Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What’s in a Name?

Except for a few years of my life we have always had Volkswagen’s in the family. I have fond memories of camping in the green 1970 transporter that my folks bought new while my dad was in graduate school. I remember the day in 1976 when my brothers and I tried to talk them into getting a VW Campmobile, a yellow one just like Pippi, but we ended up coming home with a Rabbit. Later we bought another Rabbit and then I bought a ’67 Beetle while I was in High School. Shortly after Victoria and I got married we found Pippi, our 1976 VW Campmobile. I’ve always had an affinity for the brand.

VW stopped making the Beetle for the US market in the late 70s. But in the mid 90s they announced that they were going to start production of their New Beetle. We were living in Salt Lake City at the time and Victoria and I made a trip to the dealership to see one. We weren’t in the market for another car. I was just curious about it.

After only a few minutes at the dealership I was ready to go. The car was nice but it just wasn’t what I had expected. The car was so different from the original Beetle that it left me pondering why they even continued to call it a Beetle. The Beetle, the original one designed by Dr. Porsche, had a flat-four air-cooled engine in the rear and was rear-wheel drive. All of those things are significant defining characteristics of the car. Yet this New Beetle had a straight-four, transversely mounted water-cooled engine in front of the car and was front-wheel drive. The New Beetle would resemble the original more if you drive it around backwards everywhere. Except for the rounded body styling it did not resemble the original at all. It was much more similar to the Golf, which I later found out the car was based on. Mechanically it was a Golf with just a throwback body styling. Don’t get me wrong, the Golf is a great car. It just ain’t a Beetle.

On the way home from the dealership I complained to Victoria and waxed philosophic about our experience. So how many details could they have changed and still made me comfortable with calling it a Beetle? I’ve blogged a little bit about this once before. I don’t know the answer to that question. But clearly they had changed too many for me. As cute as this new car was I just could not get comfortable with how drastically different it was. Why didn’t they just call it the VW Retro or something else? But as far as I was concerned it sure wasn’t a Beetle anymore.

For the past several years I’ve been going through a transformation too, not completely dissimilar to the example above.

For my whole life I’ve been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormons to most of the world. Mormons have a set of core beliefs that define them. Since I was a young child most of my beliefs have fallen well within the guidelines of the church. I was comfortable calling myself a Mormon and they were comfortable with me.

Like any healthy mind should, I continued to learn. A calling I had teaching Aaron’s Sunday School class got me really studying about the church. I read just about every history and biography I could about the church. After finding more questions than answers using the official, church sanctioned materials I was prompted to look elsewhere for some of my answers. I just couldn’t make certain aspects of the church’s history and doctrine line up without digging a little deeper. As I uncovered new truths, new to me at least, I did my best to incorporate them into my set of beliefs and still continue to call myself a Mormon. One issue at a time and little by little I found myself having to really bend over backwards to make myself fit into the mold that the church was providing. (I’ll spare the specifics of the changes for other posts. I’ve already detailed many of them over the last few years.) How many defining characteristics of being a Mormon could I change and still identify with the name? Like VW did with their Beetle I was rearranging and redesigning massive amounts of technical details while still doing my best to keep a rough tribute to the original.

A few months ago I was in another teaching position at church. The lesson for that day called for me to teach a principle that I no longer believed. In fact I found the whole Old Testament story of genocide difficult to even read. Yet I was being asked to tell the story and then give the official position of the church as if I believed it. I just couldn’t do it. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Just as if I had walked to the back of the car, popped the latch and sat there looking at a spare tire and an otherwise empty trunk rather than the engine compartment I had expected to be there. Things had changed. And I couldn’t stand at the back of the car and pretend that there was an engine back there anymore.

The next week I asked to speak to our Bishop and I told him what I was going through. This would be the third Bishop I’d conveyed my struggle to. At the time I just asked to be released from the teaching position. I just couldn’t be honest with myself and still teach from the official lesson plan.

So on the cusp of this new year I look back at where I was and where I am now. I no longer have so many of the characteristics that used to defined me as a Mormon. My beliefs have changed. Like the Beetle, do I still deserve the name? Am I still a car with a flat-four air cooled engine in the rear with rear-wheel drive? Or have I evolved into something else that deserves a different name? Here’s a little bumper sticker philosophy for you. “If you were accused of being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict?” or in my case, “If I were accused of being a Mormon would there be enough evidence to convict?” I just don’t know anymore. So that round car based on the Golf that VW came out with in the 90s, I’m just not comfortable calling it a Beetle. And whatever I have evolved into in the last several years probably deserves to be called something else too. I’m just not sure what it is yet.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


A few weeks ago at church we had a guest speaker present a talk on the subject of obedience. Obedience is a common theme lately in LDS meetings. Despite the scriptural support to the contrary you’d think it was the greatest commandment in the law.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to express my puzzlement with a motivational story that was given during the talk. This speaker closed his 20 minute talk with a story about a boy who was lost in a mine. A group of boys had gone into a mine and one of the boys got separated form the rest of the group. When he didn’t come out they went back and retraced their steps. When they still didn’t find him the authorities were called and a full search was initiated.

A local man felt the need to go volunteer his services since he was familiar with the mine. When he showed up on site he was sent back home by the authorities, who assured him that they had it under control. This happened a few days in a row. The local man offered his services and was sent home every time.

On something like the forth or fifth day of the search the authorities were no closer to finding the boy and announced that they were going to call off the search. One last time the local man went and pleaded with the authorities to be allowed to look for the boy. They reluctantly agreed. Being more familiar with the mine than any of the other searchers so, far he was able to check out a little known passage and he found the boy in about 20 minutes.

Now here is my question. How in the world is a story about the virtues of obedience? If the boy had been obedient to his leaders in the first place he wouldn’t have been alone. If the leaders had been obedient to scout policy they wouldn’t have been in a mine in the first place. But they were not the focus of the story. The most glaring problem I had with it was the prime focus of the story, the local man’s actions. Since he knew the mine better if he had been disobedient and defied the so-called authorities the boy would have likely been found days earlier. I saw this as a story about perseverance to do what you know is right in spite of what you are being told, but obedience?

Sometimes I really enjoy the talks at church. Sometimes I may disagree with the concept but still understand it from their perspective. But this one just eluded me completely. I just couldn’t see how in the world this story would support the idea that we need to be obedient.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Merchants of Doubt

So the other day I was trying to convince one of my kids to stop playing video games and get studying one of the school subjects in which they aren’t doing very well. No response. So I looked at their grades so far and did my best to persuade them that if they didn’t do a remarkable job in the last few weeks of the semester that they likely would not pass the course. Again, no response. At this point I was getting more than a little irritated at the lack of action. “Why aren’t you doing anything about this?” The response I got, “You don’t know for sure that I’ll fail if I don’t study today and you can’t guarantee that I’ll pass if I do study right now.” This little logical fallacy is one that has bugged me for years. While it is true that I could not know for sure the outcome of doing homework it’s ridiculous to argue that playing video games is a better use of that time.

We see this type of fallacious reasoning all the time. Sometimes it is accidental. I know people who avoid the interstates because don’t know if there will be any construction work going on and they can’t be 100% sure that the off ramps will be open. Other people turn off all passenger side airbags because they can’t be 100% sure that theirs won’t be the one that goes off accidentally. I have even heard of one friend of mine who never wears his seat belt because he can’t be 100% sure that he won’t drive off a bridge and drown because he can’t get out of his car. All of these situations are based on an emotional response to something that had happened to them or a persuasive story they heard or saw on the news. Despite ample evidence to the contrary they still stick to that emotional assessment of risk and a desire for 100% surety.

What really bothers me is when others recognize this fact that you can never be 100% sure and exploit it for political and personal gains. Merchants of Doubt is the history of just such political exploitation of science and the public’s misunderstanding of certainty, statistics and risk.

Industry funded scientists focused on and magnified the uncertainty when dealing with the link between cancer and cigarette smoking. The implication being that since they can’t prove 100% that smoking is what gave this guy cancer then we don’t know what did. And therefore smoking is safe. Later on Industry funded scientists focused on and magnified the uncertainty when dealing with the consequences of the arms race. Then after that it was the link between industries and acid rain. Etc, etc, etc. Time and time again Industry funded experts have used the same tired script to justify their in action. What I found most surprising in this book is that time and time again it is the very same scientists pushing this uncertainty on the public, even when the topics are far afield of their area of training and expertise.

I took this book as a warnign to be skeptical anytime somebody encourages action or inaction just based on the fact that we can't be 100% certian. Do the research and weigh the risks. Sure, absolute certianty is rare, but relative certianty is much more common. I many not no for sure if I'm gonna get driven off a bridge, but I'm far more likely to get into an accident that does not involve a bridge and so I'm gonna continue to wear my seat belt. And the same goes for the other controvertial issues detailed in Merchants of Doubt.