Article of the Day: August 11, 2019–Sister Helen’s Journey

I haven’t posted much lately due to a few health problems which I think are mostly cleared up now. This article from The New York Times interests me because I have been an opponent of the death penalty for many years. I believe my opposition grows out of the influence of Jesus Christ in my life. My relationship with Him has been a corrective to many of the “natural” inclinations of my human heart. For example, having grown up in a segregated and prejudiced society, it was “natural” for me to be a racist. However, while I believe that I have racist tendencies deeply ingrained in my being, I strive not to be racist.

In the same way I am “naturally” inclined to be vengeful. When I hear of the hateful things that people do to one another, I want to take revenge. However, I believe that Jesus has directed us to a better way, the way of forgiveness. This “unnatural” idea rings true to me because I believe that vengeance is harmful to the one–or to the society–that seeks revenge. For me, the death penalty encourages us in the wrong direction.

Whatever your point of view, I think you will enjoy reading about Sister Helen.

Sister Helen Prejean Explains It All for You

By Penelope GreenMay 31, 2019

NEW ORLEANS — Thirty-five years ago, when Sister Helen Prejean was in the death house at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola waiting to witness the execution by electrocution of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the guard in charge asked her, “What’s a nun doing in a place like this?”

“Dead Man Walking,” her harrowing 1993 book about her experiences on death row, was one answer. In it, she writes of how she became a pen pal and spiritual adviser to Mr. Sonnier, who had been convicted, with his brother, of killing a teenage couple parked on a lover’s lane after raping the girl. 

Sister Helen described her horror at the barbaric crime and at its barbaric consequences, her stumbles with the victims’ families and her education into the injustices of the death penalty and death penalty convictions. Her conversion to activism would in time make her one of the country’s best-known death penalty abolitionists, and maybe its most famous nun. 

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On a coffee table: letters from prisoners; a photo of Sister Helen with Kerry Lyn Dalton, who is on death row in California, and the script for the “Dead Man Walking” School Theatre Project, an educational program designed by Tim Robbins and Sister Helen.
On a coffee table: letters from prisoners; a photo of Sister Helen with Kerry Lyn Dalton, who is on death row in California, and the script for the “Dead Man Walking” School Theatre Project, an educational program designed by Tim Robbins and Sister Helen.William Widmer for The New York Times

The book was a New York Times best seller, and then a movie, an opera (with a libretto by Terrence McNally) and an educational program. The film, out in 1995 and made by Tim Robbins, starred Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as the death row inmate. Ms. Sarandon won an Oscar, wearing a coppery Dolce & Gabbana gown to the ceremony. 

Sister Helen, who had shed the habit in the late 1960s (as many nuns did post-Vatican II; the ecumenical council began in the early ’60s to modernize church practices), wore a black top and a long flowered skirt she borrowed from a friend. What would the nun wear? was big news at the time, Sister Helen recalled. 

On a recent July day she was in a white polo shirt printed with sprigs of flowers, khaki-green denim pants and wedge sandals, greeting a reporter to discuss her new book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” out on Aug. 13, a memoir of her life up until the moment she began to correspond with Mr. Sonnier. 

In it, Sister Helen, who was raised in Baton Rouge and is of French Cajun descent, tells how a precocious Catholic girl turned nun shed her cocoon of privilege long after the social revolutions of the 1960s and the attendant reformations and renovations of Vatican II transformed many sisters into social justice activists.

“Don’t hold your breath,” she writes. “It’s going to take a while.”

But being a nun has always been a radical act. What’s more counterculture, Sister Helen said, than joining a convent?

‘Catholic Prozac’

Sister Helen, bane of prosecutors, was settled into a recliner topped with a lace antimacassar stitched with her last name, having moved papers, letters and her journal out of the way. With short, bushy brown hair, big round glasses and a luxurious Louisiana way with vowels, she looked about 65, though she turned 80 in April. 

Photos on the fridge include Sister Helen and her brother, Louis Prejean Jr., center left.
Photos on the fridge include Sister Helen and her brother, Louis Prejean Jr., center left.William Widmer for The New York Times
A print of Fra Angelica’s “Annunciation” is a touchstone for the nun. “There’s this thing of how you discern God’s will in your life,” Sister Helen said. “Or how your boat catches a wave and you begin to ride the current.”
A print of Fra Angelica’s “Annunciation” is a touchstone for the nun. “There’s this thing of how you discern God’s will in your life,” Sister Helen said. “Or how your boat catches a wave and you begin to ride the current.”William Widmer for The New York Times

She lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment, a few blocks from the fairgrounds in New Orleans, running her organization, the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, from the apartment next door. 

The staff of five includes Sister Margaret Maggio, an old friend who is also in Sister Helen’s order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Rose Vines, an Australian writer, activist and atheist. There are debates on cosmology and quantum physics over scotch (Sister Helen) and gin and tonics (Ms. Vines).

A framed print of Fra Angelica’s “Annunciation” hangs over Sister Prejean’s computer monitor, taped to which is a photo of Dzhokhar Anzorovich Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber of the Boston Marathon, printed with the words “Pray for Dzhokhar.” 

In 2015, after meeting with him five times at his lawyers’ request, Sister Helen testified on his behalf. The prosecution had fought hard to keep her off the stand, and attacked her testimony as being biased. “I presented him as human being,” she said. Nonetheless, the jury returned a death sentence. 

In the bathroom, there was a quiz deck of landmark American Civil Liberties Union cases.

“Here’s the spark at the heart of all this,” she said. “The big annunciation” — she nodded at her Fra Angelica print — “was writing a man on death row and witnessing his execution. When I walked out of that execution chamber, all this was new to me. I didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system. I love to quote what Tim Robbins said: ‘The nun was in over her head.’ Back then I didn’t know anything.”

Sister Helen grew up in an affectionate Catholic family. Her father was a lawyer; her mother, a nurse. They loved language, drawing on both Roget’s Thesaurus and Groucho Marx — and the Virgin Mary. On family trips, the family of five said three rosaries a day, as Sister Helen writes, “surefire Catholic Prozac for three squabbling kids in the back seat.” 

In eighth grade, she declared she would grow up either to be pope or president. She was curious about romantic love, but had ambitions outside of marriage and children. She was 18 when she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, an order begun in France in 1650 with a particular mission for the education of girls.

She was a scrappy, mouthy novitiate, often in trouble. Bounding out of the family station wagon on the day she joined the convent, she announced, “I’m here! I’m here to become a bride of Christ!’”

And she was wildly competitive, once practicing the down-turned gaze meant to indicate modesty so zealously that she knocked down another nun. 

Convent life wasn’t all rosaries and penances. When she and 13 other nuns in her community vacationed on an island off the Gulf Coast, they surfed in inner tubes and scarfed boiled crabs and cold beer. They listened to “West Side Story” and dissolved in tears.

On the first day of that vacation, an ethical dilemma presented itself: Before a trip to the beach, should they take off their habits in their camp, or cross the public highway in full nun regalia, and divest in the sand? It took half an hour of discussion before someone pointed out that the image of 14 nuns undressing on a beach and leaving their habits in a big black heap would perhaps be too unsettling. Sister Helen at the keyboard. Sister Helen at the keyboard.William Widmer for The New York Times

Sister Helen read J.D. Salinger and Thomas Merton but was oblivious to the civil rights movement swelling around her, though she did learn to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on her guitar.

At a religious education program in Ontario, she met a young priest she calls William in the book, and they fell in love. Nuns and priests were experimenting with a relationship model called “the third way,” which was sort of like dating except the couples stayed celibate and true to their orders. 

“If this sounds confusing and tricky in the extreme,” she writes, “that’s because that’s exactly what it is.” William was not only smitten with Sister Helen, he was also jealous and controlling, as well as being an alcoholic. It took seven years for her to end the relationship.

Then came a nascent feminist awakening, as she examined the meaning of celibacy beyond biology. Attending to William’s emotional needs, she writes, had consumed more and more of her time and focus, competing with “the single-heartedness” that is the essence of her vocation. 

“Virginity is completely identified with sex,” she said, “what a person has not experienced. It’s that closed-off, puritanical kind of thing.” But Sister Helen’s practice of celibacy taught her that the Virgin archetype was something more radical. “It is the single-heartedness that is the integrity in one’s being,” she said, and then quoted Jean Shinoda Bolen, the Jungian author: “She does what she does, because what she does is true.” 

It is a state available to everyone, she writes, even politicians. “Although in the United States, the brokering of money and power in politics sets the ‘purity bar’ pretty high.” 

Sister Helen’s awareness of social justice came even later, when she attended a talk by an activist nun who noted that Jesus’ message about the poor is that they be poor no longer. That their fate was not God’s will, and that just praying for people was not enough. Social justice, the nun said, meant being involved in political processes, because doing nothing was tacit support for the status quo. 

What stung the most, Sister Helen said, “was the realization of how passive I had been.” A year later, she moved into Hope House, a Catholic service ministry in a New Orleans housing project. She was 42 years old. And a year after that, she would begin writing to a death row inmate.

“I had to break out of two cocoons,” she said. “One was the spiritual one that by praying you helped the world be a better place. And the other was white privilege because I was taken care of in every way. Nuns were held in great regard. We could ride the buses free. If we went to a restaurant, someone would pay the bill. I didn’t know any poor people. I didn’t know that right down the street from the convent where I was living, in the New Orleans suburbs by the lake, were 10 major housing projects. You grow up in these envelopes. My good mama and daddy would say, ‘Now honey, it’s better for the races not to mix.’ I didn’t know booscat!”

Her family was always supportive, though often her work and her eventual celebrity made for complications. There was the time her brother, Louis Prejean Jr., befriended Antonin Scalia, the late conservative Supreme Court Justice, at a wedding, and began to take him duck hunting. When the movie “Dead Man Walking” was about to come out, Mr. Prejean proudly told the justice that his sister was going to be played by Ms. Sarandon.

As Sister Helen remembered, “Scalia says to him, ‘Just what we need. Another liberal book being made into a liberal movie.’ And Louie says, ‘Sis, I don’t think he’s too excited about your movie so I’m not going to bring it up anymore.’”

Justice Scalia was an ardent supporter of the death penalty, a position that still confounds Sister Helen. “Human beings’ ability to compartmentalize is truly an amazing thing,” she said. “The way Scalia said, ‘As a justice, I must leave my Catholic faith at the door and follow the Constitution,’ as if the moral imperative to be compassionate and forgive doesn’t give you a perspective when you look at equal justice under the law.”

“Thomas Merton,” she added, “said the end of the world will be legal.”

‘God’s Will’

Sister Helen has witnessed six executions since she watched Mr. Sonnier die in 1984. The second to last death was Dobie Gillis Williams, an African-American man with an IQ of 65, charged in the horrific murder of a Louisiana woman. “With an all-white jury,” she said, “he didn’t have a chance.” 

That was in 1999. Since then, she has been visiting Manuel Ortiz, who is also on death row in Angola, convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife for her insurance. Sister Helen and others believe that he is innocent. The drive from New Orleans to Angola is two and a half hours, and Sister Helen has done it so often, she said, “my body knows the way.”

Ms. Sarandon has also made the trip more than once, most recently to visit Mr. Ortiz with Sister Helen in late February. Theirs has been a long friendship and collaboration; at one point, the nun had her own bedroom in Ms. Sarandon’s New York apartment. 

“She’s been a great mentor and a great friend,” Ms. Sarandon said. “Somebody who always makes me laugh. One of the mistakes people make is thinking that everyone who does this kind of work is really a bore. A Debbie Downer. But Helen is really fun. She is always on a mission to learn. She keeps her heart and her mind open.” 

It took seven years to write “River of Fire.” Gloria Loomis, Sister Helen’s longtime literary agent, had been pressing the nun to tell her story for some time, but she was always on the road. 

She travels three-quarters of the year, and has spoken in all 50 states. She makes a silent retreat every year at the Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, Thomas Merton’s community, and she has been awarded 65 or so (no one is quite sure) honorary degrees, the most recent being a doctorate in divinity from Yale this spring. Her colleague Sister Margaret described her as a hurricane. 

It’s a far different life than one lived in a cloister, though Sister Helen said that she considered that path for one weekend in high school. (Ms. Sarandon said, “You can imagine how crazy Helen would have been in a cloister.”)

“There’s this thing of how you discern God’s will in your life,” Sister Helen said. “Or how your boat catches a wave and you begin to ride the current. There’s different ways of talking about it.” These Millennials Got New Roommates. They’re Nuns.A project called Nuns and Nones moved religion-free millennials into a convent.

Randy Hoover-DempseyLearning More Every Day

Article of the Day: August 1, 2019, A Wing and a Prayer

My daughter and I were flying back home from North Carolina. Things had started out well. It was a clear day and we saw much of the beauty of my home state as we travelled. As the Great Smokey Mountains passed below us, we began to be jostled about by a cold front that was marching from Tennessee toward the Atlantic beaches. Jostling turned to pummeling as we held onto our seat harnesses to keep from banging our heads on the windows of the plane. Many of us have experienced a difficult flight or two, but this flight was becoming increasingly problematic, the primary problem being that I was the pilot.

The wind and the shaking continued throughout the trip, and, after five hours in the air, I was relieved to be lined up for a direct approach to runway 2 at Nashville’s John C. Tune airport. Just as we were about to touch down on the welcoming asphalt a gust of wind picked up the plane and slammed us into the ground. We rebounded from the runway, hit the pavement again and then bounced higher into the air. Often in a situation like this a plane eventually lands nose first. This is not good for passengers or for the aircraft.

I heard myself pray aloud, “Jesus, help us!”, pushed the throttle to full power, and we muddled around the landing pattern one more time and landed uneventfully.

“Jesus, help us.” I’m not saying that my prayer was the cause of our successful landing, but I’m not saying it wasn’t. Actually, I prayed before the trip began for a safe journey. In fact, I pray a lot; especially when I’m troubled. However, I also go through periods of time when I forget to pray. Our plane trip can be seen as a metaphor for life. Sometimes prayer is reserved for periods of difficulty and stress. What part should prayer take in the life of a disciple? How should we pray? How can our church family be encouraged to pray?

One thing that is clear is that Jesus intends for His disciples to pray. The most obvious indication of this truth is His teaching about The Lord’s Prayer. A second indication is the example Jesus set. The New Testament records 25 times Jesus prayed. We can probably all agree that prayer is indeed an important part of the Christian life.

Father Wesley and I have been talking—and praying–about these things over the past few weeks. We want to offer our church family an opportunity to experiment with ways of praying that may be new to some of us. Beginning on Wednesday, August 7, we will offer a 6:00 PM service which will consist of The Holy Eucharist and a time of community prayer. (In other words you will not need to listen to a mid-week sermon.) During the time of prayer, we will be learning to use new prayer practices. At our first meeting we will use Anglican prayer beads to facilitate our practice. This service will last about 45 minutes.

When we pray we are participating in a mystery. One way to think of prayer is that it is the means by which the resources of heaven are applied to the things of earth. I don’t know about you, but I want all the help that God can offer!

Article of the Day: July 27, 2010

This college dropout was bedridden for 11 years. Then he invented a surgery and cured himself

02 doug_lindsay_1

By Ryan Prior, CNN

Updated 3:18 AM ET, Sat July 27, 2019

(CNN) — Doug Lindsay was 21 and starting his senior year at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit college in Kansas City, Missouri, when his world imploded.

After his first day of classes, the biology major collapsed at home on the dining room table, the room spinning around him.

It was 1999. The symptoms soon became intense and untreatable. His heart would race, he felt weak and he frequently got dizzy. Lindsay could walk only about 50 feet at a time and couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes. 

“Even lying on the floor didn’t feel like it was low enough,” he said.

The former high school track athlete had dreamed of becoming a biochemistry professor or maybe a writer for “The Simpsons.”

Instead, he would spend the next 11 years mostly confined to a hospital bed in his living room in St. Louis, hamstrung by a mysterious ailment.

Doctors were baffled. Treatments didn’t help. And Lindsay eventually realized that if he wanted his life back, he would have to do it himself.

Today Lindsay tells his remarkable story to audiences around the country, including at a TEDx event in St. Louis.

His journey since has amazed medical professionals.

“He did something extraordinary,” said John Novack, spokesman for Inspire, a healthcare social network for rare and chronic-disease patients. When people hear Lindsay’s story, Novack said, they often say, “I can do something similar for my kid.”

His mother was a living prophecy

Whatever was wrong with him ran in the family.

By the time Lindsay was 18 months old, his mother was so weak she could no longer pick him up.

By the time he was 4 she could no longer walk. She did manage to pick him up one more time that year, when he was choking on a jawbreaker. She saved his life.

Otherwise, she was too frail. She lived for decades, mostly bedridden with the same condition that stole her son’s twenties. After years of tests, she determined her condition was related to her thyroid, but she was too sick to travel to the Mayo Clinic to get more specialized care, Lindsay said.

Lindsay’s aunt also developed the same ailment, growing so feeble she couldn’t tie her own shoes.

Rockhurst University in Kansas City, where Lindsay was a student before a mysterious illness forced him to drop out in 1999.

As a teenager, watching his family members sidelined from life, Lindsay wondered whether his body was a ticking time bomb, too.

Finally, that day in 1999, the alarm went off.

“When I called my mom that night to tell her I needed to drop out (of college), we both knew,” he said. The family curse had struck.

He found answers in discarded medical textbooks

From the fall of 1999 onward, Lindsay was bedridden about 22 hours a day.

“If I was up, it was because I was eating or going to the bathroom,” he said.

Lindsay immersed himself in medical research, determined to find a way out. He saw specialists from endocrinology, neurology, internal medicine and other specialties. When one doctor was out of ideas, he referred Lindsay to a psychiatrist.

That’s when Lindsay he realized he’d have to figure his predicament out on his own.

While in college he had picked up a 2,200-page endocrinology textbook near a garbage can, hoping to use it to figure out what condition his mom had. In it, he found an important passage discussing how adrenal disorders could mirror thyroid disorders.

By the time he was 19, Lindsay was almost completely bedridden.

He zeroed in on his adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys on either side of the lower abdomen.

Using a stash of aging medical textbooks, Lindsay hypothesized that a whole class of autonomic nervous-system disorders could exist beyond the established categories of what most endocrinologists or neurologists knew about.

He cobbled together cash for a computer, had an old college roommate bring it over, and got to work.Lindsay soon stumbled on the website for the National Dysautonomic Research Foundation, delighted that an entire organization was dedicated to researching the type of disorder plaguing him and his family. He asked the foundation to send him literature about emerging research in the field.

None of the diseases the foundation was examining fit Lindsay’s pattern of symptoms. But he was getting closer.

He convinced a researcher who believed in him

Lindsay soon decided he needed a partner — not just a physician but a scientist curious enough to take on a rare case and spend long hours with him parsing it out.

The best place to find that person, he reasoned, was at the American Autonomic Society’s annual conference, attended by scientists from around the world who focused on nervous system disorders.

In 2002, he give a presentation about his disease at the group’s meeting in Hilton Head, South Carolina. To get there, Lindsay bought a row of airline tickets so that, with the help of friends, he could lay across several seats during the flight.

At a research conference, Lindsay tried to convince specialists he had a disease that didn't appear in their textbooks.

Lindsay arrived at the conference in a wheelchair, wearing a suit and tie, and presented himself as a Jesuit-trained scientist. He tried to comport himself like a grad student or a junior colleague to the scholars in the audience, not like a patient.

He was just a scientist living an experiment in his own body. During his talk, Lindsay argued that a certain drug might help him.

Several of the scientists disagreed with Lindsay’s hypotheses about his ailment. But that wasn’t unexpected. He didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree and he was telling doctors from Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health and the Cleveland Clinic something their medical training told them was impossible.

“They didn’t patronize me. They treated me like a scientist,” Lindsay said. “I was entering into a world of science I couldn’t participate in because I was at home and couldn’t be a grad student.”

Dr. H. Cecil Coghlan, a medical professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, approached Lindsay after his presentation. Coghlan said he thought Lindsay was on to something.

At last, Lindsay had a medical ally.

His first innovation was repurposing a drug

In early 2004, one of Lindsay’s friends rented an SUV, loaded a mattress in the back and drove him, lying flat, 500 miles to Birmingham.

Lindsay suspected his body was producing too much adrenaline. He knew of a drug called Levophed, which is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to raise blood pressure in some critically ill patients. Levophed is basically an injection of noradrenaline, which counters the symptoms created by excess adrenaline.

It hadn’t been done before, but Lindsay convinced Coghlan to repurpose the drug so he could live on a 24/7 noradrenaline drip for the next six years.

Lindsay spent “every second of every day” hooked up to an IV. It stabilized his condition and allowed him to be active for short periods of time around the house.

“I was no longer at risk of losing everything,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay's unique case caught the eye of Dr. Cecil Coghlan, who specialized in treating dysautonomia disorders.

Still, other than doctors’ visits, a high school reunion and a few weddings, Lindsay’s autonomic dysfunction kept him mostly confined to the house he grew up in well beyond his twenties.

Why was he so sick, he wondered? Something was dumping way too much adrenaline into his blood.

Coghlan told him he might have an adrenal tumor. But three scans of his adrenal glands all came back negative.

Discouraged but not deterred, Lindsay did the only thing he could do: He dove back into the medical literature. 

And he came up with a treasure.

Later he diagnosed a disorder doctors didn’t believe could exist

Lindsay suspected there might be something in his adrenal gland that acted like a tumor, but wasn’t one.

A fourth scan in 2006 showed his adrenals “glowing brightly,” Lindsay said, an abnormality consistent with his new theory.

Coghlan called Lindsay and said, “We found it!” The diagnosis: bilateral adrenal medullary hyperplasia.

In layman’s terms, it means the medullas, or inner regions, of his adrenal glands were enlarged and acting like tumors. His adrenal glands were producing way too much adrenaline.

Experts in the field doubted the diagnosis. But Coghlan put his professional reputation on the line to back it.

As Lindsay delved into more medical literature, he found only 32 recorded cases of bilateral adrenal medullary hyperplasia.

And he fixed on what seemed like a simple solution: If he could cut out the medullas of his adrenal glands — sort of like slicing into a hard-boiled egg and removing the yolk — his health would improve.

Dr. Chris Bauer, Lindsay’s personal physician, calls his ailment an “atypical presentation of a rare disease.”

“They don’t really write textbooks based on that,” Bauer said. “We were were all learning with Doug as we went along.”

Then he pioneered a new surgery

Lindsay finally came to a bold conclusion. “If there isn’t a surgery,” he decided, “I’m going to make one.”

His first big lead came in 2008. He found a 1980 study from a scientist at Georgia State University, which he summed up as: “You slice the rat’s adrenal gland with a razor blade and squeeze it so the medulla pops out like a pimple.”Then he found that another version of the adrenal medulla extraction had been done at Harvard. Renowned professor Walter Bradford Cannon had performed the surgery on cats in 1926. Lindsay found records of the surgery being done on dogs as well.

He built a 363-page PDF which proposed a first-ever human adrenal medullectomy.

Then he spent the next 18 months working to find a surgeon who would oversee the unorthodox procedure.

With a little help from his friends, Lindsay was able to travel to the University of Pennsylvania for a meeting of the Society for Amateur Scientists in 2002.

Pioneering a new surgery is a high-wire act for ethical and financial reasons as well. Surgeons could risk losing their license by performing an unproven operation, especially if complications arose. And insurance companies tend to not reimburse patients for non-standard procedures.

Because many of the doctors in that specialized field knew each other, Lindsay was careful where he pitched the idea that might save his life.

Eventually he recruited a surgeon from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. In September 2010 Lindsday went to the university hospital, where the doctor successfully extracted one of his adrenal medullas.

Three weeks after the procedure, Lindsay could sit upright for three hours. By Christmas Eve, he had the strength to walk a mile to church.

As he stood in the back of the church during midnight Mass, it finally felt like hope was winning.

But progress was slow. In 2012, he underwent a second surgery at Washington University in St. Louis to remove the medulla from his remaining adrenal gland.

A year later, he was well enough to fly with friends to the Bahamas. It was the first time in his life the Midwesterner had seen the ocean.

By early 2014, he was coming off some of his meds.

Coghlan, his champion, lived just long enough to see Lindsay’s remarkable recovery. He died in 2015.

Now he’s helping other rare-disease patients

Against the odds, Lindsay had found a way to save himself.

But his mother was too delicate to be moved to another facility, let alone endure the surgery her son pioneered. She died in 2016.

She didn’t get to see him walk across the stage to graduate that year from Rockhurst University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, 16 years after he originally expected to begin his career.

Lindsay is now 41 years old. Many of the friends with whom he planned to graduate are now married, with kids in grade school.

In 2017 Lindsay shared his story to graduates at his alma mater, De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis.

“You can’t recapture the past,” Lindsay said.

Today he still lives in his childhood home in St. Louis. He needs to take nine medications per day, and his health is far from perfect, but he has his life back.

He’s not exactly the biology professor he dreamed of being at 21, but he’s not far off the mark. He’s leveraging his experience into a new career as a medical consultant.

“I couldn’t be an assistant manager at Trader Joe’s. I don’t have the physical ability for that,” Lindsay said. “But I can travel and give speeches and go for walks. And I can try to change the world.”

Doctors are turning to him to help them identify and treat rare diseases like his own.

Lindsay now regularly speaks at healthcare conferences. "I got help from people," he says, "and now I have to help people."

“I’m a full professor at Stanford, and I don’t know these answers,” said Dr. Lawrence Chu, who found himself leaning on Lindsay when a rare disease patient came to him. “Doug was the expert consultant.”

Lindsay has spoken at medical schools, including Stanford and Harvard, and at a growing list of medical conferences. And he’s working on a case study to be published in the British Medical Journal.

With his gift for solving intractable problems, he hopes to help steer other patients with hard-to-treat diseases on a path toward wholeness.

“I got help from people,” he said, “and now I have to help people.”

Confession of Faith for the Day: July 4, 2019

The following is a statement of faith drawn up by a number of leaders in the broader Christian community, including our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. No matter how you think about the document, the confession is a reminder that we Christians have a Messiah who is Jesus Christ. Jesus is God with Us, and Jesus is our leader.

We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

It is often the duty of Christian leaders, especially elders, to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God.

This letter comes from a retreat on Ash Wednesday, 2018. In this season of Lent, we feel deep lamentations for the state of our nation, and our own hearts are filled with confession for the sins we feel called to address. The true meaning of the word repentance is to turn around. It is time to lament, confess, repent, and turn. In times of crisis, the church has historically learned to return to Jesus Christ.

Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.

The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.

What we believe leads us to what we must reject. Our “Yes” is the foundation for our “No.” What we confess as our faith leads to what we confront. Therefore, we offer the following six affirmations of what we believe, and the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith. We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis.

I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We, as followers of Jesus, must clearly reject the use of racial bigotry for political gain that we have seen. In the face of such bigotry, silence is complicity. In particular, we reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. Further, any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fears, or language must be named as public sin—one that goes back to the foundation of our nation and lingers on. Racial bigotry must be antithetical for those belonging to the body of Christ, because it denies the truth of the gospel we profess.

II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God. We lament when such practices seem publicly ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and churches. We support the courageous truth-telling voices of women, who have helped the nation recognize these abuses. We confess sexism as a sin, requiring our repentance and resistance.

III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets, and we need to remind our churches that God makes the treatment of the “strangers” among us a test of faith (Leviticus 19:33-34). We won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children, and we will resist repeated attempts to deny health care to those who most need it. We confess our growing national sin of putting the rich over the poor. We reject the immoral logic of cutting services and programs for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich. Budgets are moral documents. We commit ourselves to opposing and reversing those policies and finding solutions that reflect the wisdom of people from different political parties and philosophies to seek the common good. Protecting the poor is a central commitment of Christian discipleship, to which 2,000 verses in the Bible attest.

IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.

V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger that threatens democracy and the common good—and we will resist it. Disrespect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of our three branches of government, and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility toward opponents are of great concern to us. Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority.

VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.

WE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED for the soul of our nation, but also for our churches and the integrity of our faith. The present crisis calls us to go deeper—deeper into our relationship to God; deeper into our relationships with each other, especially across racial, ethnic, and national lines; deeper into our relationships with the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk.

The church is always subject to temptations to power, to cultural conformity, and to racial, class, and gender divides, as Galatians 3:28 teaches us. But our answer is to be “in Christ,” and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add “no exceptions.”

We commend this letter to pastors, local churches, and young people who are watching and waiting to see what the churches will say and do at such a time as this.

Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

  • Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, President and CEO, Global Alliance Interfaith Network
  • Rev. Dr. Peter Borgdorff, Executive Director Emeritus, Christian Reformed Church in North America
  • Dr. Amos Brown, Chair, Social Justice Commission, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
  • Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Tony Campolo, Co-Founder, Red Letter Christians
  • Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
  • The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
  • Rev. Dr. James Forbes, President and Founder, Healing of the Nations Foundation and Preaching Professor at Union Theological Seminary
  • Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus, Reformed Church in America
  • Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Christian Church, Decatur, GA
  • Rev. Dr. Richard Hamm, former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Faith Community Organizer and Chairman, Community Resource Network
  • Rev. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emerita, The Wesleyan Church
  • Bishop Vashti McKenzie, 117th Elected and Consecrated Bishop, AME Church
  • Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., Co-Convener National African American Clergy Network
  • Dr. John Perkins, Chair Emeritus and Founding Member, Christian Community Development Association and President Emeritus, John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation
  • Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Fr. Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation
  • Dr. Ron Sider, President Emeritus, Evangelicals for Social Action
  • Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners
  • Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, Director, NCC Truth and Racial Justice Initiative
  • Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network; President, Skinner Leadership Institute
  • Bishop Will Willimon, Bishop, The United Methodist Church, retired, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School

Political Philosophy of the Day: June 27, 2019

Where to start? Let the light in, that’s where I’d start. By that I mean that, in a government of “We the people…”, we the people need to know what is going on. Why should the people who represent us have access to information that we don’t have? Why should people doing public work have meetings that are closed to us? Why should information be classified and withheld from us? Why should our government be doing things in secret? How can we make informed judgments when we are uninformed.

One thing that history teaches us is that the people in positions of leadership can be as ignorant and misguided as any of us. We have elected them to do our business, and we should keep a close eye on them as they do it. For those of us who lived through the sorry mess of the Vietnamese war and for all of us who have watched the quagmires and debacles of the variety of military operations since then, does anyone doubt that “ordinary” citizens could have made better choices than many of those that have been made by our political leadership—whatever the party! And how many of those decisions have been made in secret? And how many of those decisions have been justified with lies and deceptions?

Free and public debate about all issues should be at the heart of our representative democracy. Access to information about what our government does should be open to all.


Political Philosophy of the Day: June 25, 2019

My favorite and most remembered college course was in political science during summer school. In the course we constructed a country from the ground up, inventing the necessary elements beginning with a name and continuing with everything else that came to mind—governmental structure, monetary system, et cetera. You get the idea. I liked it because we worked cooperatively, got to think creatively, and the course did not require a lot of outside preparation. After all, it was summer school!

I am going to attempt to recreate a portion of this course on my website, We are living in a time in which our political system is not working too well. Oregon is a good example in which Republican legislators have fled the state in order to deny Democrats a quorum and inhibit the passage of legislation. Depending on your political point of view, this is a brilliant strategy or a violation of duty by scoundrels. I want to invite you to leave all that behind and think creatively in a mini-community.

Given our current governmental structure (read The Constitution if you are unsure what this is, what changes would you make in our current system to see that our government works most effectively. I’ll write a beginning post, which you are free to critique. In the comment section you can make your response or start a completely new idea. Let’s give it a try.

Article of the Day: June 17, 2019, How to be a Logical Person

This article is about ad hominem attacks. I don’t know who the author is but he publishes a blog called Here is how he describes himself: “Because of the vitriol and ad hominem assaults that tend to get hurled at people who take a public stand on these issues, I am disinclined to post much in the way of person details. So I will simply summarize by stating that I have both a B.S. and M.S. in biology, and I am currently working on my Ph.D. I have almost a decade of research experience, and I have published multiple peer-reviewed papers, served as a reviewer for several journals, and presented my research at national, professional conferences. Additionally, I have taught biology as an adjunct professor at a local college. Really though, all that you need to know about me is that I prize logical thought and a careful, rational understanding of the world around us above all else, and this blog is my attempt help people understand both logic and science.

Note: the pseudonym under which I am writing this blog (i.e., Fallacy Man) is a moniker that I adopted based on a character in the hilarious and educational online comic strip, Existential Comics.”


1. Who do you know that lies in order to manipulate you?

2. How do you distinguish lies from truths?

3. What are the social consequences of having political leaders who constantly lie?

Stop accusing me of ad hominem fallacies you stupid idiots

Ad hominem fallacies are among the most common logical fallacies, but they are also among the most misunderstood. Indeed, I often see people falsely accusing their opponent of committing an ad hominem fallacy. Therefore, I am going to explain how this fallacy actually works and give you some basic tools to identify it. There are two fundamental points that you need to understand, and I will elaborate on them throughout this post. First, in order for an argument to be ad hominem, it has to actually attack its opponent. Second, not all ad hominem attacks are ad hominem fallacies.

Defining “ad hominem”

“Ad hominem” is Latin for “to the man” or “to the person,” and it simply occurs anytime that you attack your opponent. This is very, very important. In order for an argument to be ad hominem it has to verbally assault its opponent. So, attacks against a person’s intelligence, race, gender, appearance, morality, etc. all count as ad hominem, but attacks against a person’s argument are not ad hominem (even if they are written in a hostile style). This seems very simple, and indeed it is, but somehow, people continuously mess this up and take criticisms of their arguments personally. For example, in a recent debate with someone who opposed GMOs, I asked them to show me their sources, and they responded with a link to an opinion piece written for an online news outlet. When I explained to them that their link was not a valid source of scientific information and was irrelevant to the debate, they responded by accusing me of committing an ad hominem fallacy.

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asking someone for their sources is not ad hominem

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David G. McAfee

Indeed, this is a frequent occurrence. I try really hard to avoid ad hominem attacks on this blog, and you will rarely see me call someone an “idiot,” “moron,” etc.  Nevertheless, I constantly get accused of ad hominem fallacies, and I see this occurring on other pro-science pages as well. So I want to be explicitly clear about this: pointing out a problem in an opponent’s argument, asking for their sources, criticizing their sources, etc. does not count as ad hominem. You cannot accuse someone of an ad hominem fallacy just because they disagreed with you. Unless they actually attacked you or the authors of your sources, they did not make an ad hominem argument.

Daniel Moyniham quote everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own factsWhile we are going down this road, it’s worth mentioning that the same rules apply to “bullying,” “being rude,” etc. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have been accused of “bullying” just because I repeatedly asked someone for their sources and told them that I didn’t care about their opinions. Asking someone to back up their claims with facts and logic is neither rude nor offensive. So please stop being so thin-skinned. Further, you do not have the right to write/say anything without being subject to criticism or ridicule. Yes, you are entitled to an opinion, and yes, we should all be tolerant of other peoples beliefs, but when you are making a factual claim, you are neither expressing an opinion nor belief, and you should be held accountable for the accuracy of that claim. Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be if someone who didn’t accept gravity became upset when people ridiculed their absurd views. Even so, when you make factually incorrect statements about vaccines, evolution, climate change, etc. you aren’t expressing an opinion, you’re just wrong, and no one should be tolerant of your nonsense.

Not all ad hominem attacks are fallacies

Having now established what it means for something to be ad hominem, it is important to discuss what makes an ad hominem attack a fallacy. There are three basic uses of ad hominem assaults, only one of which is fallacious. The first is simply name calling for the sake of name calling, and the title to this post was intended to be a sarcastic example of this. It is ad hominem, and it’s certainly in bad taste (at least it would be if it wasn’t sarcasm), but it’s not actually a fallacy because it’s not being used as an argument. In other words, simply insulting someone isn’t enough to make something a fallacy. In order to be an ad hominem fallacy, you have to use an attack on a person as a means of attacking their argument. In the case of my sarcastic title, I got your attention by using hostile language, then proceeded to actually explain the logic of how these fallacies work; therefore, I did not commit an ad hominem fallacy (i.e., my insult was just an insult, not an argument).

The second use of ad hominem arguments is the really problematic one. It occurs when you are presented with an argument, and you respond by criticizing the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. For example, if someone is presented with an argument and simply responds with, “you’d have to be an utter moron to believe that,” then an ad hominen fallacy has been committed, because they simply attacked the people who accept the argument without ever addressing the argument itself. If, however, they said, “you’d have to be an utter moron to believe that because it commits the following logical fallacies (insert names of fallacies) and has been discredited by the following studies (insert citations)” then they would have not committed a fallacy. In other words, their comment is ad hominem, and it’s in bad taste,  but it’s not a fallacy because they did not use the insult as their argument. Rather, they made a logical argument and explained the problems with their opponent’s view, and then they slapped an insult on there for no good reason. To be fallacy, the insult has to actually be part of your argument.

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Amusingly, anti-scientists are generally the ones who I see committing ad hominem fallacies, even though they are also generally the ones who I see falsely accusing others of committing them. For example, the classic “shill gambit” is nearly always an ad hominem fallacy. I get accused of being a shill for Big Pharma or Big Ag almost daily ,when in reality, I receive absolutely no money from them because I support science not big industry (entertainingly no one seems bothered by the fact that I strongly oppose “Big Oil”). Nevertheless, people constantly respond to my posts with comments like, “what a shill” or “how much did Big Pharma pay you to write this?” These responses are ad hominem fallacies, because the people making them generally don’t follow up with logical criticisms of my arguments. Rather, they simply accuse me of being a shill then march off to declare victory to their fellow anti-scientists. In other words, their entire argument can be rephrased as, “you are wrong because you are a shill.” However, unless they can actually provide evidence that I am being paid off (which they can’t, since I’m not), this “argument” is fallacious because it attacks me, not my arguments.

This brings me to my final point and the third usage of ad hominem. There are situations in which you can attack the person instead of their argument without it being a fallacy. For example, let’s imaging a court room scenario where a key witness has identified the murderer, and the defense responds by providing evidence that the witness is a pathological liar. The defense’s argument is ad hominem because the attack is against the person not the person’s argument, but the attack is not fallacious because there is a serious question about this witness’s credibility. If the witness is truly a pathological liar, then they should not be trusted, and their testimony should be viewed as irrelevant. To be clear, the defense has to actually provide compelling evidence that the witness is a pathological liar in order for this argument to be valid. If they cannot back up that claim, then this argument is both an ad hominen fallacy and an ad hoc fallacy (as is the shill gambit).

Similarly, arguing that people like Vani Harri (aka the “Food Babe”), Sherri Tenpenny, Mercola, etc. shouldn’t be trusted because of the truly ludicrous claims that they have made is ad hominem, but it’s not fallacious because it raises serious and completely valid doubts about their credibility. For example, Vani Hari once argued that water crystallizes when you repeatedly say the words “Satan” or “Hitler” around it, and she was concerned that airplanes don’t contain 100% oxygen (the air you breathe is mostly nitrogen, btw). By making these claims, she has demonstrated a terrifying level of scientific ignorance and illiteracy, and she has made it completely clear that she doesn’t know what she is talking about. So, when someone says that you should not trust her because she has frequently been exceedingly wrong, they are making an ad hominem assault, but not an ad hominem fallacy, because her credibility truly is in question. To be clear, however, you do have to be careful when making this type of argument. The fact that her arguments have repeatedly been comically erroneous means that she shouldn’t be trusted, but it does not automatically mean that she is wrong. In other words, if you say, “she is wrong about X because she has repeatedly been wrong in the past,” then you have constructed a logically invalid argument because it is always possible (however unlikely) that she will eventually be right about something. You can, however, say, “she should not be trusted about X and cannot be used as a source because she has repeatedly been wrong in the past,” and there is nothing fallacious about that.

ad hominem flow chart fallacyConclusion

In summary, an argument is only ad hominem when it actually attacks someone. Simply explaining the problems with an argument or asking someone to provide sources does not not count as ad hominem, even if the explanation is given in hostile language. Further, even when an argument is ad hominem, it is only a fallacy if it is attacking the person instead of the person’s argument and if it is not merely pointing out a legitimate, relevant concern about someone’s credibility, morality, etc. So, to test whether or not an argument is an ad hominem fallacy simply follow the guide to the right

Note: originally, this article did not contain the flowchart and instead asked the following three questions:

  1. Is the argument attacking someone?
  2. If #1 is “yes,” is the attack being used as the argument?
  3. If #2 is “yes,” does the attack raise a legitimate, relevant concern about the person’s credibility, morality, etc.?

However, that left out fallacies that are committed by using attacks as proofs, and I think that the actual diagram is easier to follow.

Other posts on logical fallacies

Article of the Day: June 15, 2019, The Death Penalty is Troubling

1. What harm do we do to ourselves as a community when we take a life?

When We Kill

Max Guther

“I hereby sentence you to death.”

The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house with a spare key entrusted to him and then shooting her dead from the foot of her bed.

It was a bizarre verdict, for forensics showed that the shots had been fired from outside the house — through the window, breaking the glass and piercing curtains and a screen. Moreover, at the time of the shooting Williams had been attending a birthday party, an alibi confirmed by many in attendance.

That didn’t matter, for Williams was an indigent black man with a public defender who didn’t call a single witness. The jury didn’t realize that he had an alibi or that the bullets had come from outside the house.

Judge Shepard, who was sometimes mocked in the legal community for harsh rulings and a weak intellect, ordered that “you be put to death in the electric chair by having electrical current passed through your body in such amount and frequency until you are rendered dead.”

The sentence came just three months after the Supreme Court had restored the death penalty in the United States, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, saying that new safeguards meant that capital punishment would be applied only to the worst of the worst. “No longer can a jury wantonly and freakishly impose the death sentence,” Justice Potter Stewart declared in the majority opinion.

Hubert Nathan Myers, left, hugging his uncle, Clifford Williams Jr., during a news conference after their 1976 murder convictions were overturned In March.Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press

Hubert Nathan Myers, left, hugging his uncle, Clifford Williams Jr., during a news conference after their 1976 murder convictions were overturned In March.Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press

Fast forward four decades. Williams, now 76, was freed in March along with his co-defendant and nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers; as they emerged from prison, two frail and elderly men, Myers knelt and kissed the ground. They had each spent 42 years in prison for a murder they did not commit — spanning the entire period of the modern death penalty and its supposed safeguards.

Williams survived because the Florida Supreme Court had overturned his death sentence by a single vote, in a 4-to-3 decision, back in 1980, effectively giving him life in prison instead. Then in 2016 Jacksonville elected a reformist prosecutor who reviewed this old case and concluded, “There is no credible evidence of guilt, and likewise there is substantial credible evidence to find these men are innocent.” A judge, noting that she had been only 3 years old at the time of the convictions, finally released the men from a justice system that had treated them wantonly and freakishly.

Support for the Death Penalty

Percentage of Americans responding to this question: “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?”

President Trump is now calling for expanding the death penalty so it would apply to drug dealers and those who kill police officers, with an expedited trial and quick execution. A majority of Americans (56 percent,according to Gallup) favor capital punishment, believing that it will deter offenders or save money and presuming that it will apply only to the vilest criminals and that mistakes are not a serious risk.

All these assumptions are wrong.

My interest in the death penalty arises partly from a mistake of my own. At the beginning of 2000, I spoke to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, who told me about a white man on death row in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham, whom he believed to be innocent. I discussed with editors the possibility of doing a deep dive into the case but let myself be lured away by the sirens of that year’s Iowa caucuses instead. I never wrote about Willingham, and he was executed in 2004.

Subsequent evidencestrongly suggests that not only was Willingham innocent but that no crime was even committed. He had been convicted of splashing gasoline around his house and then setting it on fire to murder his three little children. But experts later showed that there was no gasoline and that the fire was simply an accident that probably started with faulty wiring.

Imagine what it would be like to lose the people you loved most, then be convicted of murdering them and finally be strapped to a gurney and executed by lethal injection. A powerful new movie, “Trial by Fire,” with Laura Dern, tells the story of the Willingham case, and I hope it will prick the national conscience.

A photo of Cameron Todd Willingham when he was on death row.Michael Stravato

A photo of Cameron Todd Willingham when he was on death row.Michael Stravato

Partly because I failed to investigate Willingham’s story, I have thrown myself into the case of Kevin Cooper, a black man on death row in California whose case reeks of prosecutorial misconduct. Cooper was convicted of the 1983 home invasion and murder of four white people in Chino Hills, Calif. After an extensive investigation, I argued last year that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department may have framed Cooper.

Nicholas Kristof on Kevin Cooper.

Republican and Democratic politicians alike — including the state’s former attorney general Kamala Harris, now running for president — refused for years to allow advanced DNA testing in Cooper’s case, even though his lawyers would have paid for it. (Harris has apologized and says she now favors testing.) This summer crucial evidence from Cooper’s case is finally being subjected to that testing, 36 years after the murders. We may know the results by September.

DNA testing accounts for many of the 165 exonerations and prison releases because of dubious evidence since 1973, by the count of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Usually, though, there isn’t DNA availablethat can be tested to determine guilt or innocence. As in the Clifford Williams case, it’s more murky. The crucial evidence in his conviction came from an eyewitness who may have been a pathological liar.

But let’s be clear:The great majority of people executed are guilty. They have frequently killed with the utmost savagery.

Scotty Morrow, a black man from Georgia, indisputably committed a brutal murder in 1994. He fought with his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Ann Young, and, as her 5-year-old son watched, shot her in the headand killed her.

Morrow also shot dead another woman in the house, Tonya Woods, and shot a third woman, LaToya Horne, in the face. Horne was able to stagger down the road before collapsing. She suffered permanent injuries.

Not surprisingly, Morrow was sentenced to die — but let me throw in a bit of complexity.

Morrow grew up in a violent home where he was raped and beaten as a child, and he never received mental health support to deal with his trauma; that justifies nothing but may help explain something. He desperately wanted to reconcile with Young, and when told that she had been exploiting him for money while she waited for her “real man” to return from prison, he “just snapped,” as he put it. After the murders, he prepared to commit suicide but was arrested; he then prayed daily for 25 years for the families of the women he had killed.

An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Rarely in my career as a prosecutor and a judge did I witness this level of remorse and acceptance of responsibility,” reflected Judge Wendy Shoob, one of the judges who dealt with Morrow’s appeals over two decades. The only disciplinary report against him in a quarter-century in prison was for intervening in a fight to protect an inmate who was being stabbed with a shank. Several correctional officers wrote letters appealing that his life be spared.

“Scotty Morrow is literally the only inmate I would do this for,” said a correctional officer with 16 years in law enforcement, Nathan Adkerson. Sgt. Tajuana Burns described him as “just a really nice man.” Lindsey Veal Jr., a mental health counselor, said Morrow “actually makes the prison safer,” and added: “There are very few inmates I can call fully rehabilitated. But, without question, Scotty is one of them.”

William L. Buchanan, a psychologist who worked with Morrow, recalled that one correctional officer “looked me straight in the eyes and stated to me, ‘This is the best man in the world.’”

Yet in the end the State of Georgia did with meticulous planning what Morrow had done impulsively in a spasm of fury. It executed him last month by lethal injection. In his last moments in the execution chamber, Morrow apologized again to the families of the women he had killed, adding to the 20 witnesses: “I’m truly sorry for all that happened. I hope that you all recover and have healing.”

Was the man strapped down on a gurney truly the same person as the enraged brute who had shot dead Young and Woods 25 years earlier?

The death penalty has been applied to at least 222 crimesin the Anglo-American legal system, including marrying a Jew and stealing a rabbit. For a time in America, stealing grapes was punishable by death. So was witchcraft, as we know from the Salem trials.

For centuries executions were public affairs. The last public execution in the United States was in August 1936 in Owensboro, Ky. Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to see a black man, Rainey Bethea, 22, hanged for the rape and murder of a white woman. The carnival atmosphere and “hanging parties” led Kentucky to ban public executions, although public lynchings continued.

Rainey Bethea with Sheriff’s deputies as they escort him from Louisville, Ky., to his public execution in Owensboro, Ky, in 1936.The Messenger-Inquirer, via Associated Press
Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to witness the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Ky., in 1936.Newsmakers/Getty Images

The argument for public punishment was that it deters crime, and even today a common argument in favor of executions is that through deterrence they save the lives of innocent people. Is that true?

One 2003 studypurported to find that each execution deterred five murders, while opponents of the death penalty sometimes argue the opposite, that executions brutalize society and lead to additional murders. Statisticians and criminologists have studied this issue carefully for decades, and the general conclusion is that executions have no greater deterrent effect than long prison sentences.

Murder rates are actually lower in states without the death penalty than in those with it. Some jurisdictions have periodically banned the death penalty and then brought it back, and this back-and-forth seems to have zero impact on homicide rates. Scholars have also examined whether there is a decline in homicides after well-publicized death verdicts or executions; there is not.

One rigorous 2012 study published by the American Economic Review found no clear deterrent effect and noted that depending on the statistical model used, one could conclude that each execution saves 21 lives or causes an additional 63 murders. Note also that a 2008 poll of leading criminologists found that only 5 percent believed that capital punishment was an effective deterrent; 88 percent believed the opposite.

Meanwhile, the experts polled in that survey agreed that death penalty debates distract legislatures from policies that actually would reduce crime — like lead removal, early childhood programs, career academies, job training, gang violence initiatives like Cure Violence, and programs for at-risk young people like Becoming a Man.

Let’s also examine another argument of death penalty proponents: that it’s not worth spending hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting brutal killers for the rest of their lives: Execute them and use the savings for better purposes!

This argument, too, is groundless: Capital punishment is far more expensive than life prison terms. This is because pretrial preparations, jury selection and appeals are all more expensive in capital cases, and death row confinement is more costly than incarceration for the general prison population. One 2017 study by several criminologists found that on average, each death sentence costs taxpayers $700,000 more than life imprisonment.

“It is a simple fact that seeking the death penalty is more expensive,” concluded that inquiry, by Peter A. Collins of Seattle University and colleagues. “There is not one credible study, to our knowledge, that presents evidence to the contrary.”

One reason death penalty cases are expensive is that the defense is given more time and resources to prepare the case, and appeals are automatic. So you would think that innocent people are less likely to be put to death than to serve life sentences.

That may be true. Defense lawyers grimly joke that if you’re falsely convicted of a crime, it’s best to be sentenced to death — because then at least you will get pro bono lawyers and media scrutiny that may increase the prospect of exoneration. Researchers find that an exoneration is 130 times more likely for a death sentence than for other sentences.

Yet if death penalties get unusual scrutiny, there are countervailing forces. Researchers find that juries are more likely to recommend the death penalty for defendants who are perceived as showing a lack of remorse — and innocent people don’t display remorse. A second factor is that death sentences are often sought after particularly brutal crimes that create great pressure on the police to find the culprits.

In 1989, for example, after five black teenagers in New York City were arrested in the rape and beating of a white investment banker who became known as the Central Park Jogger, Donald Trump bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The teenagers were later exonerated when DNA evidence and a confession by another man showed that they were innocent of that crime.

Donald Trump placed this full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers after the Central Park Jogger rape.

Donald Trump placed this full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers after the Central Park Jogger rape.

One peer-reviewed study suggested that at least 4.1 percent of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. With more than 2,700 Americans on death row, that would imply that more than 110 innocent people are awaiting execution.

The Supreme Court in 1976 restored the death penalty partly because it was confident that safeguards — such as meticulous rules about when death penalties could be applied — would eliminate the arbitrary application of capital punishment. In fact, “its defining feature is still its arbitrariness,” noted Jill Benton, an Atlanta lawyer who defends capital punishment cases.

Racial bias affects every aspect of the criminal justice system, and researchers have found that black defendants not only do worse than white defendants, but also that blacks with dark complexions fare worse than those with light ones. Of prisoners now on death row, 42 percent are black, 42 percent are white, and most of the remainder are Hispanic.

Bias is not just found in judges and prosecutors. In Washington State, researchers found that juries were four times as likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant as for a similar white defendant. The same study also underscored how random capital punishment is. In Thurston County in Washington, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 67 percent of aggravated murder cases; in Okanogan County, 130 miles away, zero percent. Over all in America, 2 percent of counties account for a majority of death penalty cases.

Researchers have found that whether Texas prosecutors seek the death penalty depends partly on how The Houston Chronicle covers the case. They have also found that if a jury has a majority of women, it is less likely to recommend death.

Justice is supposed to be blind. But it is not supposed to be random.

Aside from deterring murders and saving money, a third common argument for the death penalty is that it is appropriate retribution for a heinous crime, a way for a community to rise up and express its revulsion for some brutal act. We dishonor victims, so the argument goes, if we simply lock away a monster.

This is an argument that cannot be countered with data, for it rests on values. It has to be said, though, that the history of executions as an expression of a community’s moral values is not an inspiring one. Such values-based arguments have been made through history for stoning adulterers and burning witches — and, in Japan in the 1600s, boiling Christians alive.

Just this spring, the small Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei defended the stoning to death of gays, adulterers and heretics as an expression of community values intended “to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals.”

Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who was the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, used to boast that as a judge in the 1930s and 1940s, he had sentenced four men to death; he saw capital punishment as reflecting community values and had no regrets, for the men got what they deserved.

A South Carolina lawyer, David Bruck, looked into those four death sentences. Three involved black men: one who was deranged from syphilis, one who was accused of rape by a white woman but had many alibi witnesses and may have been innocent, and one who in self-defense shot an armed white man who attacked him. The fourth was a white man who, in a rage, killed his girlfriend.

At the time, it may have seemed to Thurmond and the white community self-evident that these four executions were righteous. Today thefirst three seem hideous examples of racist injustice. Our standards and perspectives have changed — but what is unique about the death penalty is that a person can never be un-executed.

Today the Supreme Court is caught in a bitter feud over the death penalty, with a conservative majority approving executions and fretting about “unjustified delay” in carrying them out, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch put it in April. In her dissent in that case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued, “There are higher values than ensuring that executions run on time.”

The result of this division is that the court is unlikely to constrain executions significantly. Yet there is some recognition that the system is faulty, and capital punishment is becoming more rare. In 1998, there were 295 death sentences in this country; in 2018, just 42. In California, which has the largest death row, Gov. Gavin Newsom has bravely declared a moratorium on executions.

Kenneth Reams in 2014.

The case of Kenneth Reams, a man on death row in Arkansas, encapsulates the cruelty and absurdity of this system. It “shows clearly all the problems with a democratic society using the death penalty,” said George H. Kendall, a lawyer who is helping Reams challenge his sentence. 

Reams was a black kid born to an impoverished 15-year-old mom. He had a turbulent childhood, running away from home at 13 and dabbling in juvenile crime. Then at 18 he helped a friend who needed money to pay for his graduation cap and gown: They robbed a white man named Gary Turner at an A.T.M., and the friend shot and killed Turner.

Reams was defended by a part-time lawyer with several hundred other cases and no capital punishment experience, and there were indications that the jury was manipulated to underrepresent African-Americans. In the end, Reams was sentenced to death.

More from the Opinion section on Kenneth Reams.

Last year the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the death penalty for Reams, but he remains on death row pending new hearings and a new sentence. Even if you believe it is appropriate to execute an unarmed robber because his partner shot someone, even if you’re unconcerned by a criminal’s troubled childhood, even if racial manipulation of juries doesn’t bother you, there remains the basic question of what the execution of someone like Reams would accomplish — and whether, more than a quarter-century later, that 18-year-old offender still exists to execute.

“People change,” Kendall told me. “Kenny was a reckless, out-of-control kid who, while barely 18 at the time of the crime, had the mental maturity of a 14-year-old. His maturation had been slowed by years of horrible neglect and abuse.” Behind bars, Reams has grown into an accomplished artist who encourages other prisoners to express themselves through poetry.

That’s something you encounter again and again: People evolve. So because of the glacial pace of “justice,” we sometimes execute a graying, kindly inmate quite different from the violent felon he once was. They may have the same DNA and fingerprints, but their hearts are not the same.

There is no evidence that the death penalty deters. It costs hundreds of thousands of additional dollars per prisoner. It is steeped in caprice, arbitrariness and racial bias. It is fallible — and when it fails, it undermines the legitimacy of our judicial system.

Some day, I believe, Americans will look back at today’s executions just as we now look back at witch burnings and public hangings, and they will ask, What were they thinking?

In Jacksonville, Clifford Williams Jr. is now trying to get used to freedom after 42 years as a convicted murderer. Buddy Schulz, his lawyer, told me what happened when he visited Williams in prison and told him that he would be released.

“He cried for the first 10 minutes,” Schulz recalled. “For the next 10 minutes, he laughed. And finally after 20 minutes, he said, ‘Mr. Buddy, I hope you don’t think me rude, but I’ve got to go to the chapel and thank God.’”

Schulz added: “I’m personally of the opinion that the death penalty serves no purpose whatsoever, and I think it’s immoral. This is an example. The judge imposed it and but for a close decision by the Supreme Court, here would have been an innocent man who would have lost his life.”

I reached out to Henry M. Coxe III, who four decades ago prosecuted the case against Williams and won the death sentence. I figured that he would see the issue differently, but he didn’t. In fact, he was relieved that of the five death sentences he won as a prosecutor, none were ever carried out.

“In hindsight, I don’t think the death penalty serves a meaningful purpose,” he told me.

Williams is now living with his daughter in Jacksonville, taking “one day at a time,” he told me. The fact that he knew he was innocent made it immeasurably harder, he said, but he added, “I was trusting God would deal with it.”

Calm and mild-mannered, he didn’t want to talk about his decades in prison. “It wasn’t a nice time,” he explained mildly. I told him that I was surprised he didn’t sound bitter. Williams laughed. “Well, I feel a little bit bitter,” he said.

I asked about the death penalty, and there was a long silence. I thought he hadn’t heard, so I asked again, and then I realized that he was struggling with his emotions. 

“Too many people,” he said, suddenly sounding exhausted, “are getting the death sentence who don’t deserve it.”

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Article of the Day: June 12, 2019 How do we measure up?

These are the top 10 landmarks in the history of making measurements

In no field of science is the gulf between appreciation and importance as wide as it is for metrology.

It’s not about the weather. Metrology is the science of measuring. It has a longer history than the modern sciences taught in school, and it’s essential to all of science’s usefulness and power. Without sound metrology, there’d be no trips to the moon, no modern medicine, no self-driving cars, no baseball analytics and no decent weather forecasts. (OK, so sometimes it is about the weather.) And even without science, metrology has earned its keep for millennia in the service of trade and commerce, ensuring that weights and volumes of produce and other products could be standardized to make fraud a little harder for the fraudsters.

May 20 marks the latest high point in metrology’s long history, with the official adoption of new definitions for some of science’s most important measuring units, including the kilogram, the standard measure of mass. Those changes reflect revisions in the Le Système International d’Unites (or SI), the modern version of the metric system. As overseen by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, SI is based on seven “fundamental” units from which other units of measure are derived. Besides the kilogram, newly defined basic units include the kelvin (for temperature), ampere (electric current) and the mole (quantity of material). Unchanged are the second (time), meter (length) and candela (luminous intensity).

This latest SI revamp represents an advance for science, but it’s only the latest of several historic landmarks for metrology. There are too many to list, but that’s no reason not to count down the top 10 momentous metrology moments of all time (or at least for as long as time has been measured).

10. Invention of anatomical units (a long time ago)

Anatomy-based units originated with early human civilizations, probably near the time of the beginning of agriculture. Units of volume, such as the mouthful and handful, preceded later units such as tablespoons, cups and pints. For length, human feet have been around as long as humans; the “foot” used by the ancient Egyptians was a tad under 12 (modern) inches. But even as late as the 1700s, the foot varied in some countries from as little as 10 modern inches to as long as 14.

Of the other early anatomical units, the cubit — based on the length of a forearm — was once the most widely used. It probably originated in the Middle East and was mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written before 2000 B.C. By most accounts, the cubit was supposed to be the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, but that of course led to various actual lengths, ranging from under 18 inches to more than 25. Still, the cubit was an important and common unit throughout ancient times, and was very helpful in building arks.

It may be that the “double cubit” morphed into the yard. King Henry I of England, who reigned from 1100–1135, attempted to standardize the yard by defining it as the length from the tip of his nose to the end of his thumb (with his arm stretched out). Eventually the yard became three feet, a foot being 12 inches, an inch defined as the length of three barley grains placed end-to-end lengthwise. So the anatomical unit became a derivative of a botanical unit.

9. Magna Carta, 1215

One of the most important documents in the history of government established the necessity of metrology for the future of civilization, insisting that “throughout the kingdom there shall be standard measures of wine, ale and corn,” and the same for weights as for measures. It didn’t exactly work out that way for the next few centuries, but the principle was clear enough and subsequent metrologists have done a pretty good job of achieving the Magna Carta’s goal. Well one of its goals. It had others.

8. Queen Elizabeth I reforms system of weights, 1588

While her fleet was busy destroying the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I of England was busy establishing more rational rules for weights and measures. Before then, English merchants dealt with a bunch of different kinds of pounds, today’s “avoirdupois” pound among them. One, the “tower” pound, was abolished by Henry VIII in 1527 in favor of the troy pound for use in currency (hence pounds are English currency still, even when made of paper).

Elizabeth established the standard avoirdupois pound for most uses, retaining the troy pound for coins (and drugs). In so doing she set people up for the clever trivia question: Which weighs more, a pound of gold or a pound of lead? Quick-witted respondents often answer “Ha! Neither! A pound is a pound.” But those sufficiently versed in metrology say “lead,” because an avoirdupois pound weighs more than a troy pound. (But if you say an ounce of lead weighs more than an ounce of gold, wrong again. A troy ounce of gold is heavier. An avoirdupois pound is heavier because it contains 16 ounces, but a troy pound has only 12 troy ounces.)

7. Pendulum clock, Christiaan Huygens, 1656

Others (Galileo among them) had played around with pendulums as timepieces, but Dutch physicist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens built the first reliable pendulum clock. His earliest version, built in 1656, was accurate to about 15 seconds per day, a big improvement for the times. Further advances in pendulum clocks made them the most accurate timepieces until the 20th century. 

6. Metric system, 1799

In the 17th century, certain prescient savants recognized that a decimal system of units would be vastly superior for science and commerce than the then current hodgepodge of units that varied from country to country. Or even within the same country — in fact, some have suggested that one of the reasons for the French Revolution was dissatisfaction among the people with lack of weight and measure uniformity.

In the 1670s, the French clergyman Gabriel Mouton and astronomer Jean Picard (middle name unknown, probably not Luc) both discussed basing the basic unit of length on the length of a pendulum with a period of 2 seconds. (That’s pretty close to today’s meter, but unfortunately a pendulum’s period varies from place to place on the Earth’s surface.) But in the 1790s, when the French got serious about establishing the metric system, they defined the meter to be one 10-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. Other units were then related to the meter — a gram (mass) being equal to the mass in a cubic centimeter of water, for instance.

The metric system had its faults, but it made measurement much more rational and standard than it had previously been. Today only backwards countries (like Liberia, Myanmar and one other) don’t use its successor, the Système International.

5. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures) created, 1875

The Convention du Mètre in 1875 established the weights and measure bureau as arbiter for unit issues in a treatysigned by 17 countries (on May 20 — see Gibbs Rule 39). The treaty specified that the bureau (under the oversight of the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures(General Conference on Weights and Measures) should undertake production of standard prototypes for the meter and kilogram. It was an important step toward establishing worldwide use of the metric system, a goal almost successfully reached but for the intransigence of a certain large country in the middle of North America.

4. Kelvin temperature scale

Before the 19th century, temperature was a slippery concept — thermometers used arbitrary units that allowed a measurement to determine whether one thing was hotter than another, but not how much hotter. In 1848, William Thomson, to become Lord Kelvin, proposed applying the principles of the new science of thermodynamics to devise a rational “absolute” temperature scale that would establish a zero point corresponding to the complete absence of heat. It took a while for thermodynamics to mature before the scale could be completely understood, but it eventually put thermometry on a solid foundation. Temperature units are now called kelvins, rather than degrees (a change from “degrees Kelvin” made in the late 1960s by the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures).

3. Michelson interferometer

Albert A. Michelson was obsessed with measuring the velocity of light, and in the late 1870s, he measured it more precisely than anyone else ever had. Shortly thereafter he realized he could detect small differences in light’s velocity caused by the Earth’s motion through the ether. To do so he invented an interferometer. It split a light beam into two paths, perpendicular to each other, and then recombined the two beams with mirrors. A velocity difference between the two paths would mean the light waves could misalign, creating an interference pattern. Michelson and his colleague Edward Morley tried the experiment in 1887 and it failed to detect the expected interference. But that’s because there’s no ether. Interferometry was a great idea and became a valuable tool for all sorts of metrological uses.

2. Lasers

The discovery in 1960 of lasers made Michelson’s interferometry even more precise, thanks to lasing’s control over light’s wavelength. So lasers not only provided the realization of science fiction ray guns but also quickly became the best measuring devices in history. Lasers make ultraprecise distance measurements possible for everything from the dimensions of a room to how far it is from Earth to mirrors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Lasers enable the construction of optical clocks that are thousands of times more precise than Huygens’ pendulum clock. Laser metrology also helps verify that things like airplanes and automobile engines have been manufactured to exact design specifications. And where would baseball analytics be without the use of laser radar guns to check fastball velocities? (Just for fun, you can also use laser interferometry to detect gravitational waves.)

1. Basic units redefined, 2019

In 1983, the metrology czars redefined the meter in terms of how far light can travel per second. That was the first step toward the new definitions of other units, based on fundamental physics, adopted officially on May 20. The kelvin, for instance, is now defined with use of a constant based on the kilogram, meter and second. The kilogram is now based on the quantum physics quantity known as the Planck constant plus the definitions of the meter and second. The second is still based on radiation emitted by a specific process in a certain cesium atom. Metrology is now not just standardized for all countries, but for all planets in all galaxies, no matter how far away.

That doesn’t render all uses of metrology immune to criticism, of course (think baseball analytics). And just remember, if you are tempted to criticize the omission of certain metrology items from this list, there is no way yet devised to precisely measure the proper ranking of metrology landmarks.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried