More transparency. Less energy.

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[Note: An adapted version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the public policy journal of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.]

I fully support the promotion of new and more advanced building energy technologies as a means to improve building performance and reduce energy use and related carbon emissions (“The Potential of More Efficient Buildings”, Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2016). However, to fully realize these aims, we cannot rely on advancements in building technology alone.

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Reeling After the Orlando Massacre

Once again the United States needs to have a serious discussion about gun law reform. But in addition, there needs to be honest talk about the consequences of specific intolerant beliefs.

For example, the Charleston church shooting a year ago was fueled by an individual’s racist beliefs, so it was entirely appropriate for the national conversation to focus on the behavioral consequences of systemic and entrenched racism.

Similarly, after the countless Islamist terrorist attacks around the world — from Paris to Brussels to San Bernardino to Orlando, not to mention the daily atrocities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere — it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation about the behavioral consequences of specific religious beliefs.

Intolerant and illiberal doctrines related to martyrdom, blasphemy, honor and apostasy reliably lead to oppression and violence against women, homosexuals, freethinkers, liberals and even other Muslims.

An honest and mature public conversation about the consequences of specific beliefs, religious or otherwise, is not “Islamophobic,” nor is it bigotry against individuals as people. It is intellectual honesty. And, at this point, it’s also essential for the maintenance of civil society.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Not all old buildings are ugly or new ones, beautiful

I enjoyed reading Edward Keenan’s column, “In praise of Toronto’s ugly old buildings”. However, the author seems to conflate “old” with “ugly” and “new” with “good.” These words are not synonymous. There are numerous examples of new buildings that are ugly, lifeless and dehumanizing. Similarly, there are many old buildings that most people would recognize as being interesting and beautiful and that give their neighbourhood — and our city — its character.

Urban aesthetics influence us in more important ways than many people realize. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” This is why I don’t think that ugly buildings should be praised. Rather, we should praise buildings that are beautiful and human-scale — regardless of whether they are new or old.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star.

Facts and values: On science, ethics and climate

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As someone who has greatly admired Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, I very much enjoyed reading the story about his life’s journey in the world of journalism and science communication that was recently published in Issues in Science and Technology. However, I took issue with one of the claims he makes about science.

Revkin claims, as if it were self-evident, that a major hurdle in our response to climate change is that “science doesn’t tell you what to do”. He then invokes the “is-ought” problem coined by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume which states that no description about the way the world is (facts) can tell us what we ought to do (values). I would argue, however, that this separation between facts and values is a myth. Values are reducible to specific kinds of facts: facts related to the experience and well-being of conscious creatures. There are, in fact, scientific truths to be known about human values (a view defended most notably by the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values). Continue reading

Nature is Enough

The Chirp Heard Across the Universe” (editorial, Feb. 16), about the recent discovery of the gravitational waves that were predicted by Einstein a century ago, asks, “Does science, or knowledge, really need a justification?”

The answer, of course, is no. But in a culture that has become saturated with the idea that only commercial value matters, we’ve become afraid of expressing an impulse as natural and basic as this.

Much like literature, music, philosophy and art, enjoyment of the natural sciences — and of nature itself — has intrinsic value. No further justification is required. Curiosity, wonder and beauty are enough.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Mixing Islam and politics

Re “How Politics has poisoned Islam” (Opinion, Feb. 4): Blaming “politics” for the conflicts we see around the Middle East and beyond is far too vague, simplistic and insufficient. It fails to explain the true nature of jihadist violence. Its root cause is an ideology that is steeped in theology, knows no borders, and extends across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

Beliefs matter. When jihadists and their supporters tell us that they are compelled to act based on their beliefs about the metaphysics of Paradise, martyrdom, apostasy, blasphemy and honor we should take them at their word.

Countering jihadist violence requires intellectual honesty. Secular and moderate Muslims need to reform the faith by first being honest about the very doctrines that are in need of reform. They need to stand up for liberal and pluralistic values, not by obfuscating Islamist ideology, but by publicly acknowledging the central role that it plays in the worldview of the jihadists and their supporters. Furthermore, my fellow secular liberals must not conflate criticism of specific ideas with bigotry against people.

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Note: This was published as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.