Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Man is a Part of Nature

We tend to separate man-made from natural products, thereby distinguishing between man and nature as if they were indeed separable. Man and nature are not separable. Man is as much part of nature as is anything else in the known universe, and does not stand apart from it.

Humans are composed of the same atoms and molecules that make up our environment, as are all products made by a human hand. Plastics, aluminum cans, insecticides, atomic waste, dioxin – all the things we have tended to consider as ‘man-made’ and bad for nature and the environment – are, in fact, all ‘natural products’ in that they are made by man, who himself is a part of nature. They, too, are composed of the same atoms and molecules as is everything else in the known universe.

The fact that certain elements produced by nature (whether by the hands of humans or otherwise) are potentially inimical to man’s future, do not make them universally detrimental – they are potentially detrimental only to man and the environment that he proposes as best for himself. It is, in fact, a selfish view - unrelated to the existence of our planet, but only to our own existence.

The planet, in fact, does not exist solely for the human species (except in a spiritual sense). No planet is dedicated merely to the existence of certain species – it never has been and never will be. It’s ultimate purpose, if any, remains utterly mysterious!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Moral Obligation of Charity

I call your attention to the cover story of the New York Times Magazine of December 17, 2006, entitled What Should a Billionaire Give, and What Should You? by Dr. Peter Singer. Dr. Singer is a contemporary philosopher with a profound-appearing, but really quite simple point of view of the obligations of the haves to the have-nots. I have always admired this ideas; particularly his thought processes.

The confounding factor not included in his discussions is that of human nature - that human beings will not behave in the fashion he feels is obligatory.

He relates his foundation-building anecdote - a helpless child drowning in shallow water - water that any adult could easily enter and save the child. He maintains that no-one would excuse any adult passing this scene who would do nothing to save this child - even if it required walking and wading through muck and slime, ruining a very expensive pair of shoes as well as an extremely costly suit. The price of these items could hardly be considered valuable in comparison with the life of that child.

Dr. Singer goes on from there. Don't miss this. If you wish the article e-mailed to you, please get in touch with me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Can Only Roman Catholics Achieve 'Salvation?'

Here are some words I think are important, particularly to individuals with an interest in interfaith relations. I will be paraphrasing an internet article by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. entitled On Salvation Outside the Catholic Church.

Fr. Hardon explains that the New Testament is quite clear that Jesus founded the Church to be a society for salvation of all men. The ancient Fathers held the unanimous conviction that salvation cannot be achieved outside the Church!

Gradually, however, it became clear that there existed some "God-fearing" individuals who were deprived of Catholic heritage "without fault on their part." It followed that such people were open to salvation, even though they were not professed Catholics, or even baptized.

Thomas Aquinas, however, restated the teaching about the general necessity of the Church. He did concede that a person could be saved "extra-sacramentally" by a "baptism of desire" and therefore without actual Church membership, but the implicit desire to belong to the Church.

The famous Vatican II Council redefined salvation doctrine as follows:

The Council relies on sacred scripture and Tradition in teaching that this pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation. Christ alone is the mediator of salvation and the way of salvation. This means that it would be impossible for men to be saved if they refused to enter or to remain in the Catholic Church, unless they were unaware that her foundation by God through Jesus Christ made it a necessity.
Hardon goes on to write that salvation, then, is possible without baptism, and people may be saved according to their "adequate cooperation with the internal graces of the Spirit they receive." However, he continues, "whoever is actually saved owes his salvation to the one Catholic Church founded by Christ. It is this Church alone that communicates the merits won for the whole world on the cross."

Is Islamic Terrorism Easing Up?

John Mueller(1), in an Op-Ed article in the New York Times a few months ago, proposed a theory that the non-existence of major terrorist activities and the relative absence of "horrible and disgusting deaths" is a sign of Al Qaeda's (and other Islamic terrorists') waning appeal and effect. He claims that the lack of such significant activities since 9/11 are an indication of this. After all, he writes, a full five years has already passed without further "horrible and disgusting deaths."

This is a meaningless period of time when considering such global events. It is quite naive, I believe, to rate the success or lack thereof, of Islamic terrorism after only five years of "relative quiescence." (1)

It served to remind me of the words attributed to Chou En-Lai, the former Chinese Prime Minister and recognized scholar, when asked by Henry Kissinger about his views of the effects on the world of the French Revolution (1789).

"Too early to tell," he reportedly answered.

(1) Mueller, John: Waiting for Al Qaeda, The New York Times, Op Ed Page, 9/9/06

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Germany and the Jews - For your Consideration

Germany is a country with a most unfortunate history. It has a long history of anti-Semitism, but no longer than that of Europe in general. The culmination of German anti-Semitism resulted in human history’s greatest tragedy. Accepting this, however, allow me to raise some issues.

Though born there and forced to leave with my parents in 1939, I have never resorted to accusing all Germans of responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich – particularly those who were not of adult age at that time and, of course, not those born long after. The Steeg family will never forget the Gestapo officer who was so very instrumental in my father’s release from Dachau, the neighbors who took risks and shopped for them during those horrific times, and the friend who hid a valuable ring for my father, and made certain he received it after arriving in New York.

Holding all Germans guilty for all time for these atrocities brings to mind the axiom that had been drilled into the psyche of Roman Catholics - namely that all Jews for all time bear the guilt of Jesus' crucifixion. Yes, the Jews were clearly complicit in that event, but Vatican II finally put an end to the 'curse be upon you and all your children." We Jews are not a hating people. We should not wait millenia to understand the difference between guilt and innocence!

Post-Holocaust Germans and Jews have had to embark on a very special relationship. A significant number of Germans is honestly coming to grips with the reality of what the Hitler years denoted, not only to the German- Jewish population, but to the German spirit. There is a drive to restore a very meaningful part of German history and German life. It is as if African-American history were erased from our American culture and we Americans were coming to realize what was lost, and how this loss left a deep hole in our cultural history, a hole that we really felt had to be filled.

Many Germans are now dedicated to restoring old Jewish synagogues, community centers and similar physical structures; discovering and re-creating a very important part of their history - a history that had vanished. My wife and I have been actively involved with such an organization - an organization dedicated to the restoration of the Jewish Community Center in Breisach, the village where by mother was born and her forbears had lived since 1755. This association was not started by Jews, has no Jewish members and solicits no Jewish contributions.

Those who do not wish to visit Germany should also consider refraining from visiting Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Belarus, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Switzerland and France. Let us not forget their complicity. Germany initiated the Holocaust - Europe helped insure its success. Let us also never forget the inaction of many countries, including our own - their silence and their indifference to the plight of the European Jewry.

The German-Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim added to Jewish law what he termed the 614th Commandment: Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler! It can be argued that not to 'set foot on German soil' disobeys that commandment.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Avigdor Lieberman's View of the Future of Israel

Avigdor Lieberman, a hawkish member of the Israeli cabinet has long advocated reducing the number of Arabs who are citizens of Israel. His so-called 'racist' proposal is for "dividing Jews and Arabs into two homogeneous states."(1)

He calls for a "land and population exchange that would seek to reduce significantly the number of Arabs who are Israeli citizens. They currently account for more than a million of Israel's 7 million people (14%). Under the plan, several Arab towns in northern Israel would become part of the Palestinian areas in the West Bank. The major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank would become part of Israel." " 'We won't be moving people, we will be moving borders,' Mr. Lieberman said."

'In addition, Mr. Lieberman wants to revamp Israel's citizenship laws. All Israelis, Jews and Arabs would have to pledge loyalty to the state and recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Those who refuse could be permanent residents, but would no longer be citizens.'(1)

This plan has no apparent support from Israelis or from Arabs and has been termed 'racist' by Israeli Arab leaders.

Lets consider this for a minute. Israel is an unusual democracy - a democracy which contains the term 'Jewish' in its credo. The implication here is that Israel must always maintain a significant Jewish majority. What is a significant Jewish majority. According to today's New York Times, Jews make up 86% of the population. What if it falls to 75%? Could it possibly fall to 50%, or maybe 40%? Then what happens? Should a decreasing Jewish majority eventuate, what should be done?

I know of no solution that seems as fair as that of Mr. Lieberman. He indicates, in the article, that separation of warring factions in a country has worked in the past (e.g. Yugoslavia, India-Pakistan, Pakistan-Bangladesh, Czech Republic-Slovakia, Romania-Moldova, Indonesia- East Timor) Ethnic confrontations continue in places like Sudan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. A solution of separation may be in their futures as well.

If we correctly assume that a Jewish minority in Israel is unacceptable, then some such solution must be seriously considered.

What about it?

(1) Myre, Greg Israeli Official Discusses Iran and his Controversial Agenda: NY Times 12/7/06, page A10.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Advocacy of Disease

The New York Times Science Section (Dec 5, 2006) contains an article entitled Wanting Babies Like Themselves, Some Parents Choose Genetic Defects.

You may not believe this, but the article discusses parents with handicaps (dwarfed individuals and deaf ones) who wish their children to be born with the same disorders "to preserve culture and identity." To make matters even more astonishing, it describes these parents in a sympathetic light. Yet even more astounding is the fact that there are physicians who would consent to genetic engineering in order to provide these parents with deformed children.

I mean, come on, political correctness is getting to be a joke!! Do such parents truly believe that by 'maiming' their unborn they could possibly have the wishes of the child in mind? Do they really think a child would choose to be deaf, rather than hearing? I mean, come on, there are parental rights, but isn't this truly a form of abuse? Would they insist on a physician surgically imposing deafness on a hearing infant after it had been born? Why not? Isn't that more or less the same thing?

And the fact that physicians exist who would agree to genetic alteration to promote a disorder to satify the wishes of such deranged people, is the greatest of the tragedy of it all!

Monday, December 4, 2006

Jews and Evangelicals

There is nothing wrong with Evangelical Christians. They have a right to their beliefs. They have a right to believe that abortion is wrong and that capital punishment is right. They have a right to believe that embryonic stem cell research and use is wrong and that prolonging the life of the comatose is right. They should not be denigrated for those beliefs. Those beliefs are held by some very intelligent people – even though I may find it very difficult to understand. But even if we don’t understand it, that doesn’t mean it has no merit.

Many things we believe are not explainable, but have merit. It has been my philosophy to pay special attention to what may sound idiotic if someone whom I know to be very intelligent believes in this so-called ‘idiocy.’ Maybe we all should do the same. William Bennett is no idiot. Kenneth Starr is no idiot, Jay Sekulow (whom I have personally met as a fellow student in undergraduate school) is surely no idiot. Neither is John Ashcroft, Harriet Miers, Nathan Hecht, or even George Bush.

These are all evengelical Christians with a right to their views – the views of highly accomplished and/or intelligent people. They should be treated with respect for their beliefs -beliefs which are very deeply held and to which they have a true commitment and to which they dedicate a tithe of their incomes. Listen to what they say – they are not stupid.

David Brooks, in a discussion at the 92St. Y commented on the Evangelicals – their number, their commitments, and how ignored they are by the religion columnists of the mainstream press, including his own, the NY Times. He actually counted the number of times they were referred to in serious columns in his paper, and decried the negligible number! Mr. Brooks, by the way, is an modern orthodox Jew who sends his children to a Jewish Day School.

Evangelicals, like everyone else with the proper credentials, have a right to political appointments and judicial appointments. The fact that they are Evangelicals and may believe that abortion is wrong, or embryonic stem cell research is wrong should not bar them from such appointments, just as counter-views should not bar candidates for these appointments. This is the United States – we should not discriminate against the religious beliefs of our compatriots. They are not criminals. Sure they have their freaks and nutcases (don't we all) who are potentially dangerous, but, as a rule, they are law-abiding and peaceful.

Think about it – is it so crazy to think that a fetus is a human being and shouldn’t be killed? It was easy when we all thought the beginning of life was birth – but so many now seem to believe otherwise – that it begins before birth. Since that concept has been accepted by so many, the beginning of life becomes very vague and without real definition, except legally. Remember that viability today is not necessarily the viability of tomorrow. As medical science progresses, the ability to maintain 'life' ex-utero may exists earlier and earlier in fetal development. We are presently able to maintain the life of a 500 gram newborn. Tomorrow it may be a 100 gram newborn. It follows that people in favor of abortion-on-demand must continue to hold this view even when the age of viability changes!

Those who oppose abortion are often challenged with the concept of caring only about intra-uterine life, but not about post-uterine life. Being pro-life does not imply being pro-all-life; just being pro-innocent-life. A very important distinction!

What do Jewish writings say about abortion? An unborn child has the status of "potential human life" until the majority of the body has emerged from the mother. Potential human life is valuable, and may not be terminated casually, but it does not have as much value as a life after birth.

The Talmud seems quite clear: it says ratherbluntly that if the fetus threatens the life of the mother, cut it up within her body and remove it limb by limb if necessary, because its life is not as valuable as hers. But once the greater part of the body has emerged, you cannot take its life to save the mother's, because you cannot choose between one human life and another.

Think about it.

Medical Spending - Prevent or Cure?

The argument continues - the preventive medicine dollar vs. the curative medicine dollar, but is it really so easy to pit one against the other, so to speak?

Even prevention is becoming very expensive - just consider where we are going with advanced scanners, ultrasound, implanted pacemaker devices, etc. - all of which are preventive tools. Mammograms and PSA measurements are also not cheap!

The problem is not just prevention vs. cure, but the rapidly expanding costs of both strategies. If a child had suddenly collapsed from some unkown heart problem, I'm sure the parent would be grateful for the availability of needed pacemakers or left ventricular assist devices, both of which would fall into the rather expensive 'curative' category!

Who Are Our Physicians?

Two realities for a patient to keep clear in her/his mind: 1) It is the rare physician who regards her/his patient as a partner in management. We physicians are not trained this way. We are in charge and we expect you, the patient, not to forget that! 2) Medical schools pay very scant attention to applicants' qualities as care-givers and caring healers; the application process strongly prefers scientific and intellectual capabilites to those of compassion. It is the rare medical school, if any, that will reject a possible future Nobel Laureate in favor of a possible future Mother Teresa.

Understanding Medical Statistics

The media, more frequently than ever, is constantly bombarding the public with a myriad of statistical health data.

Statistics is a discipline of the utmost importance in analysis of data and consequent decision making – as a matter of fact we use this data without awareness, each day! We know that when we cross a street or ride in a car, there is always risk involved. We make the unconscious ‘statistical calculation’ that the risk is miniscule when compared with the chance of safely arriving at the other side of the street or at the automobile-trip’s eventual destination.

With the availability of vast amounts of statistical health data, individuals are deciding on paths of diagnosis or treatment without really understanding how to interpret the data they hear or read every day in the media. Pronouncements about new techniques, new cures, new hazards are hitting us all the time. What do they really mean? How is one to interpret the data with which is presented?

Let’s assume I have just completed a study to determine whether a particular intersection in New York City is more dangerous than another intersection. I study all street-crossings at W. 74 St. and West End Ave, compared with crossings at W. 72nd St. and West End Ave. My results show that at 72 St. 1 person out of every 1000 sustained an injury, whereas at 74 St. only 1 out of 3,000 did. I correctly conclude, based on these numbers, that the chance of injury at 72nd St. is three times greater than that at 74 St.

The TV news anchor announces his lead story – “A traffic study released today disclosed that crossing the 72nd St Intersection is 3 times more hazardous than crossing just two blocks further north.” The co-anchor offers banter, saying, “Gosh I’m often in than neighborhood –I’d really be better off walking those extra two blocks before crossing.”

Let’s look at the numbers we are talking about. At both intersections, the number of incidents was very small – small at 72nd St, and miniscule at 74th St. Is it really worth walking an extra two blocks to avoid 72 St.? And, just think, the numbers could even have been lower! But the percent of difference could have been exactly the same! When you multiply a small number, by a factor of 2 or 3, you still have a small number! If the risk of an event jumps from 1% to 2% (doubles), the chance of it not happening is reduced from 99% to 98%!! Sound better?

This is one of the common mistakes we make – we look at the hazard more than the lack of hazard. What’s more, we are not informed about the validity of the study. In the above example, in order for the statistics to be meaningful we should be informed if the conditions were the same at both intersections when the study was carried out. Lets say that the conditions at 72 St were rainy and slippery whereas at 74 St (on another day) they were sunny and dry. The statistics are no longer meaningful. Or lets say they were carried out on different days at different times – again the conditions have changed and are not comparable!! Lets say there is an assisted living facility at 74 St – maybe the persons crossing there are relatively older, or maybe there’s a school at 72 St and the persons crossing are frequently young children. Do you see how these factors come into play? In order to evaluate one piece of data, a researcher has to attempt to keep all other possible contributing factors equal for both groups he is studying. In other words, the study must have ‘matched populations’ in order to be valid. We must know more about a statistical fact before we know if it is truly meaningful.

Now, another point to remember. A researcher decides to study the relationship between all passengers who died in airplane crashes and how many of them actually had tickets on the planes. He concludes, correctly, that “all passengers dying in a plane crash, were passengers on the plane.” True – indeed 100% of those dying in plane crashes, were in an airplane. But, as we all know, all people who fly in airplanes do not die! As a matter of fact, almost none of them die that way!

Similarly, most everyone who has lung cancer was a smoker, but that does not mean that every smoker develops lung cancer. Or, most people with heart attacks had very high risk factors, but again, not everyone with high risk factors gets a heart attack – these are the ‘other’ data that must be evaluated prior to reaching conclusions regarding life-styles.

Lottery proponents are very aware of this form of reasoning. “You have to be in it to win.” Of course you do – every winner has always bought a ticket. But they never advertise the billions that don’t win. Statistics work two ways – and one tends to ‘advertise’ the conclusion that one is trying to ‘sell.’

Every statistical study should include two essential details, (1) the chance of error, and (2) the chance that an apparent relationship between two facts is mere coincidence. A ‘p’ value is a customary statistical tool to evaluate this. The lower the ‘p’ value, the less chance that coincidence is the explanation. Significantly low ‘p’ values are ordinarily less than 0.1.

Lets say I flip a coin twice and it comes out heads both times. The study would report that ‘in coin flipping, the head side won 100% of the time.’ Now if this is all the information you were provided, you might believe that each time you toss a coin, heads would come up! A statistical analysis of this data would result in an extremely high ‘p’ value. Based on the fact that there were only two tosses and that both came out heads, one would conclude that chance, and only chance, was responsible.

On the other hand, if I tossed the same coin 5,000 times and it came out heads each time (also 100%), then the ‘p’ value would be extremely low. The odds of ‘heads’ are identical in both studies, but the ‘p’ value identifies the latter as probably significant, and the former as most likely coincidental. Now there is nothing in the study that talks about why heads, and not tails. Statistics can never prove a cause, only the possibility (or lack thereof) of a relationship between events. Proving that some intervention actually causes a statistical result requires an entirely different set of experiments.

So – be aware upon what statistical data are based. Remember, that with all the hazards around us, we usually manage to get by – the statistics of health and life usually work for us. The appropriate use of statistical data will help you make better decisions. Prior to changing a way of life, be sure you fully understand what a study truly proves and whether the benefits of applying the results to your way of life would clearly outweigh the costs of doing so.