broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “science”

A Conversation with a Pro-Lifer

A Conversation with a Pro-Lifer

H. Bradford

1/23/18

Today I attended Party in the Plaza, a celebration of choice.  This event is also a counter protest of the Jericho March, an annual anti-choice march held on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  It was a cold, windy January day outside of the Building for Women.  It was also Monday at noon, which diminished our numbers.  About an hour into the pro-choice protest, an anti-choice fellow who I will call Jim- approached me for a debate.  I don’t often debate the other side.  It is absolutely of no value, since we are so opposite in world views.  But, Jim was kind of annoying.  He had already harassed three people in the group.  He basically told “S” that she was going to go to hell.  Even as she danced and tried to ignore him, he shamed her for having fun and making light of the serious nature of abortion.  He also engaged in conversation with two people who very clearly said they did not wish to debate and did not consent to debating.  He actually ignored the word “consent”!  I was quietly appalled that he talked over them, ignored their wishes, and coaxed them into talking- even when they made it very clear they had no interest or desire to engage.  The blatant male entitlement was astonishing.   Eventually, he moved over to me.  I engaged, but I thought it might be a way to sharpen my debate skills and uncover some of my rhetorical weaknesses.  Here is a summary of how it went:

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Jim:  I just want to ask you why you are here.  When you see this innocent life, aren’t you bothered? (Jim is holding a sign of a mangled fetus that looks to be late term- perhaps eight or nine months). H.  Innocence is a social construct.  I am here because I support adult women.  I am here because I care about the life that already exists in society.  The poor, people of color, women, those who are bred to die in our imperialist wars, the mass incarcerated…


Jim: Good, I also care about those things.  But what about the unborn?  The little ones who no one speaks for?

H. You are here for them.

Jim:  You know, a fetus has a heartbeat at six weeks. (Not sure if this is the number of weeks he stated).

H.  Cows and frogs have heartbeats. Does a heartbeat offer special rights?

J. Those are animals.

H. Humans are animals.

J. Humans are mammals but they are not animals.

H. ?

J. Humans are different because they are made in God’s image.

H. I don’t believe in God.  Do you have an argument which does not invoke God?

J. Even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.  God puts morality in our hearts, which is how we know right and wrong.  (Provides examples of morality which I am not sure are culturally universal, but I don’t argue.)


H. The ability to say abortion is wrong requires specific knowledge of how reproduction works.  In Biblical times, people were pretty clueless of how reproduction works, which has continued until modern times.  Until the 1800s, people still believed that women contributed nothing to the pregnancy and that all genetic material came from men.  Fallopian tubes were not discovered until the 1600s.  Ova not until the microscope.  (S. chimes in that scientists believed in homuculus- or tiny humans in semen.)  This is why the Catholic church believed in delayed ensoulment in the 1600s and really didn’t come out against abortion until the 1800s (when the science of reproduction was understood).  <Side note, I don’t like to use religious arguments because you can’t out-Christian a Christian…but, whatever>.


J. No, God knew how reproduction worked and even if the specifics were not known to man, God knew that it was immoral.  (Uses the story of Onan masturbating as an example).


H. I don’t think that is a good example of God knowing how reproduction works.


J.  Have you heard of the Holocaust (I nod my head)?  Abortion is like the holocaust since it specifically targets a group of people, marking them for death.  I am sure that you have heard of the Nazis and what they did to the Jews.


H. Yes, the Holocaust was terrible, which is why we must fight fascism.  We must be vigilant against far right movements and aware that they often align themselves with religious institutions. (He was trying to compare abortion to genocide and ageism, which I didn’t specifically address).


J. There have been six million innocent lives lost to abortion.

H. To tell you the truth, I don’t care if it is a billion.  I believe that abortion is a fundamental right of women and essential for their full participation in society.  I don’t believe that anyone should be forced to be pregnant.  I personally never want to be pregnant and can’t imagine gestating a child just to appeal to someone’s morality based upon a several thousand year old religion.


J. You are passionate about the rights of women, but what about unborn women? H. A fetus is dependent upon women for life.  The rights of women supersede any rights of the unborn.


J. What about the sanctity of life?

H. Many things are alive, but do not have rights.  We do not offer rights to the grass.  I mean, I would like it if people had gardens instead of lawns, but I am not going to legislate that people can’t mow (I was purposefully being a bit sacrilegious comparing fetuses to grass).


J. Let me ask you this.  Have you ever held a baby?  Do you have any nephews or nieces?

H. Yes, I have held a baby.

J. And how did you feel looking into that baby’s cute little face?

H. I felt that babies cry and poop a lot.  Babies have a lot of needs.  (While many pro-choice people love babies and have children, I am really unmoved by babies).

J. Didn’t you feel that they were so innocent and pure?

H. No, not really.

J. How about murder, are you against murder?


H. (I pause to think and garble something about self defense, but really don’t want to share my philosophy on the morality or immorality of violence in the context of capitalism).

J. If someone murdered your friends, you  would be upset- right?

 

H. Yes, I would be upset.


J. What about abortion, which is murder?

H. I really believe that abortion is fundamental to the rights of women and our ability to be full and equal members of society.  I believe that our equality and participation in society trumps the interests of fetuses.  I don’t want to be a parent or forced to be pregnant.


J. You shouldn’t be a parent. S. chimed in that it wasn’t a nice thing to say.

H. No, I really shouldn’t.  No one should have a child if they don’t want to have one.

J. I agree.


H. At the end of the day, there is nothing you will say that will change my mind.  And, there is nothing I will say that will change yours.  We have very different world views.  There are other people on my side (pro-choice), some of them are religious.  But, I am an atheist.  I think it is better to focus on common issues.  For instance, there have been pro-life people in the anti-war movement.  There are pro-life people who work against the death penalty.  I have worked perfectly well with them on these other issues. (I also wanted to add that I am a Marxist, but didn’t want to open that can of worms).


J. No one is actually an atheist, since this requires faith.


H. (This is actually true and leads to a complicated argument).  Yes, that is actually correct.  The existence of God can not be absolutely discounted.  In the same way, we can never prove that there are no purple pandas on the sun.  However, the likelihood of purple pandas on the sun is so low that for all practical purposes I am a purple panda atheist.


J. You are actually agnostic.

H. When I say that I am an atheist, it means that I don’t believe there is evidence that would lead me to believe in God as defined by human societies.  (What is God?  How would a God be operationalized? How would a God be measured? But anyway…thanks for telling me what I am…)


J. Where does life come from?  Life is so complex that evolutionary science can’t explain…

H.  Evolutionary scientists don’t try to answer where life began.  Their main concern is how life changes over time.  There may never be complete answers to how life began or the complexities of the universe, but that doesn’t mean that God exists.  (As a trend, throughout history when something is unknown God is used to fill in the blank.  What causes rainbows?  God.  What causes the sun to rise?  God.  What causes the rain? God.  but with scientific knowledge, the pool of unknowns begins to shrink and God fills in the blank less.  So now, we are left with fewer questions such as- where did life come from?)


J. No, you are wrong!  Evolutionary scientists care where life began and had a conference wherein several top scientists concluded that God must exist.  (There were some specifics about this conference, but I don’t remember these details.  I felt that this was mansplaining, since evolutionary scientists don’t specifically study the origin of life.  Some geologists, paleontologists, chemists, astronomers, etc. may work on this question, but it is not specifically a question of evolutionary biology). The truth is that God made all of us and you are part of his perfect creation.


H. I do know that there have been five extinction events and that over 95% of the life on earth that ever lived has gone extinct.  (Correction, 99.9% of all life has gone extinct).  I think humans are here for a short time and we should just do our best to live well and treat each other well, since one day we will be like the trilobites.

J.  I don’t know what made you this way, but I was once a rebel too.  I am going to pray for you tonight.


Conclusion:

I don’t think I was on my A-game with the argument.  In the end, I was tired.  Debating is tiring!  I don’t like to debate, since I don’t want the other side to feel that I am the voice of the pro-choice movement.  The pro-choice movement is diverse.  Many of those involved are religious.  Many are mothers who love babies and children.  I feel that I don’t represent the movement well since I am a stubborn atheist with unconventional morality.  I do feel somewhat insulted when religious people ask me what made me this way?  I was never angry at God.  I never rebelled against God.  My faith simply changed.  It passed briefly into a deep spirituality of scientific pantheism until it naturally became atheism.  Spirituality was the training wheels to my atheism.  Becoming a Marxist also aided that process.  While I am not angry that God, I am angry with the pro-life movement.  I am angry that they shame people who seek abortions.  I am angry that they seek to control sexuality.  I am mad that they seem to care more about “innocent” babies than grown women or that they pit “innocence” against the sin and guilt of women whom they fault for their poor choices.  I am unapologetically pro-choice.  In fact, I am pro-abortion because I feel that it is health care.  I don’t place moral value on a dental visit or cancer treatment.  Abortion is one facet of reproductive health.  There is too much shame, silence, and stigma for me to back down from that position.  This is a fight that I will continue in the years to come.  I hope one day we advance as a society so that abortion is not looked at as a moral issue.  I hope one day it is not a controversy, but a widely available service that long ago was accepted as vital to gender autonomy and equality.

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Photo from last year’s event

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The Thinking Universe

The Thinking Universe

H. Bradford

9/12/17

I am the thinking universe.

I am its ego.

Its self doubt.

4.5 billion years of evolution to think the thoughts I thought today,

to write them down,

signalizing to life on earth another syllable in the tongue of infinity.

Words are electricity, pheromones, symbiosis, and erosion.

My joy and my pain,

expressed prettily on paper are the voices of

sharks and slime molds,

cycads and cyclones,

Every thing…

Every living and non-living thing-

exists in me and through me.

The wings of moths are my whisper

And the patter of cat’s feet are my cries.

Yet, everything vanishes

and everything dies.

The universe doesn’t even know it is speaking!

It doesn’t mourn its dead!

Its worth, words, and connections will die in my head.

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an image of slime molds from Wikipedia.

Sociology of Ferns

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Today I visited the Tettaguche State Park with my friend Adam.  It was my first time visiting the park and part of a larger goal of visiting four new state parks this year.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and drove us up the north shore of Lake Superior to head to the park.  The goal was to attend a 9 am hike on the topic of ferns.  As it turns out, the hike was guided by a local lichen expert, Joe Walewski.  He has written a book on lichens and is currently finishing up a guide to ferns.  The hike was also joined by Kurt Mead, who wrote a book on dragonflies.  It was fantastic that we were able to share our morning and the hike with these two experts.  As no one else showed up for the hike, we had their full attention for over three hours.

Before the hike began, Joe asked us what we knew about plants or ferns and why we were interested in the hike.  I honestly just love to learn.  Prior to the hike, Adam did not know that there were different kinds of ferns.  There is no shame in this, it is simply that ferns don’t call attention to themselves in the way that trees or flowers do.  To look at this socially, flowers and trees play a larger role in society.  Flowers are given as gifts or planted in gardens.  Trees are used for a variety of useful things (fruit, timber, maple syrup, landscaping, etc.)  In this way, most people can probably identify and name dozens of flowers and trees.  After all, people can be named after flowers (rose, violet, heather, lily, petunia, etc.) and streets are named after trees (elm, oak, birch, maple, elm).  There is a nightmare on Elm Street, but nothing significant ever happened on Ostrich Fern street.   How many ferns can you name?  Prior to the hike, I could name two ferns.   It should be noted that the social importance of ferns is variable.  In Victorian times, there was a fern craze wherein people wanted potted and garden ferns and made use of fern motifs in designs.  However, today most people don’t yearn for ferns.

Because we aren’t naturalists or trained in botany, we entered the hike as blank slates when it comes to ferns.  I have a bit more history in studying plants, so I know that ferns are ancient and reproduce with spores, but I don’t have much knowledge about ferns.  In a way, this made the hike very exciting.  As we hiked, Joe asked us to identify the ferns and make observations about them.  This was difficult because we lacked the cognitive schema to make such observations.  For instance, when looking at a fern, what do you look for?  For most things in life, we have some cognitive schema.  For instance, when looking at a human we classify them according to race, gender, class, ability, etc.  This is because (for better and for worse…and mostly worse) we are socialized to put people into categories.  These categories have power and impact how we relate to these other humans.  When looking at a fern, we have no such cognitive schema.  So, Joe had to prompt us to look at such things as the shape and size of the leaves, which direction they pointed, the color of the spores under the leaves, where the fern was growing, the size of the fern, the shape of the fern, the coil of a fiddlehead, and other details that would otherwise go unnoticed.  We used magnifiers to look at the coloration of teeth along a stalk of horsetails to determine which species we were looking at.  I had to look at several specimens, as it was hard to determine if the teeth were black or if they had a white outline.  There is enough variation within a species that these subtle details may make it hard to identify the plant.  So, in botany, a population is looked at and generalizations are made (ignoring the diversity between specimens).  In this same way, we are trained to “see” race or gender.  We categorize broadly.  The difference is that there is little social power in classifying horsetails.

It was fascinating to be socialized into naturalism.  During the hike, our world view had to change.  We couldn’t simply walk and passively enjoy nature.  We had to actively look at nature.  We were trained how to look at nature in a particular way.  We were given new language and new cognitive schema.  I have never really paid attention to ferns.  They are sort of the background plants of a forest.  During the hike, I saw tiny ferns that depended upon a certain fungus to grow (botrychium).  There were ferns that grew on rocky surfaces (fragile ferns).  There was a fern that looked like a gnome’s beach chair (beech fern).  We were told that we were looking at the fern equivalent of an old growth forest.  Never before had I appreciated the beauty and diversity of ferns.  Of course, like any socialization process, there are also rules, language, and behaviors to learn.  For instance, we learned about lichens and how to classify them based upon their physical characteristics (crustose-crusty flat lichen, foliose-like a leaf, fruticose-like a little tree).  We were taught how to identify major characteristics of plants and use these with a plant field guide.  We were taught only to eat the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns.

I was struck by all of the things that go unnoticed.  We saw a tiny orchid (Rattlesnake Plantain) which was so small and shy it would have easily been overlooked.  A patchwork of lichen-each an entire ecosystem- is tread across without notice.  Reindeer lichen flourished like a foamy green forest.  There are no caribou to eat it.  We searched for some arctic remnants (Hudson Bay Eyebright and butterwort) but didn’t find any.  These plants survived the retreat of last ice age and have been too far south for 10,000 years!  They survive because of the Lake Superior microclimate that is just cool enough to keep them alive.  This is so fragile and precious!  Climate change could so easily destroy this little botanical time capsule from glaciation.

As adults, it is hard to find that sense of wonder in nature or in general.  I have found that aging tends to lead me towards more disenchantment with the world and more broken narratives.  I am unable to believe the things I once believed.  But today I felt like a child playing in nature.  I felt wonderfully privileged to learn about nature with the guidance of the naturalists.  This knowledge is invaluable.   It is also humbling.  Ferns have been on earth for 360 million years.  They have silently survived the extinction of dinosaurs, giant amphibians, trilobites, and ammonites.  Maybe they will survive our extinction and the death we spread across the planet.

Best Man Speech

Here is the speech I did for Mike at his wedding:

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According to scientific estimates, the universe is 13.8 billion years old.  Not only is it unfathomably old, it is incomprehensibly large with a 92 billion light year observable diameter.  It is hard to see our place in such a seemingly infinite expanse of time and space.  To make it easier to understand, scientists have sought to condense this time scale into something familiar, like a yearly calendar.  One method that I’ve seen and liked is condensing this time into the span of a human life.  On average, humans live about 80 years.  That is, we travel around the sun 80 times.  We’re traveling pretty quickly too!  We’re going around the sun at about 18.5 miles per second.  It is kind of crazy to think that by the time I am done with the speech, we will have traveled 5,550 miles.  That means, by the time I am done, we could have traveled between Russia’s easternmost territories in the Kirill Islands near Japan to its western most by in Gdansk by Poland.

Once again, space and time are hard to imagine, but a human life span makes it more understandable. With that said, let’s suppose that the universe is a human.  This human was born and will one day die.  Now, to scale everything to human life, we have to think big.  We count our years in terms of our voyage around the sun, but the sun itself makes a 230 million year revolution around the Milky Way.  This trip is called a galactic year.  So, I am going to count the years in galactic years, which are, well 230 million times greater than our human years.  Okay, so if you are following me, the universe is currently 61 galactic years old.  That is, our sun has revolved around the Milky Way 61 times.  In our 61 galactic years of life, the earth was born when the universe was about 43 years old.  So, the universe was pretty old by the time Earth was born, but hey, people are having children in the 40s much more often now.  At about 46 years old, the first life appeared on earth.  At about 54 years old, multicellular life appeared on earth.  You can see that for much of the universe’s 61 years, Earth and life just weren’t around.  About 12 months ago dinosaurs appeared, but they went extinct about 4 months ago. Humans didn’t even appear on the scene until 8 hours ago.  15 minutes ago writing was invented, which is helpful since I needed to write this speech out.  One minute ago, modern science was invented, which is also pretty useful, since it has given me something to talk about.  A whole human lifespan of about 80 years, is really only 10 seconds in galactic time.  In galactic time, I have known Mike for less than a second and a half.  And, if I was convert this speech from human time of 5 minutes to a galactic time of 5 min, 2000 human years would have passed.  The point is not to remember all of this, but to realize that our lives are very small in the scale of the universe.   We are alone and small in a universe that will one day end in a cataclysm of expansion and cold.

With that said, how do we survive existential depression?  Many people have many ways of dealing with this problem, but something that has sustained humanity for centuries is connection.  When we are barreling around the sun at 1,000 miles per minute, we need something to hold on to.  We need family, friends, partners, comrades, and community.  This is why we are here today.  We are here for Mike and Sonia, to celebrate their commitment to one another and the idea that we should stand with one another.  When we are sick, when society is sick, when we see people in need, we must stand together.  We must stand for love and human connection.  We must see the injuries to others as injuries to ourselves.  We must work together to make our short existence in this world better.  We must elevate each other and elevate this world above the problems that weigh us down and keep us apart.  All we have are connections.  All we have is this brief flash in the pan in a big, old indifferent universe.  We have 10 short seconds to leave the world a better place and to make our mark in the history of time and space!

When I set out to write a speech, I wanted to write about the big picture.  I wanted to write about love, but many kinds of love.  While the wedding celebrates romantic love, it also celebrates the love of friends and family and community.  That is what makes these kinds of events so astonishing.  Never again will you be in this place… at this time…with these people.  This place is alive with the love of the diverse people who have been a part of Mike and Sonia’s lives, many of whom may never meet again.  Our only commonality is shared love and connection.   I am deeply happy to count Mike as a friend.  Friendship is precious.  I hope Mike and Sonia the best in their future.  I hope they are deeply happy.  I hope that their connection and solidarity helps them tackle the challenges they face as individuals, but I also hope energizes them in their work to make the world a better place.  Above all else, I hope they never again feel alone in the universe.

Open Minded Skepticism

I have observed that fellow atheists often make the mistake of idealizing science.  I have made this mistake myself.  I would describe the typical attitude of atheists as quite positive toward science.  In this view, science has brought us many wonderful inventions and life saving forms of knowledge.  Science has allowed us to understand the patterns of our universe, making sense of rules and events that were otherwise baffling to ancient societies.  Superstition, by contrast, has resulted in the repression of ideas and the oppression of people, social conservativism, and all around backwardness.  In this dichotomy then, skepticism and science are good and superstition and religion is bad.

If there is one lesson I have learned in life, it is to avoid idealizing anything.  So it is with science and skepticism. Surely science has resulted in some wonderful accomplishments.  One area is in medicine, where we have many treatments and cures.  Our ability to systemize information and knowledge on the basis of such things as predictability, testability, reliability, and validity  is useful in rendering reality more comprehisible by a greater number of people.  Then what is my gripe with science?  My only gripe is that it should be treated as an instrument.  Now, it should not be treated as an instrument that is neutral, but one that was largely developed by European men and which exists within the superstructure of capitalist patriarchal society.  This means that science is not neutral nor is it good, but as with all things in this superstructure, imbued with power.  Sometimes the power is terrible and obvious, such a infecting African Americans with syphillis or the devotion of resources to the development atomic weapons.  Other times it is less obvious, such as the silencing and debunking of traditional knowledge.

I am going to address the less obvious way that power operates through science.  Now, when I was younger…say in my early 20s, I was put off by feminism.   I thought it was a bunch of emotional women who embraced superstitious nonsense like homebirth, spirituality, and the feminine divine.  I want my feminism to be rational and masculine, damn it.  A skeptical person may approach those ideas as silly.  Afterall, why birth at home when it is cleaner and safer at a hospital?  Why not reject ALL divine and ALL spirituality?  Obviously, I now know that these were forms of resistance.  Women have felt alienated from medical institutions that have treated pregnancy like a disease.  Women have felt disconnected from a male God.  Women have wanted to mediate their own spiritual lives.  So, there is a logic to what may at first glance be irrational.

Of course, it is not good to idealize this either.  There are many people who feel disenchanted with medical science.  Can you blame them?  It is expensive, treatments can have harsh side effects, the experience is sterile and impersonal….the list goes on.  As an alternative, people  may turn to aromatherapy, accupuncture, prayer, magnets, copper, or hundreds of other things.  The problem is that some alternatives can be fraudlent money sink, harmful, or just plain ineffective.  This is where skepticism  can be useful.

What should be done?  I myself am trying to be an open-minded skeptic.  To me, this means that I try not to dismiss the knowledge and experiences of others, even if they are not scientific.  This is hard.  There are some things that truly annoy me.  It truly annoys me that perfectly intelligent people believe in ridiculous things such as ghosts or astrology, for instance.  It truly annoys me that many of the non-conformists who left Christianity go on to embrace dumb spiritual stuff.  Those are my true thoughts.  But hey, I am trying to grow.  A first step in this open-minded skepticism is looking for power.  For example, when I assert something such as…Native Americans came to the Americas 13,000 years ago and killed all of the mega fauna, I may be following the dominant line I was taught growing up…but, I am dismissing the knowledge and experiences of Native American people.  Also, when I say this, the story ends there.  Am I an expert on this story?  Am I an anthropologist who has carbon dated artifacts?  Has this matter been definitely settled?  Science is never settled.  I don’t feel I have to give credence to every idea…such as the belief that evolution doesn’t exist or that lizard people rule the world.  However, I can still empathize with how the person who believes such things may feel disempowered.  Beyond looking for power, breaking down the science and tradition dichotomy is also important.  There are traditional healing practices that have been adopted by medicine.  For instance, a yam in Mexico inspired the first oral contraceptives.  A plant used in Papua New Guinea has been used to develop male oral contraceptives.  Lavendar, which has been used in aromatherapy, has been found by an Australian university study to have a calming effect which is evidenced by brain scans.  Many medicines originate with plants, so dismissing traditional knowledge as unscientific fails to note how this knowledge was tested and systemized over time.  It also fails to give credit to the discoveries of poor people, people of color, and women.  Breaking down the veil between the two can benefit science by allowing more ideas and knowledge to be tested.  On the other hand, if proponents of science take a softer, more culturally sensitive approach, people may feel less alienated by science and more invited to partake in it.

At the end of the day, we do many things each day that are not particularly scientific or skeptical.  When we order a pizza, we usually don’t confer with an expert on pizzas or read a scholarly article about pizza.  When we watch television, we may confer with friends, but generally, this is not a scientific endeavor.  There are some benefits from this.  When we search out experiences on our own, without asking an expert or utilizing an institution, we are able to construct our own knowledge.  While this is somewhat limited, as we live in a social world and have many predispositions, the degree to which we discover on our own is a degree to which we are free of institutions that seek to discover for us.  There is risk in discovery.  Leaving some things to the experts is fine.  I would rather not discover how to fix my own car….only to find that I am grossly incompetent and have rendered it unfixable.  Still, sometimes the lessons we learn from discovery are meaningful and long lasting.  Anyone could have told me credit cards = bad.  However, there is nothing quite like experiencing it myself to learn a lifelong lesson.  In any event, unless everything that we do is also deliberate, scientific, and rational, we are all in some ways…sloppy thinkers.  With that said, I would implore atheists not to idealize science, to look for power, be humane to people who believe differently, and to accept that there is power in discovery.

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