Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Who else should the Catholic Church ban from taking Communion? 

Some Catholic bishops have made news of late by stating that they would refuse communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice. But why single out politicians for such treatment? Why not ensure that every communion-goer is on the doctrinal straight and narrow? To this end, churchgoers who want to receive the sacrament could sign a statement avowing that they follow (and agree with) doctrine.

Agreement with the doctrine would seem to be the sticking point here. It's not as if John Kerry, Gov. Jim McGreevey (NJ) or others are actually going around performing abortions (or having them). The most they have done is advocated policies that would allow other individuals the right to make the choice for themselves -- which, perhaps, is moral abrogation enough for the Church. So, agreement with the doctrine must be required for the Church to contend that the person is sufficiently impure to withhold communion.

But, what about Catholic politicians or non-VIP laity who support the death penalty? Have any bishops suggested using fidelity to Catholic doctrine on this issue as a litmus test for receiving communion? Or what about Catholic policy with regard to nuclear weapons? Or the "preferential option for the poor", long stressed within papal encyclicals? Not to mention Catholic policy regarding immigrant rights, refugee protection and asylum, human rights, just war, the living wage, etc.? For goodness sake, what about Catholics who use birth control!? Can we be allowed to receive communion?

Apparently, the official Church teaching on receiving the sacrament is that Catholics knowingly living in serious sin or those who reject Church doctrine should abstain from communion. Yet this guidance for the individual adherent is a far cry from the case of bishops making an example of a public figure. The whole event has raised questions of the extent to which the Church should intervene not just in policy but in politics. But in a sense, the current dispute belies the dubiousness of the question: specifically because American Catholics have little problem diverging from the doctrinal values platform of the Church hierarchy, the Church is a less powerful political entity than its numbers might suggest.

The great irony of course is that 40 some odd years ago, JFK took pains to convince a nation largely ill-disposed to Catholics that his presidency would not be ruled by Rome. It now appears some bishops want the opposite from John Kerry.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

In Memory: writer Ralph Wiley, 52 

Ralph Wiley passed away at a young age, though not without an outsized influence on sports journalism. Wiley was a beat reporter in Oakland, a writer at Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, and the author several books and screenplays including, "Serenity: A Boxing Memoir" and "Why Black People Tend to Shout".

I liked what he wrote, thought he was mischievous and knowledgeable and probably knew more than he said. In particular I read for the way he teased apart the way we watch sports and the nuances in how we often project our subtle biases onto the athletes we ceaselessly follow.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Border Collies may actually be more intelligent than your average three year old... 

Anyone who's seen the movie Babe probably already believed this (or at least wanted to believe) but a recent report in the journal Science by a team of German researchers (see here for a free news account) chronicles a series of experiments which demonstrate that, for at least one border collie, the language learning ability of dogs is about the same as for young children. To me this seems to bring new life to the possibilities for the working dog class: forget herding sheep, I need someone to file references.

Doubling the length of the ice core record of past climate... 

A consortium of european researchers have just published the preliminary steps in an analysis of an ice core recovered from Dome C in the East Antarctica (here's the paper, for which you will need a subscription to the journal Nature, and here are two perspectives on the work for which you may not). The core, over 2900 meters long so far, is notable because it extends the ice core record of past climate back from ~400,000 ybb (the current oldest ice from a core drilled at the Russian Vostok station in the East Antarctic) to ~750,000 ybp

But why is all this important? In general ice core records of the variability of past climate are valuable because they contain high resolution records of past temperature (through the variation in the isotopic composition of the ice), high resolution records of the composition of past rain water (such measurables as the ionic content of the ice), as well as samples of past atmospheres (through bubbles trapped in the ice near the surface). Ice sheets and glaciers are thus the best way we have of looking at past climates sufficiently finely in time to allow testing dynamical models of how climate works and to understand the extent to which climate may vary in the absence of human interaction.

The gist of the new portion of the record is that much of the variability in the older ice looks alot like the variability in the younger (before the influence of humans). In general the major difference appears to be that warm episodes (called interglacials) don't get as warm before 450,000 ybp, but tend to last for longer (so the avg temperature is ~the same).

The authors of the paper make the argument that the ~28,000 year period from 430,000-402,000 ybp (the first really good look at which comes from this core) is the most analogous to the Holocence (the last 14,000 years or so in which all of human history has occured and the climate has been stable enough to allow agricultural development) and therefore infer that, if humans haven't screwed things up, we might expect another 14,000 years or so of climate stability before the next ice age.

It is key to note, however, that the real point of this paper is that humans have screwed things up. We already knew that the greenhouse gas concentrations of the atmosphere are much higher (2x - 5x depending on the species) now than they have been at any time in the last 400,000 years. We now know that this is equally true of the last 750,000 years. What exactly this means for us, and what we do about it, are still open questions.

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