Teaching Secular Blasphemy

Well it’s that time of year for academics (at least those on a semester system) when we begin another term of teaching and learning. This Fall I am somewhat officially retired from full-time teaching (if the university had started me sooner it would be official) but I am back teaching my Foundations course.

Towards the end of that course I get into a topic that is relatively new in engineering: Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD.) LRFD is a fancy technique that attempts to quantify uncertainty in both the way structures are loaded and how they resist that loading, Loads on civil structures include the dead weight of the structure, what the structure carries (traffic on a bridge, for example) and loads such as earthquake, wind and impact loads. The structure resists it by having material that doesn’t either break or move excessively during use, and that material ultimately includes the soil, rock or what’s in between that supports the structure.

In the past we used something called Allowable Stress Design (ASD,) which involves using factors of safety, a concept familiar to people even outside the engineering profession. Typically the literature states that we have moved from “deterministic” design (ASD) to “probabalistic” design. I don’t agree with that: we’ve always “played the odds” and built into our structures additional material to deal with uncertainties, including what one Australian engineer called a “factor of ignorance.” The difference is how we do the calculations: LRFD is supposed to be a better way of quantifying those uncertainties, although I have one colleague who disagrees with that.

In the course of teaching that, I present the following graphic.

Diagram showing the magnitude of Loads Q and Resistance R vs. How Often a Specific Load or Resistance Might Occur

This shows two bell curves (see, I’m already in trouble) of various loads and resistances. The idea is that the ability of a structure to resist loads and stay together/in service is greater than the loads it’s subjected to. Notice two things:

  • There is no one load or resistance for a structure. There is a distribution of possible loads, which includes the fact that those loads can vary over time.
  • There is always a blue shaded region where the two overlap. That’s the region where the loads can overcome the resistances. There is no way to get rid of this; we can only minimize the region.

The last point is, in the context of our society today, secular blasphemy. Why is this? Because we as Americans have been conditioned to believe that life is supposed to be perfect and without adversity. Failure to achieve this leads to most of the bile we see in the streets and on social media.

Considering the case of COVID-19, although coronaviruses have been with us for a long time, the unique characteristics of this one meant that we went into the pandemic with greater uncertainty. This meant that the “load” bell curve tended to be flatter and broader (if not in reality at least in our perception) than with other diseases. On the other hand those uncertainties extended to the way we resisted the virus, so that curve is flatter and broader too. To put it like the public health officer at our university did, our response was like building the plane while flying it at the same time.

The result of both of these is that the blue shaded overlap region is larger than we’re used to seeing. That meant that bad things happening were inevitable until our knowledge of what we were up against and how we planned to counter this were better known, the curves sharpened (and hopefully further away from each other) and the blue region shrunk. This is not an instantaneous process with any assault like this; it takes time, especially with something that is a moving target (mutations, uncertain interactions with the populations and environment, etc.)

You’d never know that from the rhetoric that comes out of our society. On the one hand we hear that, if we do such and such, the virus will completely go away. On the other we have a prosperity teaching type of denialism which tells us that these adversities are illusory. Neither of these is realistic. We can do things to improve the situation. Sometimes these things are a “breakthrough,” sometimes they are incremental. In football we can either get to the goal with one “Hail Mary” pass or we can grind from one first down to another. Anyone who has watched the game knows that, with well matched teams, the latter is more likely to succeed.

Unrealistic expectations make our society insufferable, and decrease the desire for longer life, which may explain our rising suicide rate. (There is a better way.) They’re also profoundly unscientific, and the remind us that, in spite of the gaudy rhetoric, those who run our society are profoundly unscientific as well. Our adversaries are better prepared in that regard, which doesn’t bode well for the global conflict that is shaping up.

Unhappily living with that reality is, I suppose, the price for teaching secular blasphemy.

The Slow Suicide of American Science–ACSH

I’ve always been bullish about American scientific and technological supremacy, not in some starry-eyed, jingoistic way, but due to the simple reality that the United States remains the world’s research and development engine.

This is true for at least four reasons, which I detailed previously: (1) Superior higher education; (2) A cultural attitude that encourages innovation; (3) Substantial funding and financial incentives; and (4) A legal framework that protects intellectual property and tolerates failure through efficient bankruptcy laws. There’s a fifth, fuzzier reason, namely that smart and talented people have long gravitated toward the U.S.

The Slow Suicide of American Science–ACSH

When will we have a Covid-19 vaccine? — UnHerd

It’s the question on everyone’s mind. When will we have a vaccine for Covid-19? Back in March, pundits and experts were divided: some seemed confident that it would take over 18 months, others thought at least two years. Some predicted several years. Five months on, with over 165 vaccines in development, Dr Anthony Fauci, the…

via When will we have a Covid-19 vaccine? — UnHerd

From Covid to crime: how media hype distorts risk, or the creek water will get you every time

We all rely on the news to give us information about the world. That information lets us make decisions: whether it’s safe to fly to Spain, whether red wine causes cancer, whether we’re likely to lose our job for tweeting something. We use the media to help us understand the risks that surround us. The…

via From Covid to crime: how media hype distorts risk — UnHerd

This reminds me of something my Fluid Mechanics and Heat Transfer professor told his undergraduate classes.  He was a native of Lenoir City, TN, and had a dry sense of humour that frequently went right past his mostly Texan students.  He told the story of the guy in the hills who first drank whiskey with creek water and got drunk, then drank bourbon with creek water and got drunk, then drank moonshine with creek water and got drunk.  The guy’s conclusion: the creek water got him drunk.

That creek water will get you every time…

An old Zenith Colour Television Broadcasts the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King

Just about every television I grew up with was a Zenith.  So I was intrigued when I saw this video of a Zenith colour “roundie.”  We had one in our family room in Palm Beach (I’m not sure whether it was this exact model but it was close.)

The sample broadcast he chose is riveting, especially these days: Walter Cronkite’s report of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968.   I doubt we watched CBS (we were NBC, Huntley-Brinkley types) but we certainly watched the reports of this.  It’s interesting to hear Dr. King evoke the Bill of Rights in his speech the night before he was killed; now so many consider those rights to be part of the problem.

I’ve cued up the video to that broadcast; if you’re interested in the technical aspects of the Zenith he’s looking at, just run it back to the start.

Our own roundie went on to transmit other tumultuous events of the time, including the Watergate Hearings, as you can see below in photos from its tube.  (I’ve got recordings from that here and here.  I cropped these close, but you can see the rounding in the corners.)

Karl Friston: up to 80% not even susceptible to Covid-19 — UnHerd

Just one month ago, the idea that most people aren’t susceptible to Covid-19 — perhaps the overwhelming majority — was considered dangerous denialism. It was startling when Nobel-prize-winning scientist Michael Levitt argued in UnHerd at the start of May that the growth curves of the disease were never truly exponential, suggesting that some sort of…

via Karl Friston: up to 80% not even susceptible to Covid-19 — UnHerd

Modelling, Quantum Mechanics, and Theology

Recently I wrote a post for another of my blogs entitled Do We Need a New Math to Understand Physics? where I discussed yet another article I linked to, Does Time Really Flow? New Clues Come From a Century-Old Approach to Math. It’s probably too technical for most readers of this blog, although seeing Tolkien cited in a scientific/engineering publication is not to be missed.

In the common parlance we’re used to speaking of mathematically-stated laws that govern what happens physically in the universe.  I think a model-prototype concept is better.  Whether the physical phenomena “know” about these laws is debatable; whether they obey them is not unless the “law” is disproven or a special case added.  What this signifies is that we have modelled the physical phenomena successfully and in the meanwhile enhanced our understanding of what is going on, which in turn is the promise of future progress.

In theology a model-prototype concept has been around a long time.  The difference between theology and mathematics is in the priority.  With mathematics we have physical phenomena which we model using mathematics.  In theology we have a living model (God) who creates the prototype (the material world.)  This sort of “type-antitype” is well rooted both in the Fathers and in the Scriptures themselves.  Evangelical hyperliteralism is the order of the day now–so much so the atheists use it–but the church will regret adopting it before it’s over with.

In the past I have used the model-prototype construct to make an analogy between theology and mathematics, which I do at length in My Lord and My God.  The purpose of this work is to show that the idea of that analogy can be used to show that the reason why the post-Nicene I church set subordinationism in the Trinity aside is due to weaknesses in Greek theology, weaknesses that mathematics can address.  It can also be used to refute really poor, God-dishonouring theology such as the Sydney Anglicans set forth.

The divergence between the divine model and the material prototype has been understood in theology for a long time.  It’s embodied in the difference between created and uncreated beings.  The main implication of that is that, although the model and prototype are certainly related, the material world is definitely a “step down” from the spiritual/divine one.  In the discussion of mathematics and quantum physics, the difference between continuum mathematics and discrete quantum mechanics is at the heart of the discussion.  The question now is whether we change our mathematics to suit the physical world or build on what we have to describe it, understanding the differences.

That too has a theological analogy.  TBH if there’s one thing that’s gone AWOL in the last half century or more, it’s the ability of the theological world to think abstractly.  Much of what passes for theology today–from the modern and post-modern musings of the left to the “waist-down” religion of the right–shows a deeply carnal mentality.  It’s one reason why, like my Anglican deacon and friend Bruce Hilbert (whose home was destroyed in the recent tornado here,) I’m glad I took the technical route rather than the seminary one.  Unfortunately the technical fortress is likewise facing being breached, a conflict upon which the future of scientific advance hangs.

On the other hand, the discrete nature of quantum mechanics once again brings up the whole issue of how deterministic the universe really is, which certainly does have important theological implications.

But I digress…theology these days deserves better than what passes for it, but improvement is easier said than done.

The Ambassador Airplanes: How the Assemblies of God Became Involved in Missionary Aviation — Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center

This Week in AG History — May 13, 1950 By Glenn W. Gohr Originally published on AG News, 14 May 2020 Did you know that the Assemblies of God owned two passenger planes just after World War II that carried Assemblies of God missionaries overseas? Following World War II, commercial flights were not readily available, […]

via The Ambassador Airplanes: How the Assemblies of God Became Involved in Missionary Aviation — Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center

Those Scientific Episcopalians (Not!)

The old home church tries to make it look good while mulling over if and when to re-open:

The Episcopal Church approaches these decisions with great care and bases changes in our practices on solid, scientific data.

I never thought the Episcopal Church was particularly “scientific.”  In fact, looking in the rear-view mirror one thing that may have alienated me and others in my family from the church is their distinctly aesthetic emphasis, an emphasis which minimised the importance of the “hard facts.”  That’s true of our elites in general, even those which never darken the door of the Episcopal or any other church: they’re basically unscientific by training and temperament, and parading that they “believe in science” is only proof that their idea of escaping this ignorance is turning science into a religion.

It gets worse: the science of COVID-19 is a poorly-understood moving target, one that has befuddled expert and amateur (and everyone else in between) alike.  When we’re on the frontiers of scientific knowledge, that’s the way it is.  It’s hard to make public policy or private decisions based on that moving target; the day when we can say we have overall “solid science” on this topic is in the future.

Given what we do know and Bethesda’s superannuated demographics (something they share with the Episcopal Church in general and their Diocese in particular) caution is certainly warranted.  (The fact that their Rector attended the COVID-19 “ground zero” for the denomination isn’t comforting either.And their online program is definitely above average.  But to claim solid science for this may sound good but doesn’t conform to the “hard facts” of the situation, not yet at least.

P.S. I also noted the quote from the contract on the Episcopalians in their masthead.