affirmed and recognized the way technologies (even from the private pro-capitalist sector) improve people’s lives, this seems to be no longer the case. Instead, the Left is gradually leaning towards anti-scientific and anti-technological views. Usually, they have a secular “holier-than-thou” attitude against the Right-wing, especially regarding the problem of climate change. They actually tell people that ignoring science is to doom the world. That is great, as far as it goes.

The problem with the Right-wing regarding climate change can be read word-for-word in any Left-leaning or environmentalist blog or website about this subject: scientists all over the world have established a pretty strong consensus that global warming is happening, and its effect –climate change– is anthropogenic (from human origin). There is no question at all about this. Yes, you could find some very few scientists (with titles and everything) who have contested it, but they are a minority, and practically all of their work have been refuted by other scientists. In the current scientific literature, this is practically a non-issue. See the most recent peer-review article on the consensus here. In fact, it has been found that most of the deniers of the anthropogenic origins of climate change make scientifically baseless allegations: they ignored critical background information, cherry-picked their data, rejected solid studies that were inconvenient to their preconceived solutions, and so on. I could even add the documentaries that purposely distort data to deceive the public (e.g. The Great Global Warming Swindle). Many people in the Right reject this consensus for two reasons:

  1. Because most of the measures to remedy climate change implies an increase in state-sponsored investments in clean energy, which would mean an increase of the intervention of the political state in the economy.
    .
  2. Because a lot of the interests behind Right-wing politicians come from industries that invest heavily in fossil fuels.

The same could be said about the Right-wing’s flirtation with Creationism and Intelligent Design, mostly because a lot of the Right-wing embraces the religious sector of U.S. society, most notoriously the conservative and the fundamentalist sectors.

Yet, as it happens, when it comes to other scientific issues, such as GMOs, nuclear energy, and others, certain Left-wing and environmentalist groups can be just as “crazy” or incredibly “deceptive” as their counterparts in the Right-wing extreme. DemocracyNow has served as a forum for Left-wing and environmentalist forum … which is great! … Except when the show interviews a lot of people whose reputation and credibility have been seriously questioned by the scientific community (e.g. Vandana Shiva, Helen Caldicott, Greenpeace activists, etc.). This adoption by the Left that these people are somehow sacred leads to peer-pressure. If you believe something different than from these major figures in the environmental movements, then you have been “bought by Monsanto”, or “bought by the fossil fuel industry”, or “bought by the nuclear industry”, or you are a traitor to “the cause”, etc.

Yes, I agree that the interaction between scientists and companies is a problem that must be dealt with. There have been scientists who have been recruited to say that cigarettes are not all bad for you, and work for the tobacco companies. Yet, that hasn’t moved  the whole scientific community an inch in favor of smoking or had dissuaded its members from believing that it is carcinogenic. Even tobacco companies agree today that it causes cancer! The same can be said about the way ExxonMobil has recruited scientists all over the world and has actively tried to intervene with the scientific establishment to change the consensus, even when it knew that the anthropogenic climate change was real.  Let’s remember that Exxon has about $350 billion in assets, and about $400 billion in revenue.  As we have seen, Exxon has been totally unable to change the minds of the vast majority of the scientific establishment about it. All of the major scientific institutions around the world have established their agreement with the world wide consensus on the subject.

Yet, when it comes to genetically modified food and transgenics, the Left becomes the very big mirror of the Right in both attitude and behavior. Today, an overwhelming vast majority of scientists and scientific institutions around the world agree that GM food is no riskier than conventional or organic food. These conclusions have been very well established by scientific and health international organizations and by independent scientists again, and again. Here are three of the most important studies about GM food in the world:

  1. The European Commission’s 10 years study of GM food.
  2. An Italian meta-analysis on 10 years of scientific literature on how GM food has affected non-human animals and humans: basing themselves on 1,783 studies found no evidence of harm.
  3. A 2014 study which carries out a meta-analysis, researching about the harm of GM on farm animals covering a period of 29 years, including the results of about 1 trillion meals to a 100 billion non-human animals: there are no cases of reported harm.

Of course, as the exact mirror of the Right, certain people in the Left (especially those in the environmentalist movements) accuse the scientists participating in this as being “sold to Monsanto”. My question is … “Really?” Is Monsanto all THAT powerful to establish the consensus on GM food in the scientific establishment?

Remember how ExxonMobil with all of its assets and revenue, and which has actually tried to buy scientific opinion, has been unable to change the 97% scientific consensus on climate change? Well, how much does Monsanto have in relationship with Exxon? As it turns out, Monsanto has $23 billion in assets (it is almost 15 times smaller than Exxon’s), and $14 billion in revenue (almost 27 times smaller than Exxon’s) … all of these are 2013 and 2014 figures. How could Monsanto accomplish something that neither the tobacco industry nor the fossil fuel industry (whose revenues together are remarkably higher) have not been able to do?

And it gets even worse. Compared to many of its competitors, Monsanto is a remarkably small company. Don’t get me wrong! $14 billion in revenues makes it a very big company. Yet, not so much when you compare it with  Syngenta’s ($15 billion), Bayer ($51 billion), DuPont ($36 billion), Dow ($57 billion), Archer Daniels ($90 billion), BASF ($99 billion), and Agrium ($16 billion) … 2013 and 2014 figures. So, this mythology about an all-powerful Monsanto is not even remotely believable, especially when one takes into consideration the situation in the market.

And it gets even WORSE. The Monsanto that exists today barely resembles the old Monsanto. As the public record will tell you, the Monsanto that exists today is actually a spin-off that arose when the old Monsanto was fused with another company, Pharmacia, which was later bought by Pfizer. The agribusiness operations (which Pfizer was not interested in) consolidated into the new company, Monsanto (the one people love to hate today). Of course, misunderstandings about this history have made some people in social networks say that Monsanto is managed by Pfizer, which is utter non-sense.

And to make matters worse …  Monsanto is not the only company working on GM food. It was lucky that it was the first one to market it. The other ones have not been able to do so too soon, mostly due to over-regulation implemented because of anti-GM activism. Not even public university scientists who are willing to charge a small fee for their patents, or, better, make their seeds available for free to farmers, have not been able to do so because of this over-regulation. Some have no choice but to make BigAg companies the owners of these seeds so that they become available, which is ironically what the Left mostly fears. Talking about a self-fulfilling prophecy!!!

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Anti-GM: The Left’s Dark Side

Whether a technology is produced by big corporations or cooperatives, small businesses, or the public sector, is irrelevant from an ethical standpoint. What does matter is if these organizations actually accept and manage the technology in such a way that can benefit the public most. Vaccines and medicines that save lives, and gadgets that improve quality of life for many have been the great accomplishments of modern medicine. Yet, most of these have been created by for-profit corporations. Despite this corporate end, the public greatly benefits from the availability of this technology. In fact, a lot of these medicines, vaccines, and devices can be traced to how public scientists interact with big corporations, which provide the capital for investment. In the case of medications, some of those greatly needed in many parts of the world are provided for free. No one in his or her right mind would actually protest the provision of these goods on the basis that “they are corporate” or “made for profit”. If any corporation withholds them on purpose, it would have the same outcry that the pharmaceutical industry had to deal with in 1998 when it asked the U.S. to create a blockade to South Africa because it tried to buy cheaper medicines from India to deal with AIDS population. The public would be rightfully outraged when vultures prey on the sick for profit, like what recently happened in social networks when people learned of a hedge fund manager who raised the price of a drug used for AIDS patients.

On the other hand, we can’t deny that some sorts of technology were originally created for reasons that, perhaps, people find reprehensible. There is no doubt that the military in the U.S. has made Puerto Ricans miserable by advocating for a colonial policy that lives on today. Many innocent people have died because of military tech used in battles and wars all over the world. Yet, it does not cross my mind to protest against the Internet, whose origins include its adoption by the U.S. military in the 1960s.  There is no doubt that this technology, with all of its virtues and vices, has made people’s lives better: just imagine that people have more access to information, manage their finances, buy goods, etc., all of which have saved a lot of people money and increased their wealth. In some countries, due to the access of the Internet, that can represent the difference between having four meals a week to having five meals a week. This is the reason why I believe that access to the Internet should be in the end a human right, and we should develop the technology towards that goal, regardless of whether you love or hate the military establishment.

Even when supposing that Monsanto is the ethical equivalent of the evil Galactic Empire that built the Death Star and destroyed Alderaan, the rejection of genetic modified food is simply something I can’t understand.

It is often said that Indian farmers are committing suicide because of the introduction of Monsanto’s Bt-cotton in 2002, a story promulgated mostly by Vandana Shiva and company. Yet, there is no scientific study in recent years that accepts this narrative. On the contrary, all of the pertinent studies show that there is ample evidence that Bt-cotton has made their lives better (see here, here, here, here, and even more critical articles here and here, most of these studies are independent) . This is indicated by two things:

  • The rate of adoption of Bt-cotton by Indian farmers over the years

Adoption of Bt-cornSource

  • The improvement of their quality of life

 Variables of Life Quality Among Indian Farmers

Source

So, even when Indian farmers have to buy Bt-cotton seeds that are four times more expensive than normal seeds, they produce so much cotton that their increase in wealth, and their savings from not having to buy insecticides compensate for it very well, and their lives have improved dramatically in general.

When you  see the testing of Bt-brinjal, it has been said by some environmentalists that it has been an overwhelming failure, and that it has been denounced by farmers. Yet, these very same farmers named in the article beg to differ from it (Watch them say this on video! By the way, they also make fun of anti-GM activists.) The seeds for Bt-brinjal have been provided for free to farmers, who can plant the next generations seeds as many times as they want. Monsanto made sure of this … (That evil company!)

GM-papaya has been able to save papaya farmers from starvation, and it was the direct result of public scientists, Dennis Gonsalves and his team. The only threat that these farmers have ever faced are anti-GM activists who destroy their papaya trees. And you can go country, by country, and find that there can be difficulties (e.g. weeds and insects resistant to glyphosate and Bt respectively), but there are also situations where, with good farming practices, GM can make a difference in farmers’ lives (e.g. in every country that has legalized it). The most recent study that calculated the economic impact of GM on farmers has pointed out that, even when farmers in general pay far more for seeds (due to their demand and patent costs), they save a lot of money from administering pesticides and health costs related to them, and increase in productivity. Both of these factors account for an almost 70% increase in revenue. When you ask yourself why do farmers buy GM-seeds, the answer is easy … because they have more money and they improve their quality of life.

Impacts of GM crop adoption.

Impacts of GM crop adoption.
Average percentage differences between GM and non-GM crops are shown.
Results refer to all GM crops, including herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits.
The number of observations varies by outcome variable; yield:
451; pesticide quantity: 121; pesticide cost: 193; total production cost:
115; farmer profit: 136. *** indicates statistical significance at the 1% level.
(Source)

That’s it! Now everyone can talk to me about how Monsanto makes farmers “miserable”. As a “Leftie” at heart, I would love to believe that a corporation is making farmers miserable, but I would actually believe it more if that “Farmer profit” bar was beneath the line, not over it.

Due to the notable increase in production, despite the cost increase of Monsanto’s seeds, the indirect effect has also been beneficial for consumers, since it has driven down corn, soy, and cotton prices due to the increase in productivity, hence, the increase in supply. Other than the excessive use by glyphosate by some farmers, especially to the point of generating glyphosate resistant weeds, I have not seen anything else that would damn this company to hell. Quite the opposite. In general, the solidarity created by the social matrix involving Monsanto, public scientists, farmers, and consumers have been greatly beneficial to everyone in general. Are there monopolistic concerns? Definitely! But the fact that farmers keep buying GM-seeds despite their cost reveals that they are more than happy to pay for a better outcome than the alternatives.

Going beyond Monsanto is also a healthy exercise for the mind when trying to think clearly about this subject. Other projects such as Simplot’s Innate potatoes, Del Monte’s Rosé transgenic pineapple, wheat without gluten, golden rice, purple tomatoes with antioxidants, the golden banana, the golden cassava, among many others, are being developed by other companies or by public universities around the world. In the case of public universities, they are trying their best to create GM seeds whose patent licenses can be affordable, or, in the optimal case, make them patent-free (the so-called “open source” GM seeds) to make them freely available to farmers to do with them as they wish. Also, these products would directly improve the health of consumers, since many of them are designed to avoid carcinogens, prevent cancer, or make available a variety of goods to people whom, for reasons of their particular illnesses, cannot consume them. People who suffer from celiac disease will feel their pockets relieved because of a gluten-free wheat.

Yet, out of all of these, only Arctic apple and Innate potatoes have been made available. Why not more?

Why isn’t golden rice available now? Golden rice is GM rice that has been fortified with beta-carotene, one vitamin A precursor, which studies have shown to become vitamin A after it is consumed. These seeds would be provided patent-free for farmers, with the right of re-selling them and re-planting them as long as they don’t profit more than $10,000. In practice, this would make the rice available for free for all Asian farmers. However, golden rice is not available, because environmentalists (especially Greenpeace) have made sure that it is never available to people in Asia who are suffering from vitamin A deficiency. This would cost them $1.4 million life/years to many people who are really going through blindness and death because of lack of access to it. This is clearly inhumane and, coming from a milti-million dollar organization (such as Greenpeace), it is a crime against humanity.

But, it is a crime supported by the LEFT!!!! How can this be?!  Aren’t Progressives and Left-wing people all for human rights … for the economic rights of the marginalized and the poor?! I think that knowing this fact shook me pretty bad.

… I have to say that not even that prepared me to what happened next: the relentless persecution, intimidation, and even physical threats to U.S. scientists whom anti-GM critics perceive as being in cahoots with Monsanto. The cooperation among public scientists and big companies is a delicate subject, and from an ethical standpoint, I can understand the objection coming from many people. However, from an ethical standpoint, this sort of cooperation is completely legitimate if it is done following a code of ethics, and scientists can guarantee their independence of criteria from their interactions with industry.

The first victim of this process was Dr. Kevin Folta, and I’ve seen with pain how he is going through this ordeal, even when the money he received from Monsanto was not for him (as Ralph Nader deceptively tries to argue), but for an outreach program teaching young people about science. Whatever you believe about Monsanto (e.g. that it is the equivalent of Skeletor’s Snake Mountain), this contribution was very positive, because it promotes science. Even when people want to really believe that Monsanto finances Folta’s work, just forget about it! He works on strawberries, Monsanto is not interested in them and has not financed his studies at all.

And I’ve seen worse!  Much worse … with no public uproar!!!  Did you know that Nova’s episodes on Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Universe was sponsored by David H. Koch, of the Koch Brothers? You know, the same people who finance anti-scientific campaigns to discredit global warming, and try to cut down regulatory legislation of the industry?  Yeah… those guys!  And still, they are great episodes. The same when Microsoft sponsored some great episodes by NOVA, and believe me, THAT company can control your life a thousand times more through your computer than Monsanto would ever do just by selling seeds and Roundup. I’ve always promoted software freedom, and I wish that more people in the Left had just the same passion against Windows and MacOS that they have against Monsanto.

And even the Left is in a worse situation than the Right, for the simple reason that the former tends to be so self-righteous about how much it endorses evolution and the anthropogenic view of climate change. Yet, when it comes to studies, the anti-GM sector is just as insane!!! It uses extensively retracted, very bad, and ethically questionable studies to prove their point (such as Séralini’s experiment), or studies financed by industries and lie when they say that they have no conflicts of interests (e.g. the famous Judy Carman’s –and company’s– study on the effects of transgenic maize and soy on pigs), or studies published in notorious predatory journals such as those published by OMICS International, Scientific Research, MDPI, and others (e.g. Stephanie Seneff’s bogus study on glyphosate in Entropy). In other words, everything revolves in totally and absolutely discredited studies that are not even worth the virtual paper they were written in. And please, don’t get me started on Greenpeace!!!  It is renowned for not revealing how their studies were carried out, and it has been caught altering its own data to fit its causes (e.g. the Brent case, and the Chernobyl meltdown).

The Left’s dubious association with pseudo-scientifically-minded individuals around the world does not make the its situation any better. Mike Adams, founder of Natural News, is not only a long time scammer, but also at one point wrote an article clearly implying that it should be anyone’s moral duty to kill scientists, academics, journalists, and so on who advocate for GMOs, while the next day posting a webpage giving people names of Monsanto employees, biotech scientists, academics, and advocates so that the public would intimidate them. Then he changed the text to “clarify” that he didn’t mean “kill”, just bring these advocates “to justice”. Later he deleted it, but the Internet remembers events like that. Because of this incident, he is being investigated by the FBI right now. By the way, this article was also posted in Vandana Shiva’s website for a week, and then was taken down after the uproar of indignation it provoked. Dr. Oz, (read this study and listento this interview about his recommendations), Vani Hari (the Food Babe), Jeffrey Smith (who knows nothing of science and doesn’t know what he’s talking about — see here and here–), Dr. Joseph Mercola (… And I mean, really?! A guy who sells as “healthy” a product containing the very same stuff he himself has said is poisonous to the public?!!  Really??!!! …), among other frauds, have inundated the media with totally false claims about GM food, not supported by any scientific study at all.

Even legitimate scientists, such as Dr. Don Huber, fall from grace as soon as they are mixed in this mess. According to him, he discovered how GM and glyphosate create a “pathogen” that could represent a threat to human and animal health. He has been claiming this for years, without ever showing this pathogen to the scientific community. (So … is he withholding evidence of something that could harm the public, and will not make it available to scientists and the public for examination?  Why the heck not??!!!)  And what about David Suzuki’s shameful ignorance of GM work that ended up in a video that discredits his statements, not only about GMOs, but about his campaign to address the problems of climate change?  The Right-wing had a field day with Suzuki! With this, in the eyes of the public, Suzuki has contributed to discredit the urgent need to address the problem of climate change. He campaigns for it, but appeared before the public as an ignorant about his own field, genetics; so, in the minds of many people, why should they pay attention to him about climate change?

And the Left wants to associate with all of these people and use them as “legitimate” references?!  Really??!!!

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I’m OUT!

I began as an anti-GM campaigner, and I ended up being in favor once I sat down and studied this subject carefully. I have to say that as time goes by, I am increasingly disappointed with the Left, especially when they don’t stick to neither science nor history. They invent false historical memory about a time when “farmers lived in harmony with nature”, and “they lived healthy” because they had no synthetic pesticides and everything was done “naturally”. Just a little verification on farming practices in that “ancient past” will make them realize that not only they used to use pesticides, but that they were as toxic as arsenic, mercury, sulfur, copper, rotenone, pynethrum, among many others, many which are banned today in many countries, or are still legal but are creating a lot of environmental problems. A little check on the life expectancy data on humanity in the past vs. today should wake people up from their slumber.

From what I’ve seen in the left, not only in the United States, but also in Puerto Rico where this opinion is almost monolithic, especially with political groups like the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), the Sovereigntist Movement Union (MUS), and even Nada santo sobre Monsanto, which have created a new ignoramitocratic thinking (i.e. they dictate public policy on the basis of ignorance and fraud rather than science). In the United States, the situation is a little bit different so far as the political Left is divided on this issue. Although I understand the opposition to the nuclear alternative by people like Ralph Nader, I have been stunned by the fact that he actually endorses the persecution and intimidation of scientists by misusing the FOIA, especially accusing the critics of such behavior of being “tied to Monsanto”, and quoting a study published in a very low impact journal that has been criticized and debunked by the scientific establishment, mostly because it made no original research, and was picking and choosing the data from a previous retracted Séralini study, which was later republished without any peer-review. The authors of the quoted study are, of course, Séralini himself and company. Nader also quoted the (in)famous IARC study that created a lot of unwarranted chaos in public policy over the world, and which is also ridden with very serious and evident mistakes.

(Note/Rant: Why is it that we have to ban glyphosate all over the world because it is categorized 2A by the IARC, but not working at night, or working in a salon … By this reasoning, women are screwed, because estrogen has been classified as 1 by the IARC –i.e. we are sure it is a carcinogen– , as well as painting, … and let’s ban pears, they have formaldehyde, and let’s not forget banning the Sun itself!)

This has been the greatest disappointment ever from the Left, especially many environmental groups.

I’M DONE!!!!

Before, I thought that the Left embraced the best of Progressive values, and placed a great emphasis on science. Today, as time goes by, as a Left-wing, I’m asked politically to support ideas that are clearly unscientific, fraudulent, and that obey the interests of certain industries (like the organic industry, and the scammer industry, many of them with cultish tendencies and behavior) to whom the Left and the environmental movements are doing favors. When did so many in the Left in industrialized countries become so pathologically inhumane?  Can some of you who hold this position really consider yourselves as being ethically superior to the Right-wing extremists and the harm they cause? I think not!

If being in the Left means that I have to endorse pseudo-science, scammers, and not embrace the best studies out there about this subject (and many others), if it means using important mechanisms for human rights to abuse scientists, and also preventing the poor and the sick from having technologies that may save their lives, … then it is time for me to leave it behind, and I will wipe the dust from my feet on the way out.  As far as it goes, the Left is inviting people to “think outside of the box” created by the political and corporate establishments … in order for people to accept another box created by other political and corporate establishments –the latter, built on  fraud and fear-mongering–.

As far as it goes, I will be more independently-minded, and far more receptive to science than I have ever been in my life.

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Recently, I’ve been re-visiting much of Richard Elliott Friedman’s work, especially because in my new edition of my book on St. Paul the Apostle, I will include an appendix talking briefly about the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15) and another one about the Song of Deborah (Judges 5).

To my pleasant surprise, I’ve been watching some skeptics evaluate his work online and, in general terms, they all like his book Who Wrote the Bible? which I also highly recommend. This is one of the bestseller books that I am very, very glad that it is a bestseller. I also found this video on Youtube titled: “Biblical Criticism Book Club – Who Wrote the Bible? – Richard Elliott Friedman – Hangout #1″.

Apparently, there is also a Hangout #2 scheduled sometime in the future.

Yet, as it always happens with anything related to the Bible, some skeptics (who are many times either agnostic and/or atheists) extend a shadow of suspicion on some of the Bible scholars’ intent when these propose a certain historical theory that may seem to confirm some beliefs that are very cherished by religious communities.

One example of this can be seen precisely in this video. I haven’t seen it all, but at one point, the skeptics, who engaged in this very interesting discussion, question Friedman because he favored the idea that there had been some sort of historical “exodus” from Egypt. Obviously with some care, they state that perhaps, maybe, Friedman is trying to somehow “save” the story, to have something to give historical credence to the “exodus tale”.

I’m not Friedman, but I’ve known his (and other scholars’) work enough to know that this is not the case.

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What Skeptics Usually Forget About History

One of the things that many people forget, especially skeptics who approach timidly to Bible scholarship, is that history is not a clear-cut given. Yes, we have documents, archaeological findings, and so on. On the “exodus” stuff, though, we don’t have much, except what we have in the Hebrew Bible. Skeptics obviously feel frustrated, as most scholars, to be sure.

Let me add to the discussion that Friedman is perfectly aware that the “exodus” as told by the Biblical book Exodus could not have happened. This is something he has underscored both in his famous popular book as well as by other scholars and archaeologists in the field as William G. Dever and Amnon Ben-Tor.

The archaeological evidence regarding Ancient Israel without a doubt collides directly with the Biblical accounts. No ancient Hebrew army attacked Neguev, Siho, Jericho, Ai, or the kings of Hasor. Simply speaking, the destruction of these towns and cities took place either before or after the time-period when the “exodus” apparently took place (1275-1208 B.C.E.).

William G. Dever calls “proto-Israel” the society that emerged, not from an attack of people foreign to Canaan, but from Canaanites themselves. This apparently occurred in the same time-period when Egypt was going through economic tough times, and debilitated the vassal monarchs in Canaan. They probably taxed either monetary contributions or labor-force from the poor. The Canaanites revolted against the kings of the area, and established an egalitarian society free from Egyptian rule. That is as much as the archaeological evidence shows us. Without a doubt, Friedman knows this. After all, he recommended Dever’s book Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (which I also wholeheartedly recommend).

So … where does an “exodus” fit in all of this?

The problem is that history is not merely excavating and inferring from what you dig up, nor is it believing a document is “historical” when it seems believable, and “unhistorical” when it seems too fantastic. Documents also must be evaluated and qualified, especially in a specific context and in light of other evidence we have available.

Here is where there is a strong debate by scholars and by archaeologists regarding the possibility of an “exodus” event in the past.

OF COURSE the “exodus” could NEVER have happened in the way told in Exodus!  As a bishop explained once, by the sheer number of Ancient Israelites in the desert claimed by Exodus for a period of 40 years, the Sinai should have ended up fertile! Friedman knows this.

Yet, this is not all. Bible scholars are historians. Again, their duty is not to “tell us” exactly what happened from just reading a document. Nor is he merely going to declare a document to be “believable” or not. As historians themselves will tell you, it is extremely rare to find a document that will tell you exactly “what happened”. This is true, not only of the documents which have survived in the Hebrew Bible, but of other documents and archaeological artifacts as well. For example, as everyone knows, when Sennacherib carried out the siege of Jerusalem, you will have many versions of the story. One of them will tell you that King Hezekiah took effective measures against a potential invasion, there is another similar story but with an angel helping the Israelites, while Sennacherib’s prisms will tell you another very different story.

Even if you feel inclined to reject the Bible’s versions of the story because they are biased and its facts are changed (sometimes to be too fantastic), you cannot say that Sennacherib’s version is more “true”. Why?  Because, as it happens, his version is also biased and changed. So, we cannot “dismiss one in favor of the other”, maybe both texts have elements in them to formulate a viable theory that best explains these texts. Friedman discusses this case in his book very well. We can also see this in Merneptah’s Stele, which claims that pharaoh Merneptah’s militia destroyed the “Israelites” (1208 B.C.E.), and yet, we know for a fact it didn’t! The hardcore job of Bible scholars, as good historians, is to qualify all of these stories, including archaeological discoveries we have available.

To summarize, just because it is in the Bible and looks fantastic does not mean that the story could not contain some core truth, and because it is not in the Bible does not mean that the story has to be “truer” than anything in the Bible.

In light of this, as much as it is tempting to dismiss the “exodus’ story”, it is not really that easy as to claim that there is no archaeological evidence, or that there couldn’t have been millions of Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. There are other things that many skeptics are not seeing about this issue.

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Those Strange Levites!

We can try to explain the presence of the famous tribes of Israel as the result of a rebellion against those nobles and monarchs of the area. No problem there…

But at the very least, we have to recognize that among the tribes of Israel, there is a particular one we might call the “odd one” in the family, the Levites. Here are some interesting facts about them:

  • They don’t have territory.
  • They are the core of Ancient Israel’s religiosity, although for a while it was not exclusive, until the time of King Hezekiah’s and King Josiah’s reforms. The Levites were certainly favored by David and Salomon, especially the former.
  • They were paid the tithe as a religious contribution.
  • The supervision of the sacred places such as Shiloh in the North, and Jerusalem in the South were trusted to them.
  • One of the Levites (the ones in the South) claimed to be descendants of Aaron, while the Shiloh priests seemed to derive their authority from the fact that they were Mushites (Moses’ descendants).

Why is this? How can there be an explanation for these facts? We could conjecture that this priesthood was created almost as a response or as an alternative to noble-Canaanite or Egyptian religious beliefs. Yet, this seems ahistoric. Canaanites already had a polytheistic or henotheistic belief in the god El and his hosts, usually represented as a calf, and never abandoned it. Also, they introduced the belief in Yahweh, which seems to derive from the belief in Yahu, the god worshiped by the shasu, further southeast of the whole area we now know as Palestine. How is this explained?

There are further oddities we can point out regarding Levites general. For instance, there is an unusual amount of them had Egyptian names. The name “Moses” seems to be derived from a way to name an Egyptian royal heir or king. For instance, “Rameses” (Rammsy or Rams) means “Son of Ra”, the “msy” part means “Son of”. If the legend says that Moses was an Egyptian “prince”, it seems reasonable that his name has “msy” or “ms” as its root. You may ask, “but what about the fact that he was called ‘Moses’ because he was drawn out of the waters”? Here is where the historian has to be careful. There are four things to keep in mind:

  1. The word for “drawn out” (meshitihu) is a Hebrew word. Who named him “Moses”? The daughter of the pharaoh. If this is the case, why would she name a child with a Hebrew? Would it not make better sense if the root of the word is the Egyptian “msy“?
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  2. Moses had an older sister, Miriam, and an older brother, Aaron (at least according to the Biblical story). These were not rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter nor did they have a privileged position in Egypt at any level. We could safely say that presumably both stayed with their Hebrew mom while Moses was growing up as an Egyptian prince. So far, so good. But here is a catch …  why do Miriam and Aaron have Egyptian names too?! “Miriam” has the Egyptian root “myr” (which means “beloved”), and “Aaron” comes from the Egyptian “aha rw” which means “warrior lion”. Why would their Hebrew mom name them with Egyptian names? Isn’t the Biblical story a bit awkward in this sense? …  An Egyptian woman naming Moses “Moses” as a Hebrew name, while a Hebrew mom names her other two children Egyptian names …  Doesn’t this make anyone scratch his or her head?
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  3. Isn’t it a coincidence that the “exodus” story occurs, by Exodus’ own admission, during the time of Rameses II, whose name also happens to share the same root of “Moses”?
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  4. Finally, doesn’t the whole story of a Hebrew mom giving birth to Moses, placing him in an ark that floated down the river to be found by the pharaoh’s daughter very strange? Why didn’t Moses’ mother do this also with Aaron before Moses? When Aaron was born, couldn’t he be also threatened by the pharaoh’s determination to kill all male newborns?

If there were no historical Moses, how can you explain that Ancient Israelites invented an “exodus” story where they chose Egyptian names for their heroes, but then decided that the Egyptian name of Moses was not really Egyptian, but a Hebrew name that happens to be close to an Egyptian name, that also happens to be close to Rameses’ name … which is just a coincidence, but was given to him by an Egyptian princess, who was the pharaoh’s daughter, but didn’t mean anything related to her father’s name, but it meant …?  …  UUGGGHHHHHHH!!!  Get my point?!

Here is when we need to account for something that clearly makes no sense, even if you want to suppose that these characters never existed.

“Moses”, “Miriam”, and “Aaron” are Egyptian names, but these are not the only Levites to have Egyptian names. Take, for instance, “Hur”, “Merari”, “Mushi”, “Hophni”, “Pinhas” (there were two of them), also Egyptian names.

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Old Israelite/Egyptian Relics?

But the deal with the Levites doesn’t end in just the names. What about the two artifacts most closely related to them? The Tent of Meetings (aka the Tabernacle) and the Ark of the Covenant?

Let’s begin with the Tent of Meetings or Tabernacle. As many scholars have pointed out, the Tent’s structure, as described in the Torah, seems to be amazingly similar to that of Rameses II’s War Tent used during the Battle of Kadesh. Here is an illustration:

War Tent of Rameses IIAbu Simel Relief, Representing the War Tent of Rameses II.

As you can see, at the very bottom you find a wall, and then there is a pathway to a reception room, and the pharaoh’s chamber, where he happened to have two winged creatures, specifically two falcons, symbolizing the presence of Horus, something remarkably similar to the two winged creatures said to be portrayed in the Ark of the Covenant. In the case of Richard A. Gabriel’s, The Military History of Ancient Israel, you find a comparison between what the War Tent and the Tent of Meetings would look like.

Rameses' War Tent and the TabernacleSource: Gabriel 2003, 96.

Now, let’s take a look at the Ark of the Covenant. Initially, many people thought that the Ark itself was more related culturally to the territories of Mesopotamia. For example, the Ark has two cherubim. The word indicates that they are from the Akkadian karibu, or Babilonian kerubim, creatures with a body of a lion, wings of an eagle, legs of a bull, and a human head. These were not only placed on the Ark, but also at the very entrance of the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The function of the kerubim was to mediate between gods and men, and also be guardians (e.g. of the Holy of Holies or of the Tree of Life in Genesis).

Despite these outstanding similarities, other scholars are not as quick as to say that. For example, Scott B. Noegel has recently published an important study this year pointing out that if you see the structure and function of the Ark of the Covenant, they seem to resemble more Egyptian barques. Here are some of the most powerful similarities (as presented by Noegel):

  • Egyptian barques were fitted with gold-plated naos containing a divine image seated on a block throne, veiled with a thin canopy of wood or cloth.
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  • Many of the barques were decorated with protective “kerubim“.
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  • They had to be carried by priests, “the pure ones”.
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  • The bark gave oracles during processions.

While not suggesting that the Ark of the Covenant was a bark (which it was clearly not), what is clear is that somehow, whoever made the ark, retained the model, structure, and many of the functions that Egyptian barques had.

Given that the Ark is strongly associated with the Levites (especially the Shilo priesthood),  we can say that apparently the Levites seem to have been very much into Egyptian stuff … much more than Ancient proto-Israelites.
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And Don’t Forget Foreigners

As Friedman explains very well in his book, there are four main traditions which write the Torah and other books of the Bible that we know today: J, E, P, D. Friedman goes against current scholarship when he locates the creation of P in the time period of King Hezekiah’s reforms (following the line of thinking of Sigmund Mowinckel), and not, as most AT scholars believe, during the exile in Babylon.

Regardless of that particular difference with scholars, as he shows in his book, three of the four traditions were written by Levite priests: two by Shiloh priests (E, D), and one by Aaronid priests (P). Despite the fact that both of these traditions collided with each other often, they had some common perspectives, some not shared by J. For example, the three Levitic traditions seem obsessed about protecting foreigners. J doesn’t say anything at all about that.

Here is the P text (which, by the way, mentions the word “Torah” for the very first time in the whole Hebrew Bible):

… there shall be one law (torah) for the native for the alien who resides among you (Exod. 12:49).

Here is the E text:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exod. 22:21).

Finally, here is the D text:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice … Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and in Yahweh, your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this (Dt. 24:17-18).

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The Quality of Our Sources

The whole “exodus” story (from Exodus to Deuteronomy) is a whole mixed bag of various traditions that often contradict with each other. From the modest source (J) to the most fantastic (P), stories that are often repeated (doublets), and some are even mixed in a confusing manner.

Yet, even with all of that, you can be a sort of literary archaeologist in the text, and find what seems to be very ancient texts. For example, Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman have made a thorough literary “excavation” of the texts and found that the most ancient texts you find about the “exodus” story is Exodus 15, known as The Song of the Sea (sometimes also called The Song of Miriam). They could identify this song as ancient because of the use of certain archaisms that don’t seem to correspond to the styles of the traditions found in Exodus, and a poetic structure that was popular in Ugaritic poetic styles.

The Song of the Sea makes a variety of claims. One salient factor is that it only names the Israelite god “Yahweh”, without mentioning “Elohim” or making any allusion to that name anywhere to refer to the same god. In that song, it seems that Yahweh seems intimately associated with the event of the liberation of the singers from the pharaoh and his militia, often described in fantastic terms. Yet, this song never says how many people escaped from Egypt, and how such an event scared even the Philistines, Moabites, and Canaanites. Finally, the song doesn’t say that his people will inherit the whole land of Israel, instead, it says:

… You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, oh Yahweh, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, oh Yahweh, that your hands have established.
Yahweh will reign forever and ever (Exod. 15:17-18).

This statement, about establishing a sanctuary (habitations) for Yahweh (as it is phrases in the original Hebrew language), only appears once more in the Hebrew Bible, and that is during King Salomon’s consecration of the Temple, a place that would be administered by the Levites (1 Kings 8:13).

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One Possible Explanation …?

Sorry for the skeptics out there, but it seems (at least to me) that all of these anomalies involving the Levites (which we simply do not see in other tribes) cry out for a historical explanation.

History, like natural science, not always has all of the elements that it wishes to have. We don’t have an archaeological artifact or bones to confirm the “exodus” event. Yet, the elements offered in these Biblical texts are data, and they need theory-making so we can account for them. Saying that they are “Biblical” is not to offer a good reason to dismiss or ignore them. Bible scholarship, as history, aims at explaining as much data as possible by positing the simplest theories possible.

There is an indefinite number of possible explanations for these, but it seems to me that the simplest I have seen thus far is the one put forth by Friedman himself, and here it is:

  • There was an exodus event, but not of all of the people of Israel, but only of the Levites.
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  • The Levites are of Egyptian origins, and probably originated with a small group of workers who had to lend their labor force, and perhaps some slaves.
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  • These Levites did not pass forty years in the desert and their numbers were not very big.
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  • During their travel, they ended up in Median, a place where the shasu peoples lived, assuming their god Yahu (or Yahweh) as theirs, hence their evident cult to Yahweh.
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  • Then they ended up in Canaanite lands, and perhaps through military force, both parts reached a compromise: Levites would provide the religious backbone of these societies, and identified the god El with Yahweh (Yahweh-Elohim). In exchange, the tribes would pay the tithe to these priests.
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  • Through the influence of the Levites, and because Canaanites also identified themselves with the situation of subjugation and liberation from Egypt, they started identifying with the Levitic story of escape from Egypt.
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  • Then legends started being forged around the core story. Not only were there Levites who escaped, but the whole people of Israel escaped. This is not unlike the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, which everyone culturally believe that they “came from the pilgrims”, even though most people in the U. S. don’t descend from them. Then, those who escaped were not just searching just Yahweh’s habitation in a Temple, but now the WHOLE land of Israel. And not only that, but the number of people who escaped from Egypt were in the thousands … then the millions … etc.  And these versions were placed in our sources.

Was there a historical Moses? Perhaps. It could best explain why a Hebrew hero had an Egyptian name. Most probably the whole story of him born as a Hebrew and then found the daughter of the pharaoh was made up as an apologetic means to make Moses more Hebrew than Egyptian. And also there may have been a historical Aaron (since there Aaronid priests considered themselves his descendants). Was there an Ark of the Covenant and a Tent of Meetings? Maybe. Did Moses do everything that the Bible said? Certainly no!  The Golden Calf episode was made up by E as a reaction to Jeroboam’s reforms, as Friedman tells us. The Ten Commandments were not originally the way that P and D tell us, given that they were elaborated from earlier commandments of J and E, and were means to religious reforms that took place centuries after Moses.

If skeptics still feel uncomfortable with this intelligent theory, then I challenge them to show a better theory that accounts for all of this. After all, in science, we don’t give up theories just because we don’t like them … we give them up when we find better theories with better explanations for the presence of the data we have at hand.  The same with history and Bible scholarship.

Again, Friedman’s theory is not an attempt to “save a story” (what in Philosophy of Science we call “saving the theory”), but rather an attempt to provide the best explanation possible to a mysterious phenomenon we have in ancient Biblical texts. Up to now, the theory that there was no exodus event at all would leave all of these factors unexplained.

See his video where he explains this in simpler terms (with jokes).

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References

Cross, Frank Moore and David Noel Freedman. Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1996.

Gabriel, Richard A. The Military History of Ancient Israel. CT: Praeger, 2003.

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The day before yesterday, the Pope has finally released his much awaited encyclical Laudato Si, which deals with the problem of climate change. Regardless of the differences and coincidences I may have with the Pope, this encyclical is extraordinary and should be taken seriously. Here, I will deal with the issues I find great and my misgivings regarding what he says in the encyclical. I will only talk here mostly about the science.
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The Great Stuff

When a draft of the encyclical leaked to the press, one of the things that caught my eye immediately was the fact that its title was not Latin, but Italian. Wow!  This is new! Furthermore, I recognized immediately what it meant. As a former Catholic, I still retain a great admiration for St. Francis of Assissi, and one of the things I used to pray was the Canticle to the Sun, which the Pope was quoting the title and the introduction.

Another thing to notice is that at the beginning, Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew in a sign of joining together of forces regarding the most serious ecological concerns for the planet. This reveals that two of the most significant figures in the Christian world (in the East and the West) join together to fight against the ills of climate change. Indeed, this is very positive.

Another thing that I was afraid of (perhaps because of the press) is the overemphasis of Pope Francis on aspects regarding technology, almost giving the impression that it is inherently evil. During my years as Catholic, I’ve known that this could not be the social doctrine of the Church, because humans, as co-creators, participate in God’s creativity. To my own relief, among the first things that Pope Francis does is to quote Pope Paul VI:

“the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity”, inasmuch as “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man” (4).

Later, Pope Francis says:

I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing on the results of the best scientific research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows (15, my emphasis).

Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity”.  The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning; technology itself “expresses the inner tension that impels man gradually to overcome material limitations”. Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable? (102, my emphasis)

I suggest that a lot of Pope Francis’ message has to be understood within this philosophical and theological framework. Technology and innovation are good, as long as they genuinely serve humanity.

Another thing that he rightly mentions is the suggestion of St. Francis of Assissi as a model for “falling in love” with nature and the Earth. Not just fix our minds with mathematical and biological calculations, but also be moved by awe inspiring Earth (10-12).

From all of these things, he asks us to make a decisive move towards protecting our common home, and appeals to us for an open an honest dialogue about the condition of our planet and the solutions that are at hand to make the world better. Among his concerns (which are often quoted in the press), are the following:

The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity (14).

I can’t agree more, but, as I’ll discuss later, these are not the only reasons why there is little environmental progress. He elaborates this assertion in full detail in 54.

In the first chapter, he presents a short and precise diagnosis of our common home, planet Earth. He points out the problems of the wide use of toxins in the farming industry, the dumping of non-biodegradable material, a lot of chemicals dumped to the air, junk and trash that actually contaminates the air, the land, and the waters (20-21). Of these, I will talk about later regarding my differences with the Pope, but I don’t disagree with the general idea. He links all of this contamination to a particular cultural aspect of our way of living, what he calls the “throwaway culture”, and rightly calls for recycling, and biomimicry (i.e. a technological imitation of what nature does when it recycles energy and waste) (22). For me, this is a sign that the Pope has read extensively and seriously on the studies and technologies being developed to alleviate the ills of the planet.

Next, he says that the climate is a common good, and he correctly states that there is a very good solid consensus about the anthropogenic view of climate change and that this has been altering the Earth in important ways. He proceeds to make a great summary of the problems in general (23-26). Then he makes a very particular emphasis on the problem of the degradation of water world-wide, and its implications for the poorest (27-31). He makes a great point about the loss of biodiversity due to exctinction of plants, animals, and other living beings all over the Earth, especially because of the loss of habitats due to deforestation, climate change, and other factors (28-42).

He elaborates an entire section to humanity and the way of life in urban and rural areas. I absolutely love the fact of how he condemns the privatization of the commons, depriving the public from a good exclusively for private gain. I also like the fact that he also slams the so-called ecological areas in urban societies that try the best to alienate the poor for purely aesthetic reasons (43-47).

Finally, he dedicates some of the text to the serious issue of inequity in society, the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and how it creates social problems and struggles. As we all know, he is not a friend of “trickle-down” economics, something in which he is right on target. In fact, just this week, a group of economists in the International Monetary Fund released a report slamming “trickle-down” economics. So, this document and the Pope’s encyclical couldn’t have been published more in time than those.

Also, he links the cry of the Earth with the cry of the poor, something that is reminiscent of Leonardo Boff’s book on this subject, giving me the impression that he also read it. Although I like the fact that the Pope wishes those two problems addressed, I think it is a mistake to link them in a way that gives the impression that they are uniquely correlated, which is not necessarily the case. I will elaborate that in the section of my differences with the Pope. The same goes with his portrayal of the increase of world population and economic development. Despite these differences, I wholly agree with the Pope’s suggestion that rich countries have an ecological debt with poorer countries, because much of the waste produced by rich countries is imported by poorer ones, practically turning them into junk yards, obviously harming the environment and the poorest in the world (48-52).

I wish to say that one of the greatest virtues of this encyclical is that it states that there is not one solution to this problem, but a variety of alternatives that we have to consider to make a holistic and integral program for the world.

In the second chapter of the encyclical, he makes a wonderful exposition of Christian theology of creation. I will not discuss it, because I’m more interested in the social, the technological, and the scientific. However, I will say briefly that he despises and dismisses the absolute anthropocentric view of nature (one which regards the Earth as something that we can do what we arbitrarily will), and favors a view of humanity as a guardian and laborer along with creation, as it was portrayed in the Yahwist account of creation. All creatures have a dignity of their own. They are our responsibility, because we are the intelligent moral beings who can be aware of the consequences of our actions (67-69).

We enter in the third chapter, which deals with the causes of our ecological crisis. He finds a lot of it in the technosciences and the particular dynamics of techniques and the economy. They tend to look at their own unique interests, without having an integral view of the consequences of their actions outside of their respective spheres of action. Such dynamics wrongly suppose that the planet’s resources are infinite, and an absolute anthropocentrist world to do what we want (102-111, 115-123). The Pope does not suggest the elimination of the technical or economic spheres, but reconfiguring them to serve humanity from an integral perspective, where we see humanity connected to everything else (112, 119, 139).

Finally, at the very end of that chapter, he talks about biotechnology, and genetic modified organisms (GMOs). Actually, his approach to the subject is very reasonable. The Church cannot condemn it wholeheartedly or approve all of it. It all depends on what it is used for, especially whether it respects nature or not. In many ways, he recognizes that nature itself promotes genetic change in all organisms (that’s why species evolve). He also points out, correctly, that there is no evidence whatsoever that GMOs harm anyone or anything, and has promoted economic welfare (as we seen India, Bangladesh, Hawai’i, among others). In this way, Pope Francis reassures his readers that he is in full agreement with the widely held consensus on science, especially regarding GM. Still, he says that this technology has made possible the concentration of land on the powers of the few (namely corporations), diminishes biodiversity, and many people end up moving from rurality to the cities (134). Although I recognize that this is a real concern, I want to mention that this is not necessarily the case, especially with GM developed by the public sector. Second, we have to remember that this dynamic predated GMOs. This has been the dynamic of the whole agribusiness since the industrial revolution. In Puerto Rico we experienced that very heavily with the sugar cane industry during the first 40 years under US rule (1898-1938). Biodiversity is a concern, which makes necessary to create as little impact on nature as possible. In “My Differences with the Pope” section I talk about the need for a second Green Revolution that should solve much of these problems, and where GM is clearly part of this solution. I do agree wholeheartedly with the Pope that we must address the ethical concerns regarding GM openly and honestly (135).

In chapter 4, we find the Pope’s proposal for an integral ecology. I think that my favorite quote from this chapter is the following:

Economic growth, for its part, tends to produce predictable reactions and a certain standardization with the aim of simplifying procedures and reducing costs. This suggests the need for an “economic ecology” capable of appealing to a broader vision of reality. The protection of the environment is in fact “an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it”. We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the part” (141).

One of the reasons I like this quote is that it refers to the inherent emergent nature of Reality, that homogeneization should not be taken too far, and should take into consideration the importance of different emergent spheres of life on Earth (142). He states very well, that cultural ecology is as important as the biological, and that there is a need to preserve the richness of cultures around the world (143). As a Puerto Rican whose culture is constantly modified by the current colonial relationship with the United States, this assertion by the Pope means a lot to me. He also advocates for designing cities and all of every-day life to be more harmonious with ecosystems around the world and respects human dignity (144-155).

There is also a very important discussion regarding the principle of the common good as being supreme over the good of particular interests.  This includes the intergenerational dimension of this, determining what kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to live in (156-163).

Chapter 5, talks about what we should do.  Most of this chapter is focused on clarity, transparency, and honesty in dialogue about these important subjects. In this section, he advocates for an increase of state regulations of technologies and economic means that might have a substantial potential for harm, and stimulate those that make possible the conservation of human needs and the planet’s welfare. Then, he says something I totally agree with:

Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life (189).

This is the right model to actually address much of the issues in case by case basis, but also looking at them as a whole. He rightly criticizes the overwhelming power and excessive competition in the financial sector, which has condemned humanity to a new cycle of economic collapses, and that requires a serious limitation by juridical and political power (191-192).

A very significant (not in quantity, but in quality) part of the chapter is directed at the necessity for religions to have a sustained dialogue, among themselves with scientists on the welfare of the planet (199-201). This seems to resemble Hans Küng’s proposal for a minimal basic consensus for a Global Ethic among religious figures and other sectors of society, founding themselves on the objective situation of the Earth, and objective ethical values.

The final chapter is dedicated ecological education and spirituality. For the Pope, education is the key for changing our collective lifestyle within our respective economic, political, and social spheres. This also requires a higher level of collective consciousness to act more in unison about it. For that we need a collective conversion for this to happen that will not see this exclusively in terms of cost-benefit analysis (in the financial sense), but modify our activity to serve the planet better. This should be based in the aspiration of creating a “civilization of love” (as Pope Paul VI used to say).

After all of this exposition it is difficult to disagree with most of what he says. With the exception of the theology (which is undeniably beautiful),  I think that most of these proposals should be embraced by everyone.
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My Differences with the Pope

As you will notice some of the differences are not really differences, but more things that we should be careful about. In other cases, I point serious flaws in the Pope’s analysis.

One of the things that bothers me about what he says, is the level of generalities which he deals in the abstract. Take this paragraph:

There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general. Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others (20).

I think that out of necessity the Pope has to touch this subject very briefly. Yet, he fails to notice that a lot of the fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins have been becoming a less severe problem (regarding their levels of toxicity) as time has gone by. I do recognize that this is still a problem coming from both conventional and organic farming, and that it affects the Earth as a whole. Yet, also many of those interests (in both forms of farming) have been very successful in creating technologies to reduce considerably, and in some cases, eliminate, the use of many of these toxins.

Another related problem is the fact that he seems to imply that the overall tendency of humanity is to intervene in nature, and, again, he uses the example of agriculture:

Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful (34).

I can agree that many techniques developed can sometimes be more harmful than before, but the tendency of agriculture the last six decades is to intervene less with nature. As a matter of fact, the Green Revolution has made it possible to produce far more food per hectare than before. Even though it is based on the use of nitrogen and herbicides and insecticides, it is fair to say that it saved more land for nature than anything else. It has saved between 18 to 27 million hectares of land. Another broader study has shown that apparently the Green Revolution has saved up to 1.7 billion hectares of land from being used for farming. That does not mean that it does not create problems, the excess of production impoverishes the land, and the constant use of nitrogen create dead zones. Yet, these problems are much milder  when compared to what would have happened if we didn’t have the Green Revolution, and the misery that would have meant. Today we have about 800 million people dying from hunger, but without the Green Revolution, it would have been 2.1 billion. In certain places, the big threat to deforestation and animal habitats is cattle, something which is true in South America’s Amazon (see this article), which is mentioned by the Pope (39). Of course, as a recent study has been published (regarding humanity’s agency in causing mass extinctions), despite all of these efforts, what we have been doing is not enough, we need to do more. (Again, the timing of this study’s publication along with this encyclical’s couldn’t be better!)

It is also necessary to point out, that the Pope wrongly assumes that the only form of harmful human intervention in agriculture is the use of synthetic agrotoxins, forgetting totally the huge problems caused by natural agrotoxins such as spinosad (which turns out to be a bee killer), copper (which contaminates soil), rotenone (a known neurotoxin which has actually killed animals and humans). All of these are used in the organic industry, and they also threaten the environment in big ways. There might also be an allusion here to neocotinoids (neonics) and their possible effect on bees. Neonics may or may not affect honey bees (the evidence is equivocal, although their population decline seems to have a variety of factors, and, in general, their population has been increasing). Neonics could affect other species of bees, and we must be mindful of them. Yet, historically the industry has been moving towards pesticides that are each time less harmful to the environment (something that is not true of organic farming’s use of natural pesticides, here is an example and also here). With GM, some of the administration of pesticides (such as Bt) has substantially decreased.

The same can be said in this case:

Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources (21).

Regarding radiation in particular, even though, this has been a concern regarding disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, we have to take into account that although one person’s death because of nuclear meltdowns is one too many, they are not as disastrous to the environment as many people seem to think. For example, contrary to what people have been hearing or reading for so many years, Chernobyl’s radioactive explosion has been linked to no more than 60 deaths, 4000 cases of thyroid cancer in adults and children. Most of the radioactive contamination in Europe is so beneath the safety margins that practically has not affected the population dramatically. Even in the case of Chernobyl, there are people living in towns close to the nuclear plant (they ignored the authorities’ warnings and since 1987 they returned home), and developed no symptoms of cancer whatsoever nor have they had deformed children. Here is a reliable study on this issue by the best authorities on the matter. The Fukushima incident was another major disaster, but unlike Chernobyl we can say that no one died from radiation poisoning. Actually, more people died trying to run away from the whole meltdown, than from the meltdown itself. Also, unlike Chernobyl, most of the safety measures adopted by the plant worked, and contained the vast majority of the meltdown. The environmental impact of Fukushima on the oceans has been mostly minimal, and in most cases almost non-existent. Unfortunately, there has not been a full study by the authorities (including the United States) on the effects of the fallout on the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately for us, there is an organization called Our Radioactive Ocean, which I consider the most important project on this issue, completely comprised of citizens and scientists working together to pick up samples and analyze the data regarding the presence of radioactive Iodine-131, Cesium-134, and Cesium-137 in the Pacific. The project’s conclusions indicate that the presence of these isotopes are far too low to really affect humans or marine life. You can see its findings here.

On the other hand, we have now the technology to totally prevent meltdowns, while at the same time we can recycle nuclear material (including nuclear waste) through breeder reactors, like the one that was going to be used for the wrongly terminated IFR. Breeder reactors with a proper cooling mechanisms can neutralize even the worst case scenario. Needless to say, the virtue of these reactors is that they provide clean energy, leave very small amounts of waste, recycle radioactive waste, and emit no greenhouse gases.

So, of the list of everything the Pope mentioned, radioactive contamination should be the least of anyone’s concern (although we should be mindful of it). Besides, more people have died from the creation of solar panels (whose process of creation is highly toxic) than from nuclear plants (see another essay with scientific studies about it here). Also, we need to point out that the burning of coal has led to people, animals, and plants dying of more radiation, needless to say of poisoning by the absorption or consumption of heavy metals.

I wish to say a word or two about the relationship between ecology and poverty. It is true that they are somehow related. A poor ecological environment has the poor as the usual victims. Yet, their improvement not necessarily intersects in all aspects with a better ecology.  This is what the ecomodernists have been trying to say for some time now. Even with all of the problems in the world, it is true to say that there is proportionally less people who live in misery now than many decades ago. There is an all time low on people suffering from hunger (791 million (2014), down from 991 million (1992)). A lot of countries formerly condemned to poverty and misery are getting out of it. A lot of what contributed to this is that people are gaining more access to electricity and food. That implies both, an exponential increase in energy, farming, and livestock. These three components are of special concern when addressing the environment. If we still consume a lot of fossil fuels, even backing renewable but intermitent renewable resources (solar and wind), this reduction in poverty will aggravate environmental problems such as climate change. So, in a very real sense, we have to be careful with the “cry of the Earth, cry of the poor” speech. Although I do believe it, they are not correlated in all cases. They are two different problems and should be solved in an integral manner (as the Pope has suggested).

To solve both, we really need to turn to technology. We need a second Green Revolution that will keep the best of the first one, but solving its problems. GM technology has been shown to be great for this. Not only it has been efficient for reducing a great quantity of pesticides administered in farms, but its virtues also include the bioengineering work on plants that need much less nitrogen, and the creation of enviropigs (pigs that can metabolize phosphorous more efficiently, which would prevent it from ending up contaminating the water). Both would minimize the problems of water pollution and dead zones (see this article too). The creation of GM plants that are drought resistant is an urgent need in many African countries, or areas that are suffering from droughts right now (such as many areas of North America and Asia). Finally, we need food that provide more nutrition to alleviate the problems of the poor, such as golden rice, purple tomatoes, crops resistant to a variety of viruses and bacteria, lesion resistant crops, among others. The use of cover crop techniques (often used in organic farming), recycling of fertilizers, and others should be integrated in order to keep the soil fertile and minimize the use of insecticides and herbicides. Contrary to what the Pope would seem to imply, a lot of the scientists who work in these areas (especially independent scientists), and sometimes companies, have submitted themselves to serious scrutiny, and have carefully measured the consequences of all of this. In the end, this technology (with the proper regulation) will do more good than harm to the Earth and the environment. Although this is big power, scientists are also aware of the big responsibility. We must also be careful when misusing patents in a way that will not serve the public good.

Also, in the encyclical there is a very strange claim, which is often repeated by people, but seldom questioned:

Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves (128).

This claim is one of the strangest that you might ever find when you look at this from a statistical standpoint. For instance, a lot of the work has been substituted by machines since the Industrial Revolution. Still, in the XIX century there were 2 billion people in the world, in the XXI century we have 7 billion. Despite the fact that there has been an explosion of world population, and that machines increasingly substitute humanity’s manual labor, the vast majority of humanity actually does some kind of labor. As a matter of fact, if anything, the only explanation possible is that technology has exponentially multiplied labor during all of these years, otherwise you would see a significant statistical collapse of labor force rate (see the data of labor force participation rate world wide here). This is because when a new technology appears, jobs multiply around it. A layoff of a worker here, may mean hiring him or her for something else. This may change dramatically in the future, but it is not the case today. Also, the more efficient production of wealth that technology represents also is redistributed economically in many ways that present better wages for a laboral activity that was not previously recognized as valid (e.g. a stay home mom).

Finally, related to everything that I have said above, is the problem of the increase in global population is not really a problem that we should be too worried about. As more people get out of poverty (as we have indicated) and have a better quality of life, the tendency will be to marry less, or have less children (or none at all). Although there is a concern about the number of people by the year 2050, we have to realize that it won’t be the same explosion that we have seen in the XX century.  Yet, in this, I have to agree with Lawrence Krauss, that the Pope’s suggestion that population control is contrary to the interests of the Earth is seriously misguided by Catholic traditional views on reproduction and contraception. This doctrine was functional in situations previous to the prevalence of Keynesian economics, which was marked by much less certainty, continuous cycles of economic collapse, less health quality, etc. Today, it is maladaptive.
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Things that the Pope is NOT Saying

Earlier this week, with the leak of the encyclical, some anti-GMO groups started to use it as a campaign against transgenics. Of course, I don’t know how to read Italian, and was unsure of what I was trying to read at the time. But, I predicted that the anti-GM articles about the encyclical were picking and choosing.

The reason for this conviction is that I knew already that Catholicism has a fine group of Bioethicists who knew all about GM, and practically endorsed it with no problem whatsoever. I’ve read Bioethical literature coming from Comillas’ Pontificial University which already praised GM food (even when it advises for caution) and the Green Revolution (e.g. read the book Genética y bioética). As a matter of fact, the scientists of the Vatican joined together with the rest of the scientific community around the world declaring that GM food in general was safe for human consumption. This is the official position of the Pontificial Academy of Sciences. Finally, I knew that the Pope didn’t make a blanket condemnation of GM food for the simple reason that he himself blessed one particular GM food, golden rice! Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

Pope_Francis+Ingo_PotrykusSource: http://www.goldenrice.org/

The guy you see at the right is Ingo Potrykus, the inventor of golden rice. The Pope made a personal blessing, not an official one by the Church, but it shows that he couldn’t declare an absolute rejection of GM food or technology.

When the encyclical was published, I saw that the Pope himself agreed with the scientific consensus regarding GM food, that there is no evidence of harm to animals, humans, or the environment. He also points out that GM food has greatly improved the economy of the countries that produce it (134). His worries are not so much technological, but rather social. He is concerned that companies might use their patents in order to alienate poor farmers and concentrate their dominion of great amounts of land in few private hands. Again, he rejoices on biotechnology in general as a way that has made the world better (102).

So, please, let’s not make the Pope say what he is definitely NOT saying.
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[UPDATE] Something Awfully Missing from the Encyclical

One of the things that I am very surprised that wasn’t discussed at all in the encyclical is the whole fever now to use biofuels, specifically those which come from food. The reason why I am so concerned about it, is that they have been the main reason for the rise of the price of food in recent years. The fact that Brazil and the United States have gone into this market of using food as source for fuel is a sure sign that this is becoming a fashion, supposedly to reduce the dependency on oil.

Yet, this has done little to reduce greenhouse hases, because it requires more land in order to increase the amount of biofuels, while considerably reducing the availability of food. It is one disastrous policy in which the poor and the environment will end up worse off.

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Partes de la serie: 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, inter1, 4c, inter2

Cordialmente dedico esta discusión al PIP

Correlación no es lo mismo que causación

Dicho: “Hay tres tipos de mentiras: las mentiras, las malditas mentiras y las estadísticas“, frase atribuida o a Benjamín Disraeli, exPrimer Ministro del Reino Unido, o a Mark Twain.

Engañar con estadísticas es fácil. Desentrañar los misterios de datos estadísticos o la formulación de una teoría adecuada que las interprete es un trabajo largo, engorroso y muy difícil (al menos para la mayoría de nosotros). Mediante las estadísticas les puedo probar a ustedes lo que sea.

Ahora mismo se me ocurre una propuesta:

Ignacio Rivera, uno de los panelistas del programa de radio Fuego Cruzado, causa cáncer.

Sí … suena una tesis descabellada que, personalmente, no la creo. Pienso que es 100% falsa. ¿Cómo se podría probar que Ignacio Rivera da cáncer? Piénsenlo.

Ignacio Rivera ha conocido a muchas personas. Sin embargo, da la casualidad que, a medida que pasa el tiempo (¡y cuidado que en su caso SÍ ha pasado MUCHO tiempo! … pregúntenle a Carlos Gallisá), él se da cuenta de que mucha de la gente que conoció se está muriendo o han sido diagnosticadas de cáncer. Primero uno, después dos, tal vez algún familiar suyo, después alguna amiga y así por el estilo.

Podemos preguntarnos sobre esta incidencia de cáncer entre los amigos y familiares de Ignacio Rivera. Lo miramos desde un punto de vista estadístico y descubro una correlación perfecta entre las incidencias de estas pobres víctimas del cáncer con Ignacio Rivera. Es más, sin temor a equivocarnos, podríamos decir que hay un denominador común a todas estas personas … el mismo Ignacio. Tal vez Ignacio les dio la mano, le dio un beso a sus familiares, abrazó a queridos amigos suyos … y así les pegó el cáncer.

¿Me equivoco o no me equivoco? Como siempre, el asunto de las estadísticas es bien “tricky“. Las probabilidades (incluyendo las de 100% de probabilidad) dependen en gran medida del número de variables involucradas en una incidencia particular. Nuestra hipótesis explicativa de esta incidencia sería 100% correcta si esas fueran las únicas variables. Sin embargo, como es bien sabido, las causas del cáncer incluyen a otra variedad de variables, a veces no detectadas por ningún estudio científico en casos singulares: predisposición genética, exposición al asbesto, sustancias en el medio ambiente, exceso de suplementos, exposición a radiación, entre muchos otros. Si incluimos todas estas variables, esa tasa de 100% de seguridad de que Ignacio haya sido la causa del cáncer empieza a reducirse dramáticamente.

Sin embargo, hay otros elementos que no solo reducen sino que eliminan totalmente la posibilidad de que Ignacio cause cáncer.

  1. Tiene que haber una teoría de cómo causa cáncer. Sencillamente no hay teoría alguna de cómo Ignacio causaría cáncer a sus amigos y familiares. Al contrario, todas las teorías disponibles en torno al cáncer descartan tal posibilidad.
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  2. Aun si no haya tal teoría, pero se postula como mínimo algún vínculo causal, tendría que formularse alguna hipótesis que considere una o varias variables en cuestión. En tal caso, solo los experimentos controlados pueden establecer la relación causal. Si hay una correlación, debería haber un alto porcentaje entre la muestra razonablemente grande de gente que conoce a Ignacio (grupo experimental) y otra muestra grande de gente que no lo conoce (grupo control). Si la tasa de incidencias de cáncer en el grupo experimental es significativamente más alto que el del grupo control, entonces aumenta la probabilidad de que Ignacio sea la causa. Si los dos grupos coinciden porcentualmente o muestran la llamada “curva de la campana” (coincidencia estadística), entonces no habría tal relación causal.

Soy filósofo … no soy científico. Todo científico debe sentirse libre para corregirme si así lo desea, pero hasta donde sé, esta es una descripción bien “en arroz y habichuelas” de cómo los científicos trabajan con estadísticas.

Sin embargo, hay gente en este mundo que establece correlación sin pasar por el trabajo arduo estadístico de cualificar los datos, o de estipular alguna hipótesis causal lo suficientemente específica como para que pueda ser contrastada con un experimento controlado o hacer el experimento y cualificar los resultados.

Como siempre indicamos los filósofos de las ciencias, toda hipótesis que no pueda ser contrastada con la experiencia no cuenta como ciencia genuina. Si alguien reclamara que dicha propuesta es científica, entonces se convertiría en pseudocientífica … y eso es de lo que queremos hablar.
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El glifosato causa  … TODO

El autismo es la fiebre de discusión del momento. ¿Quiere usted alguna manera eficiente de causar interés, intriga y temor? ¡Nada mejor que el tema del autismo! Forma parte de toda una ristra de temores contemporáneos comunes: el autismo, el cáncer, el mal de Párkinson, la enfermedad cilíaca, el Alzheimer, la obesidad, la demencia, la diabetes, etc.

Imagínense mi sorpresa cuando, por primera vez, encontré un estudio que indica que el glifosato es responsable de que mueran las bacterias de los intestinos, aunque también causa …  el autismo, el cáncer, el mal de Párkinson, la enfermedad cilíaca, el Alzheimer, la obesidad, la demencia, la diabetes … en otras palabras … ¡TODO! O al menos “todo” lo involucrado con el metabolismo (¿demencia, depresión?).

Samsel, A. & Seneff, S. (2013). Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy, 15, 1416-1463. doi:10.3390/e15041416

En el abstracto de este artículo, afirma:

Here, we show how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria, as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport. Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Si esto es verdad, debería considerarse un trabajo fantástico. En otras palabras, cualquier cosa que tenga que ver con problemas metabólicos.
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¿Quiénes son los autores?

De Anthony Samsel no he podido obtener mucho, excepto que es un “consultor de ciencias” retirado que se especializa en productos agrícolas. Sin embargo, parece que la gran estrella responsable de esta joya es Stephanie Seneff (quien es la que más ha dado la cara en cuanto a este artículo académico). Hay que aclarar que Seneff no es una experta en biología ni en ninguna de sus ramas (medicina, toxicología, biotecnología, bioingeniería, genética, etc.), sino que es profesional de ciencias de computación. La razón de por qué ella ha sido la figura más saliente en todo este suceso es que ella es científica de computación del Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT). El nombre MIT tiende a dar prestigio a la persona que lo usa.

Vale la pena indicar que Seneff tiene un historial bastante cuestionable en lo que respecta a las ciencias, ya que hizo un estudio de igual “calidad” que este en torno a las vacunas y el autismo.

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¿Cuál es la evidencia?

Hay tres propósitos del trabajo:

  1. Mostrar cómo el glifosato inhibe las encimas CYP y el proceso metabólico en el que participan. Se extiende bastante discusión técnica al respecto, en la que (por alguna razón) discute el decrecimiento de las abejas a nivel mundial (pp. 1425-1427). El problema con esta aserción (traída por los pelos) es que no hay estudio alguno que muestre que dicho descenso se deba al glifosato. En experimentos hechos con abejas, se pueden rociar hierbas adyacentes (hasta tres veces más de lo normal)  y entrar en contacto con este sin efecto alguno (véase a Burgett y Fisher, 1990)). Además, el descenso poblacional de las abejas tiene un historial complejo. El descenso dramático de la población de las abejas más reciente partió del 2004 o 2005, no del 1996 (como alega el estudio), por ende, no hay correlación alguna entre el colapso de las colonias de abejas y la adopción del glifosato.
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  2. La inhibición de las encimas CYP, afecta las bacterias en nuestros intestinos que cumplen un rol en nuestro proceso metabólico.
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  3. La evidencia de ello es la cantidad de síntomas creados por esta falta de metabolismo … y de ahí la ristra de síntomas.

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La reacción de la comunidad científica

Cuando se publicó este artículo, causó sensación cuando Reuters le hizo publicidad. Las críticas de la comunidad científica y de periodistas de las ciencias no se hicieron esperar. Keith Kloor (reportero de ciencias para Discover) mostró las siguientes reacciones en su artículo al respecto:

Reacción de Kevin Folta

El agrónomo Andrew Kniss, de la Universidad de Wyoming, cuestionaba por qué todo el mundo le llamaba “estudio” al artículo en discusión, si era totalmente carente de datos. Es más, decía que tenía el mismo grado de credibilidad del creacionismo.

Hubo una enorme sospecha de su alegato: ¡qué casualidad que todos los temores contemporáneos que prevalecen en la mente del público son “causados” por la sustancia más asociada a Monsanto, la compañía más irracionalmente odiada del mundo!

Una de las primeras personas en reaccionar fue Tamar Haspel, una periodista y bloguista de la sección verde del Huffington Post (no es exatcamente amiga de Monsanto), autora de una columna cuyo título es bien elocuente: Condemning Monsanto with Bad Science is Dumb. Entre las cosas que resalta es un nuevo neologismo inventado por Samsel y Seneff: entropía exógeno-semiótica. Si no logran encontrar el significado de la palabra en la literatura científica, no se preocupen. El término no existe en la ciencia. Sin embargo, esta es su definición: la interrupción de la homeostasis por toxinas ambientales (pág. 1416).

Según Haspel, el alegato de que el glifosato inhibe la encima CYP se basa en dos estudios que no están relacionados para nada con este tipo de encima (véase los dos estudios aquí y aquí). Nótese que ambos estudios involucran a G. Séralini (cuyo experimento ya hemos discutido). Ambos estudios son especulativos (solo hablan de la “potencial” toxicidad del glifosato en el caso del sistema endocrino y en cuanto a las células de la placenta). No hay evidencia alguna de este tipo de toxicidad con el glifosato. Para un estudio más completo y claro al público en cuanto a la toxicidad del glifosato, véase esta exposición.

Peor todavía, el estudio de Samsel y Seneff solo alude a otros estudios para establecer una correlación con cada enfermedad que atemoriza al público en general, pero sin establecer causación. En palabras de Harper:

The evidence for these mechanisms, and their impact on human health, is all but nonexistent.

No hay ningún experimento que demuestre que el glifosato realmente esté vinculado causalmente a cada uno de los males enumerados por Samsel y Seneff. Haspel menciona que ninguno de los estudios para formular su hipótesis de la inhibición de CYP es realmente específica a esa encima. Sin embargo, sí hay estudios que vinculan a 18 toxinas (ninguna de ellas glifosato) que sí inhiben la encima CYP.

Creo que las palabras de Haspel al final de su artículo son muy elocuentes:

There’s real danger in bad science like this. Industrial agriculture has created a lot of environmental problems. We have to find ways to reform our food system, but shoddy research only helps Monsanto. If we base our objections on papers like this one, we won’t — and we shouldn’t — be taken seriously.

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Si no es el glifosato … ¿qué causa estas enfermedades?

Creo que la obesidad es causada por gente que come mucha grasa y azúcar y no salen a caminar o hacer ejercicio.

Creo que la diabetes se debe al consumo excesivo de dulces y bebidas azucaradas y falta de cuidado corporal.

Y así podemos ir una por una de las enfermedades para ver cuál es el vínculo causal de cada enfermedad.  Sin embargo, hay unas que son más fáciles de identificar que en otras.

Por ejemplo, las causas del autismo son complejas. Ciertos experimentos de gemelos separados al punto de nacer parecen sugerir que el autismo puede ser de origen genético (aunque hacen falta algunos estudios al respecto, véase también este estudio). Puede también deberse a la interacción entre predisposiciones genéticas y ambientales (aun desde el útero). La búsqueda del gen, o conjunto de genes, o el conjunto de genes con los factores ambientales, continúa en una madeja de modelos complejos que esperamos que nos lleven de alguna manera a solucionar este enigma.

Sin embargo, lo que sí le preocupa a muchos es el notable aumento vertiginoso del autismo alrededor del mundo. ¿Se debe al glifosato? ¿Las vacunas? ¿El WiFi? Lo más probable es que no.

Parece mentira, pero la realidad es que el aumento drástico del autismo a nivel mundial es por … las estadísticas. Este fue el resultado de una investigación extensa en torno a este tema que se publicada este mismo año. Aunque el estudio se circunscribe a Dinamarca, documenta, evalúa y cualifica el aumento de los casos de autismo en ese país (más de 670,000) desde 1991 al 2011. Aparentemente, el 60 % del aumento de los casos reportados como autismo se debe sencillamente a que se ha redefinido el término “autismo” por la comunidad científica para incluir gradualmente a una población que previamente no se diagnosticaba como autista. Esa ha sido la opinión de varios expertos que han estudiado el fenómeno. Este artículo sobre el autismo en Dinamarca solo confirma la sospecha.

¡Eso es todo! El aparente aumento se debe a dos cosas: el aumento de la población a nivel mundial y al cambio de definición de “autismo” en la comunidad científica.

Ante tanta crítica en torno a la incompetencia del artículo de Samsel y Seneff viene la próxima pregunta: ¿cuál revista académica arbitrada permitió que se publicara?
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La revista académica desprestigiada …

Como hemos visto ya, la inmensa mayoría de estos los científicos que usualmente publican estos temas antiOGM y antitransgénicos tienen la malísima suerte de que sus estudios son tretractados por incompetencia, son publicados por revistas fraudulentas, o no arbitradas, o no publicada por gente de especialidad en el tema. Este es uno de esos casos … ¡otra vez! …

Seneff quiso publicar sus estudios antivacunas y antiglifosato en la revista Entropy. Esta es una revista “académica” de libre acceso en torno a física.  Repito, la revista se fundó con el objetivo de hacer accesible artículos de física … no biología, ni toxicología ni medicina. ¿Qué hacen dos artículos de toxicología publicados en una revista de física? Sencillamente porque esta revista no es arbitrada (o al menos hace un “aguaje” de que es arbitrada). Ninguna revista arbitrada de física dejaría publicar artículos en medicina o toxicología, no importa cuan buenos sean, porque no son su área de especialidad.

Eventos como este ocurren frecuentemente en Entropy, hasta el punto que esta revista está desprestigiada ante los ojos de la comunidad científica.

El investigador británico Ariel Poliandri utilizó este artículo académico de Samsel y Seneff como un claro ejemplo de cómo identificar revistas fatulas o fraudulentas.

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ADDENDUM: En torno al glifosato y al cáncer

Mientras estaba investigando, encontré un reportaje de El País en torno a la toxicidad del glifosato y su vínculo al cáncer. De acuerdo con El País, hubo un estudio hecho por profesores de Medicina de la Universidad de Córdoba, España, donde encontraron un vínculo fuerte entre estas dos variables.

Desgraciadamente, las noticias más sensacionalistas salen primero, pero fallan en publicar o darle mayor notoriedad a las que las desmienten. Por ejemplo, he aquí una declaración de la Facultad de Ciencias Médicas de la Universidad de Córdoba (gracias a J. M. Mulet).

CDLyotkWMAAr6J7(denle click a la imagen)

Así que no hay manera de sustentar este vínculo entre el glifosato y el cáncer con base en ese estudio.

 

Referencias

Burgett, M. and Fisher, G. (1990). A review of the Belizean honey bee industry: Final report prepared at the request of The Belize Honey Producers Federation. Corvallis, Oregon: Department of Entomology, Oregon State University.

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Partes de la serie: 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, inter., 4c

Recientemente, me he dado cuenta que hay una noticia que ha estado circulando mucho en las redes sociales, especialmente en el mundo hispánico y es esta:

sri_diario

Esta noticia se titula: “Sin transgénicos. Agricultores en la India obtienen récord mundial de cosechas“. De acuerdo con el escrito, existe una nueva metodología de siembra que no requiere el uso de transgénicos ni la agricultura convencional con químicos, pesticidas o herbicidas.

Este nuevo método se conoce como SRI (siglas en inglés de System of Rice Intensification) y que tiene como aliado importante a la Universidad de Cornell. El SRI fue inicialmente una contribución de un sacerdote jesuita Henri de Laulanié en Madagascar y que fue recientemente adoptada en la India inicialmente para la producción de arroz. De acuerdo con el artículo del Diario ecológico, el método SRI se basa estrictamente en abono orgánico, lo que lleva al “respeto a la naturaleza”. Este método aparentemente ha logrado rebasar los límites de producción agrícola frente a las alternativas convencionales agrícolas por mucho.

Lamentablemente, el Diario ecológico parece no haber hecho su asignación, o recibió una noticia mal transmitida o intentó ocultar la verdadera información al respecto. Uno de los comentaristas del Diario ecológico mencionó el artículo de donde se recogió esta noticia.

M. C. Diwakar, A. Kumar, A. Verma y N. Uphoff. (2012, June ). Report on the World Record: SRI Yields in Kharif Season 2011 in Nelanda District, Bihar State, India. Agriculture Today, 54-56.

En dicho artículo se dice bien claramente lo siguiente (resaltaré lo importante de la cita):

Sumant Kumar planted the Bayer hybrid variety [Arize]-6444, while the other four farmers used Syngenta’s hybrid 6302. These are medium duration varieties with usual crop cycle of about 150 days, but in this season, Sumant’s SRI crop reached in 142 days. Upland nurseries of 100 m² were established, with a seed rate of 5 kg/ha for the SRI nursery compared with the usual rate of 35-40 kg/ha. Both the SRI and the regular nursery were sown on June 20, 2011, with the seeds for both nurseries were treated with Carbendazim (2 g/kg) for protection against seedborne diseases.

Both the SRI and the normal-practice fields received the same amounts of inorganic fertilizer, added as basal doses the day before transplanting … During the season, some N[itrogen] was applied as urea, at a rate of just 40kg/ha, in split doses on July 18 and August 22, a relatively low rate of N supplementation.

Y para mantener nuestra discusión honesta y ser justos con nuestra crítica, el artículo también dice esto:

The main weed problem for these farmers were broad-leaved weeds, and in the regular field a herbicide (2, 4-D) was sprayed to control these, applied at a rate of 1.5 liters/ha. In Sumant Kumar’s SRI field, there was no chemical weed control –only soil-aerating conoweedings done at 13 days and 26 days after transplanting. No chemical crop protection measures were taken as no insect pests or diseases or rodents were observed in either the SRI or regular fields.

Ahora bien, ya establecido lo que el artículo dice, podemos ver que se en la siembra se utilizaron arroz híbrido de Bayer y Syngenta, dos compañías que activamente trabajan con transgénicos. Estos híbridos son patentados por estas compañías y su objetivo es el de la mayor producción de arroz (véase el artículo de Bayer y el pequeño comentario de Syngenta sobre su híbrido).

En cuanto a los fertilizantes, el uso del nitrógeno en forma de químico (tan repudiado por la comunidad a favor de la comida orgánica) es notable. De hecho, como muy bien establece la misma página de internet del proyecto SRI:

The majority of farmers complement the organic matter amendment with chemical fertilizers, most often urea, in order to achieve a balanced fertilization of the crop.

Según el artículo, no hubo necesidad de pesticidas debido a que ninguna de las plantaciones fue atacada por ratas o insectos. ¿Qué hubiera ocurrido si eso hubiera pasado?

En cuanto a los hongos, se utilizó el fungicida Carbendazim, un fungicida artificial, que es altamente tóxico y que causa infertilidad en los animales y, en algunos casos, destruye sus testículos (ver este estudio). Se ha visto también como muy dañino para la salud humana (véase este estudio de la Organización Mundial de la Salud y este otro estudio británico). Es catalogado por Friends of the Earth como uno de los pesticidas “filthy four”.

Finalmente, no se está claro que este método realmente funcione en todas partes del mundo. En la agricultura hay gran variedad en cuanto al clima, la disponibilidad de agua, la disponibilidad de fertilizantes, la calidad del suelo, el tipo de suelo, entre otros factores (véase esta crítica). Hay también dudas en cuanto a la contabilidad de la cantidad de arroz (y otros productos) generados mediante el método, principalmente por la imprecisión en muchos de los datos (véase este artículo y este).

Si el SRI resulta ser bueno o no está bajo debate. Suponiendo que lo fuera para aumentar exponencialmente la producción agrícola es de notar que esto parece más bien una mezcla de agricultura orgánica con tradicional (incluyendo a veces químicos altamente nocivos como el Carbendazim).

El método SRI no es orgánico. Todavía no usa transgénicos (al menos según el artículo original), pero los agricultores no tuvieron reparo alguno en usar semillas creadas por Bayer y Syngenta para una mejor producción. Mañana podrían encontrar semillas transgénicas de alta productividad para estos agricultores y podrían usarlas.

Mi punto: Una vez más, no me opongo en lo absoluto a los alimentos orgánicos. El que quiera comer orgánico, que lo haga. Pero, por favor, dejen de circular esta “noticia” del SRI como agricultura alternativa a la convencional y como no transgénica que no usa tóxicos ni químicos. En el mejor de los casos es una noticia falsa y en el peor de los casos,  fraudulenta.

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