Sunday, July 31, 2005

6 arrested for disrupting Horowitz speech

Reported in The Daily Texan. People who think being loud and obnoxious is a good way to get your message across seem to be found only among liberals. What's with that? An after effect of Vietnam-era protests?

ID in The Economist

Good article on intelligent design in this week's Economist (subscription required). Main strength is it gives a clearer picture of the situation than some Yankee reporting on the subject, perhaps because Europeans have less patience for religiously-inspired nonsense than us Yankees.

The closing paragraph, however, really hit home for me:
Whichever way the argument over intelligent design is finally resolved, it is likely to damage science teaching. This is not because bad science standards will necessarily be adopted but because - as Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institute showed in "The Language Police" in 2003 - the biggest threat to high standards is the unwillingness of state Boards of education to offend any sort of pressure group, whether right or left. Instead, they avoid controversial topics altogether. In 2000, a survey by the Fordham foundation found that only ten states taught evolution fully, six did so skimpily and in 13 the treatment was considered useless or absent. (Kansas received an F minus, and "disgraceful".) These failings shame American evolution teaching, and the manufactured controversy over intelligent design will to nothing to make them better.

In my whole K-12 career, I had three classes that had a big opportunity to talk about evolution: middle school physical&earth science, and high school first and second year biology.

The earth science teacher was, on the whole, a great guy. He made an admirable attempt to give us an idea of the scientific method, including having us run experiments of our own design. One such student experiment influenced real-world decision making by showing an energy-saving idea the school was using didn't work, and got the school to drop it. At the beginning of the year, he took written questions from the class and answered them. One such question was whether he'd talk about evolution. Answer: "Yes, but we'll also talk about creationism." I don't think he actually rejected evolution; he was just planning to tread lightly. Not that it mattered, the discussion never came.

In first-year biology, we got the bare bones of evolutionary theory. However, it was prefaced with the disclaimer, "If you think this is totally against your beliefs, you can just think of this as one of the theories out there." At the time, I recognized it as an unfortunate bit of appeasement, but I've come to realize that it was also a lie on an enormous scale. A lie very clearly told out of fear of a theoretically unsuccessful movement.

My second year biology teacher just seems to have forgotten to mention the subject. From her in-class denunciations of opponents of stem-cell research and medical testing on animals, I don't think she was the type to cower in fear of creationists. But with no state standards or anything reminding her she had to teach it, she didn't. This happened in spite of good opportunities to at least touch on the subject. We spent a lot of time on taxonomy, but never were we told that the system works because of common descent.

I know I've learned more about evolution outside of school than in, but I think this was even true before I decided to begin educating myself on the subject. Granted, I have a science teacher for a mother, so I'm not the norm, but it's still pathetic when a kid learns more about an important subject from his mother than school.

Not surprisingly, the report referenced in the Economist article grades my state, Wisconsin, as a D.

The lesson is clear: proponents of good science can't be lulled into thinking the only challenge is keeping creationism out of schools. This happens easily, with all states theorectically teaching evolution, and enemies of evolution using mantras like "teach both sides" which imply that they don't oppose teaching evolution. The reality is we must also support teaching evolution with the vigor we oppose teaching creationism.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

One thing sticks in my mind from the Horowitz-Jacoby exchange, posted below:
There is absolutely nothing in the Academic Bill of Rights that would remotely suggest that creationists or astrologers would or should be hired under its provisions. On the other hand since university faculties are teeming with Marxist crackpots, which again neither he nor the AAUP has objected to, it's puzzling that he objects to these relatively innocuous two groups.
Creationism innocuous? Except that creationists would strip biology and geology of all its ability to explain rather than catalogue, and are perfectly willing to twist facts of other sciences to their ends (see, for example, what they've done to thermodynamics). Furthermore, many creationists also attack the idea of objective truth (e.g. Philip Johnson has talked about "the sham neutrality of rationalism" and Ken Ham has said creationists should abandon use of evidence).

Horowitz has proven he simply doesn't know what he's talking about. Not that this is new, Horowitz said last year that under the Academic Bill of Rights that "Professors would be encouraged to make students aware of intelligent design theory." I'll be charitable here and assume he's unaware that it is rejected by almost all scientists in relevant disciplines. The alternative is frightening: professors forced to give a nod to the most trivial crackpots.

Whatever the merits of universities having ABOR-based internal checks, ceding control to ignorants like Horowitz would be a disaster. Horowitz says he only supports legislation on the subject because internal remedies have been rejected, but rejection of a questionable idea is no excuse for perusing an unquestionably dangerous one.

EPIMETHIC: Oh, as for creationists being protected by ABOR, it does protect religious beliefs, and what is creationism but a religious belief? It sure isn't a scientific one. That's a section of the bill that at least needs a clarifier.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Media taking Horowitz's line

Acording to Brian Dolber.

An exchange with Horowitz

Up at FrontPage magazine.com.

Quick question: does Horowitz support gender-diversity programs?
Larry Summers just invested $50 million in diversity programs at Harvard, creating the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Faculty Development, and appointing three diversity deans to serve commissars overseeing oversee various Harvard colleges on the presumption that there is gender discrimination in the hiring and promotion of faculty. Is there a shred of hard evidence (of the kind that you have been demanding of me) that this is the case? No. The $50 million is justified -- to the satisfaction of the academic community -- by a scientifically accurate but politically incorrect remark Summers made to some hyper-sensitive feminist professors, and by a statistical "under-representation" of women in faculty positions generally and tenured positions in particular.

Interestingly, I have been involved, as you are well aware, in pointing out the far greater disparity in the statistical representation of conservatives on faculties like Harvard. And the same people who are indignant about the perceived but unproved discrimination against women are in extravagant denial about the existence of discrimination against conservatives, which is much easier to establish. And, of course, not a dime has been offered to address this problem.

Fighting "them."

Awhile ago, I saw some infomercials by a guy named Kevin Trudeau promoting his book Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About, and claiming that medicine is meant to keep people sick.

First thought: why the quote marks? It makes it sound like he's making fun of paranoid drug company critics. Is he trying to score points for being self-mocking?

Second: please, have this guy talk to one of the many AIDS patients who are only alive today because of the work of greedy pharmacutical companies. (AIDS came to mind because Andrew Sullivan has commented at least a few times on this fact of his life.)

I tried to find some specific debunkings but failed, so I forgot about it. Today, Randi commented on Trudeau and linked to the Skeptic's Dictionary article on him. Glad for it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

American fatwa

A group called American Muslims issued a fatwa against terrorism, following in the footsteps of the Spanish group that issued a fatwa against bin Laden.

More at The Moderate Voice.

SAF fundraising letter

A couple of bloggers have posted a fundraising letter from David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom:
Like so many -- too many! -- young conservative students in America, Ruth found herself being singled out for abuse by a professor who simply hated Ruth's political views. Ruth -- an A-student at Georgia Tech -- mentioned to her professor that she was going to attend the conservative conference sponsored by C-PAC in Washington, D.C.

Without batting an eyelash, the professor told Ruth "Well, then, you will probably fail my course." Can you imagine the arrogance and sense of superiority this professor must have assumed when she unflinchingly told Ruth she was going to see to it she failed?

She proceeded to give Ruth "Fs" on all of her work ­ papers, tests, quizzes ­ and eventually forced Ruth to withdraw from her class.

Thanks to you, though, Ruth was able to fight back! First, Ruth reached out to the Georgia Tech Chapter of Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). SAF chapters are on more the 200 campuses across the country, created as part of our NATIONAL CAMPAIGN for ACADEMIC FREEDOM ... you've played a powerful role in this!

I went to Georgia to join in Ruth's cause. I took her to the governor's office and asked them to help. I went to the Dean of Diversity and said, "You claim to teach respect for difference. Will you defend Ruth?" The Dean said she would. Together we scored two victories: Ruth was allowed to retake the course under a different professor, and the professor who tried so hard to punish Ruth for her political views has been banned from teaching in the Public Policy Department!
This story is quite counter to Horowitz's claim of entrenched leftist universities. It shows a university quite willing to reign in bad apples, without making declarations about the "uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge."

He lists three more examples of leftism in academia. Two, however, have nothing to do with student freedom, but rather are simply examples of where Horowitz dislikes what professors are saying. To campaign for the removal of such professors is not fighting for academic freedom, its saying we have too much. That's arguable, but its an odd position for a group who's name says "for Academic Freedom," and Horowitz insists he's not trying to silence professors.

I imagine that if Horowitz read this, he'd just remind me that just because he signs something doesn't mean he believes it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Atheanity

The most recent Carnival of the Godless had a couple of posts touching on the subject of where atheists stand in society. As secular as our society is, stated atheism is frowned upon; half the country says it would not vote for an atheist for president. I wonder: what can be done?

With a name change, maybe?

One such attempt already has been made. The name: bright. It badly misfired, mainly because it implied everyone else is dull. The actual intent only partially makes sense, it was modeled on the word "gay". Also, it doesn't exactly mean atheist, in fact, I'm a little puzzled as to exactly what it does mean.

However, there's a much simpler change to be made: drop the -ism/-ist suffixes. Americans really dislike anything with them. In history, the good guy is a non-ism (democracy) battling against absolutism, communism, fascism, and totalitarianism. Adding those endings is also a proven way to make a word negative. Enemies of modern biology like to talk about Darwinists (which, as Panda's Thumb has pointed out, is like calling chemists "Daltonists.") Andrew Sullivan started a trend of calling Christian fundamentalism "Christianism." We even have "therapism" to disparge psychological therapy. The message is clear: -ism and -ists are bad.

Therefore, I propose the following simple change: atheists shall now be "atheans," atheism, "atheanity."

Any takers?

Covering moderate Muslims

Dean is doing a wonderful job on it. Today he had a post on a group called the Free Muslims who met with the Congressman who suggested bombing Mecca would be a good way to respond to a terror attack. Summary: they found a nice way to tell him how boneheaded the remark was.

The Duh-Files

"U.S. ice cream sales soar along with temperatures" - Reuters

Quote of the time being

At this point, I must confess that I'm the last person in the world who should be allowed to make fun of anybody's fashion choices. In the first place, I was born in Southern California. Then, as if that weren't bad enough, I moved to South Florida.
-Leonard Pitts in yesterday's Miami Herald.

House Committee approves Higher Education Act

With academic freedom provision. From Inside Higher Ed:
Require colleges to provide an intellectual climate that supports a wide range of views and does not permit professors to punish students who donÂ’t see eye to eye with them. The American Council on Education and some other higher education groups had signed off on the proposal, a watered-down version of David HorowitzÂ’s Academic Bill of Rights, but Democratic lawmakersÂ’ tried unsuccessfully to strip it from the legislation or amend it to similarly protect professors whose political views come under attack from small groups of critical students.

Their link to the bill itself doesn't work, so I can't find the exact language. They seem to have the bill number wrong, so I'll check back later. I wonder at the exalanguageuge of what passed, and what kind of protections Democrats had in mind, and until I find out, it's hard to comment.

Anyway, there's no mention of the attempt to crack down on anti-American activity (see my previous post on this bill), which makes me guess it failed. Woot.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Return of the Academic Witch Hunts

Counter Punch's take on the Academic Bill of Rights. Money quote:
University teaching, unlike elementary and high school instruction, should not be so much a "covering of the field" as an introduction to the idea of self-instruction and independent thinking. At its best, a college course should teach students how to pursue knowledge on their own, how to research and express their own ideas, and how to defend and, as needed, amend or even reject those ideas on the basis of free intellectual debate.

There is nothing wrong with having a teacher who presents a point of view, as long as that teacher is honest about it, and open to challenge. My favorite teachers when I was an undergraduate in the late '60s were precisely those professors who held strong views with which I disagreed vehemently, because they forced me to clarify my own thinking and to defend my own contrarian positions.
The "amend or reject those ideas" part is so often lost in statements of what education is supposed to do. Often, it is implied that education should only help students cement their prejudices.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Missile defenselesness

A US general is quoted in a Washington Post story: "We have a
better than zero chance of successfully intercepting, I believe, an inbound warhead. That confidence will improve over time."

I'm not reassured. The problems of missile defense are why I support another idea Bush has advanced: nuclear bunker busters. They allow for a compromise between missile defense and MAD: "we'll try to destroy your missiles, but if it ever gets that far, there will be lots of, er, collateral damage."

Hat tip: Bob Park.

Good news

Two bits via Dean Esmay:

One: a new draft of the Iraqi bill of rights.

Two: Muslim anti-terror rally.

I must disagree with Glenn Reynolds' comment on this one. He says: "You know, if these people had blown something up, they'd be getting more press. Which suggests that if the press wants to help eliminate terrorism, it should adjust its priorities." Honestly, more blame needs to be placed on news consumers. Papers write about explosions because explosions move papers. We can change this by changing what we pay attention to.

Friday, July 22, 2005

What's a leftist book?

All incoming freshmen in my college's Honors in Letters and Sciences program are required to read a common book. For this year, the book is Remembering Pinochet's Chile, about people's recollections about time under a military dictator who's regime tortured and killed thousands of Chileans.

I say this because of one of the points Students for Academic Freedom's Second Year Achievement Report:
Together with Ball State SAF leader Brett Mock, SAF worked to expose the ideological agendas in Ball State’s “Freshman Connections Program” which requires all new students at Ball State to read an assigned book or “common reader,” which for the last two years has meant a text from the radical left. Despite the great importance of choosing the text or texts for this program wisely, Brett’s report revealed that Ball State has failed dramatically in this arena. During the past two years, the program has required students to read consecutive texts from the radical left; yet in all eight years of the program’s existence, students have never been assigned to read a conservative work. Our work in Indiana led legislators there to introduce legislation inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights.
More on that here.

My first thought is: what exactly is their complaint? David Horowitz has explicitly said that demands for balance are "imaginary." So, they can't be asking for two conservative books for two liberal ones. Would they be satisfied with one conservative book for the other two? Or is this a case where Horowitz wouldn't want his movement judged based on the statements of its members.

But the main thing that made me wonder is this: How do they define a leftist book? I've read one of the two books the report complains of, Nickled and Dimed, and the SAF attack focuses on a tiny part of the whole. The main part is the author's experience trying to make a living at low wage jobs. The perspective is interesting, if undoubtedly distorted by the artificial nature of the exercise.

I suppose many (if not balance-averse Horowitz) would say that students need a counter perspective too. Two problems there. One, that would effectively ban all programs where a large group of students reads one common book. Two, what would the counter weight be? Insisting on a general defense of capitalism would be a poor match: theoretical polemic against specific observations. The ideal would be a book with the theme: "I immigrated from Mexico and am so happy to be working at an American minimum-wage job." Such a specific bill would be difficult to fill. Even if it could be done after a fashion, probably no one who's lived on minimum wage has nothing but happy thoughts about the life. The effect of demanding "diversity" here would clearly be to prevent students from hearing new ideas.

As for my book: would Horowitz get worked up if he discovered college students were being forced to read a book that takes a mildly negative view of a murderous tyrant? After all, Ann Coulter has talked about "the great Augusto Pinochet." With a quick search, I discovered Horowitz wrote a piece making a big deal of the claim that Pinochet was better than Castro (rather faint praise). Again, asking for such "dissent" here is silly, though: it would mean one can never criticize one despot without criticizing one of a different alignment. And even if Horowitz would OK the book, I can see no guiding principal to fend off less restrained attackers.

Stanley Fish was right: "these are not examples of a good idea taken too far, but of a bad idea taken in the only direction -- a political direction -- it is capable of going. As a genuine academic value, intellectual diversity is a nonstarter. As an imposed imperative, it is a disaster."

Ghosts & politics

A week and a half ago, a poll came out indicating that many more liberals than conservatives believe in ghosts, by a 42% to 25% margin. (I just found out today via the latest Carnival of Vanities) This gave conservatives a chuckle about the reality-based community and made one DailyKos poster ask, "WTF?" With my natural curiosity, I had to figure out why.

First, I found a 2003 poll with some insight. It, breaks down a number of beliefs by political party, and shows Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in ghosts, 54% to 42%. In addition, Repubicans are more likely to believe in God, "survival of the sould after death," miracles, heaven, the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, and the devil, while Democrats are more likely to believe in astrology and reincarnation. In other words, the supernatural beliefs of Republicans are of a more traditional flavor (and some traditional Christians are quite adamant in rejecting belief in ghosts). Unsurprising.

A few other apolitical trends emerge from the study, such as that the older and more educated people are, the less likely they are to believe in ghosts. The age part also explains the politics-based trend: young people tend to be liberal. I'm not sure the relevance of education, since I can't find any indication of impact on political leanings.

Closing thought: why does no one think it obvious to laugh at Republicans for being more likely to believe in Hell? (82% to 63%, highest disparity in the 2003 poll by any measure.)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Dean on ID

Dean Esmay just made a rather misguided post that, while not endorsing Intelligent Design, attacked its fiercer critics. It all hinges on the claim that ID is falsefiable, which he links to the following to support:
Actually, particular design arguments are falsifiable. Design theorist Michael Behe, for instance, argues that we can detect design in the bacterial flagellum because the tiny motor needs all of its parts to function at all. That’s a problem for Darwinian evolution, which builds novel form one tiny functional mutation at a time. How to falsify Behe’s argument? Provide a detailed evolutionary pathway from simple ancestor to present motor.
Behe's Irreducible Complexity arguement has been pretty throroughly rebutted. He's left him with little more than the ability to point out that biologists haven't explained everthing in biology. There's no way to falsify this because explain one mystery, and ID advocates will simply move on to another. I suppose you could "falsify" it by giving every step in every organism's evolutionary history. However, this is not what Karl Popper called a high "degree of falsifiability." Also, the whole idea of falsifiability is to explain why you don't need to know about every member of a group to draw conclusions about the whole. You just make your claim, examine lots of group members, and if the claim isn't falsified, you concluded the claim is solid.

Lastly, note that "you can't explain everything" arguements are also used by UFOlogists: "We can't identify everything people see in the night sky, ergo some are flying saucers." Saying "we can't explain everything in biology, ergo God" is just as bad.

EPIMETHIC: In the comments, Dean keeps asking, "how exactly is the search for evidence of a cosmological engineer a threat to free inquiry and the scientific method?" It isn't, and no one's claiming that, though the unfortunate labeling of commitment to testing ideas as "methodological naturalism" may give that impression.

I'm BAAAACK

Only lasted a week. Anyway, I see I'm still getting visitors at at least half the rate I used to (5 today instead of usual 9), so someone should see this.

What brought me back was an article from Inside Higher Ed. On the renewal of the Higher Education Act. What got my attention is newest version may included some Horowitz-inspired "academic freedom" measures. Such legislation has been considered in a number of states, most recently Pennsylvania, but this is the first time I know of that it's hit Washington.

First, my thoughts on the "academic freedom" legislation in general:

David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Freedom" (which can be found on studentsforacademicfreedom.org contains some silliness. Among them:
Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas...
All human knowledge? Including such statements as "The Holocaust happened"? (History is, after all, a humanity.) Of course, it's possible that the universe popped into existence 5 minutes ago, meaning nothing in our history books happened, but such speculations need not leave the philosophy classroom. The statement is, however, a preface to something legitimate, if obvious: "providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate." Yes, appropriate things are good.

Much of the fuss made by people like Graham Larkin worked up about Horowitz is statements not officially part of the campaign for the bill, such as complaining about professors who display political cartoons, which he says is, "trying to inflict on you their prejudices." As a soon-to-be college school student, I find the thought that I might somehow be damaged by seeing a political cartoon offensive. If he thinks we're that impressionable, he shouldn't stop wasting his time on colleges and just fight to repeal the 26th amendment.

Back to the specific bill: there's not so much to be worried about in what Higher Ed describes as "a watered-down version of David HorowitzÂ’s Academic Bill of Rights." I can't find exactly what made it into the legislation, but it's been influenced by this statement by the American Association of University Professors and other groups. The statement has none of the difficulties of ABOR, and fear of recognizing Horowitz's agenda shouldn't keep people from sayingcompletelyt sensible things.

There is a frightening aspect to this whole process, however:
No such agreement emerged on NorwoodÂ’s proposal to cut back on anti-American activity, which would give a new international education advisory board that the legislation would create the power to define and identify such activity. He said that many international studies programs in the United States "teach distrust of America" and "teach young Americans to be against their own country."
In some circles, "anti-American" simply means "dissenting," an American activity if there ever was one. Brendan Nyhan recently had some good posts on how this is an ongoing problem, not just post 9/11 hysteria. David Horowitz had insjudgmentgement of what viewpoints college students need to hear will not be made on political grounds, but such a board would create the potential for doing just that.

As a side note, someone needs to get a movement underway to define "anti-American" as including "anti-dissent."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Blog break

I'm taking a break from blogging, probably until college and I've got something more unique to write about. I may do a post or two that I'll send in to one of the carnivals listed at right, but regular blogging will be done for now.

Hopefully, this won't turn to nothing like Andrew Sullivan's failed attempt to go on blogging hiatus.

Correction

The TNR piece I .commented on earlier, apparently takes Frum's remarks somewhat out of context. It has them as his position on how evolution should be taught, and while it did make sense to put it there since it's related, they were in response to a different question. The piece falsely implies Frum thinks evolution contradicts the beliefs of all Christians, while he explains, "I have no idea what proportion of Americans object to the teaching of evolution, but I very much doubt that it's 90% or even 50%"

Hat tip: The Volokh Conspiracy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hollywood atheism

Yesterday, I wrote about reading too much politics into movies, specifically War of the Worlds. At the risk of being accused of doing the same with a different topic, consider this thesis: War of the Worlds is a heavily atheist flick. Think about it: aliens attack for no other reason than Earth is a nice bit of real estate, kill people at random, get defeated by a missed detail, and all this happens without the slightest indication that it's punishment for sin. If there's a God in the universe postulated by the flick, He is pretty indifferent to human affairs.

This general feel is strongest in science fiction, from Star Trek: The Next Generation's prankster god Q to The Matrix's direct contradiction of Des Cartes' "God is not a deceiver." However, a general feeling that God is irrelevant runs throughout movies. It's really not so odd that back in my grandma's generation, some parents told their children it was a sin to go to a movie; movie makers were and are pretty indifferent to religion, and now we've gotten used to it, not that that isn't smart on the part of believers, regardless of the conflict. What's weird is that though there are complaints about sex and positive portrayals of abortionists in movies, no one says anything when movies take atheism for granted. (And I mean no one; Jerry Falwell's denunciation of science fiction is apocryphal.)

Probably some notice this and don't think it's worth mentioning. But I think the implicit nature of it keeps most people from noticing. The result is an odd split-personality culture, fairly religious at polls but no so much watching movies, or indeed in much of its daily life. For that reason, I can hardly feel isolated from the general culture as some atheists do.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Click here

To help some guy get above 1,000,000 hits.

(I've got to envy him, given that I'll be excited to get 1,000)

Partisanship and SCOTUS

The Centrist Coalition has issued a statement calling for avoiding partisanship in the Supreme Court selection process. Nice sentiment, and some of it would truly be nice, like "renunciation of harsh rhetoric," but its unreasonable to ask for too much. Important issues will involve ideological considerations and, yes, battles. A press release asking for people to play nice won't making differing ideologies go away.

Unintelligent design

No, I'm not making fun of the ID movement... not mainly, anyway. Recently, two pieces, one blogosphere and one MSM, on how if life was desgined, the Designer didn't do such a good job. Money quote, from the LA Times piece:
Ask yourself, if you were designing the optimum exit for a fetus, would you engineer a route that passes through the narrow confines of the pelvic bones?... Admittedly, it could be argued that the dangers and discomforts of childbirth were intelligently, albeit vengefully, planned, given Genesis' account of God's judgment upon Eve: As punishment for Eve's disobedience in Eden, "in pain you shall bring forth children." (Might this imply that if she'd only behaved, women's vaginas would have been where their bellybuttons currently reside?)

Ambivablog, longtime semi-supporter of ID, had this to say on the topic: "I don't think this rules out the operation of some kind of intrinsic intelligence on the mutation end of the process. But if so, omniscient and omnipotent it ain't."

Related thought: if we ever did have clear evidence of a superbeing claiming infinite power, is there any way we could tell if it really had infinite power, or merely a whole lot of power?

The problem with Hillary for Prez

Brendan Nyhan thinks that negative sterotypes about Hillary will come back to haunt her if she runs for president. She may have some issues there, but vague babble about her being a power-hungry communist lesbian isn't likely to do much damage, and could help, if it gets in the way of a more polished smear campaign.

The reason why there's little chance she'll win has only been half-dealt with in anything I've read. It's the dynasty issue, but what no one seems to talk about is that a Hillary win would be a dynasty of a bizzare kind, a husband to wife power transfer not caused by the death of the husband but by constitutional term limits. Worse still, it would be a permanent embarrasment for the womens movement. Try to imagine it in a mid-21st century talk on landmarks in female achievement:

"And in 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton forever earned her place in history by proving that a woman can rise to the highest position in the entire world. Or at least she can by riding her husband's coattails, but let's dwell on the positives."

Doesn't work.

War of the Worlds

Went in having been told the movie was scary, but I was mostly freaked out by Dakota Fanning (the little girl)'s blank stares. I swore she'd turn out to be an alien.

Seeing this movie also confirmed my belief that we've gone overboard reading politics into movies. See Ann Althouse's post on the movie for an example of this. The political edge of War of the Worlds, according to Althouse, comes from a passing mention of terrorism and the American military fighting aliens. Althouse goes so far as to speculate that Ebert slammed the movie because he picked up the "right-wing vibe."

Please.

If the movie ties in heavily to terrorism because of the one-line mention, it also ties into popular culture because of a brief shot of Sponge Bob Squarepants. The alien/US fight doesn't parallel the war in terror in the least. The fight is futile in the extreme. The only time the military takes out a tripod is when its already been weakened through no effort of humans (and was apparently about to die anyway). The military does come out looking good in the scenes where they manage to keep order, but the pro-military vibe isn't all that strong: they've got a little more sense of duty than some other people, but there's no "woo-hoo, they're the best."

Monday, July 11, 2005

Religion and morality.

This Mark Kleiman post has gotten quite a bit of response. The point is that we shouldn't forget the value religion has for morality. A quote that sums it up nicely, taken from an e-mailer to Andrew Sullivan, says, "I am grieved and appalled at what is going on. It is an abomination, a desecration of the image of God which no child of God should allow to be undertaken in the name of their self-defense" in reference to torture scandals in US prisons. It sounds wonderful: if humans are made in the image of God, harming another human being is desecrating an image of God. I admit it resonates with me, even if I can't agree with the premise about us.

But it's badly wrong headed. As Richard Chappell of
Philosophy, et ceterapoints out:
Third, I think it is ethically dubious to promote concern for blasphemy over human welfare. If I hurt another person, this is wrong precisely because I hurt another person, not merely because the action constitutes blasphemy against God. Humans are not merely "sacred relics". We are people, not objects, and I think it an ethically repugnant consequence of the view Kleiman expounds that it fails to uphold this distinction. The more morally upright position is that persons have moral value in themselves, and not merely because it was bestowed upon them by some external source (i.e. God).
This is where theistic morality, even when it seems wonderful, ultimately points to moral insanity. If the value of human life comes only from God, God may rescind it, if He decides that there is a need to kill citizens of the Great Satan, blaspheming Jews, heathen Indians, or Cannanite kiddies. And this, ultimately, is what believers argue when they need to defend the indefensible.

The power of the internet

"It's on the internet. I looked it up." - Martha Stewart, revealing to a Vanity Fair interviewer that she knows how to remove the electronic monitoring device she is required to wear on her ankle.

From TIME magazine.

Feedback

My first piece of feedback from an established blogger:
Reinforcing my conviction that sitting at an "extreme" of the political spectrum does not equal "deranged," sometimes anyway.


I was going to comment on your blog, but you’ve got that damned Blogger set up, which I don’t want to sign up for.

So I’ll just say, “fuck you, you supercilious piece of shit” and leave it at that.

Billmon
I respond:
Actually, mine's set up to allow comments from people not signed up
for blogger - after you click "comments," hit either "other"
or "annonymous"
-Chris

Sunday, July 10, 2005

What else is wrong with science education?

Todd Zywicky, on The Volokh Conspiracy, rejects ID but complains that
As for the political questions, given all the crackpot things taught in schools these days across the curriculum, and given that for some reason we choose to run our schools through political bodies (school boards) it is not obvious to me why this particular politically-motivated curricular innovation is really that much different from many other questionable curricular questions
His only example to back up this damning claim is treatment of differences between men and women in evolutionary psychology.

As far as pre-college education goes, I just got out of high school and I only remember one reference to EP in my career, and it had to do with monkeys. Its not prominent in the curriculum, and its not central to anything, especially not in basic high school courses. Evolution is indeed central to biology. Furthermore, Intelligent Design arguments that "we can't explain X, ergo God" give a distorted view of what science really is. Even if EP has some weak arguments, I don't know that it presents anything so distorted.

In closing, I shall vent some tangentially related frustrations: My high school science education left a lot to be desired. I only had one teacher in the last 12 years that hammered scientific method, and that was in a middle school accelerated science course. I never got much explanation of the evidence for evolution. What I know is mainly a result of going to the library, finding books to read, and going to talkorigins.org. If schools would set aside cramming in so many facts, and instead hammer the evidence for a few big ideas, students would come out with a much better understanding of how science works, and then be able to deal with pseudo science better.

Conservatives and evolution

Finally got around to reading the New Republic article asking various conservatives their views on evolution. Beyond the short summary given on many blogs that most believe in it, there's a mix of understanding, concious lack of it, and belief that lack of understanding can act as a disproof (Grover Norquist: "I've never understood how an eye evolves. Put me down for the intelligent design people."). There's also two bits worth noting, from David Frum and Jonah Goldberg.

First, Frum:
I don't believe that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should be taught in public schools. ... Christianity is the faith of nine-tenths of the American public. ... I don't believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle.
And Goldberg:
I don't think you should teach religious conclusions as science and I don't think you should teach science as religion. ... I see nothing [wrong] with having teachers pay some attention to the sensitivities of other people in the room. I think if that means you're more careful about some issues than others that's fine. People are careful about race and gender; I don't see why all of a sudden we can't be diplomatic on these issues when it comes to religion."
Frum implies that evolutionary theory contradicts some relgion. It does contradict some religious belief. Those who think Genisis is literally true have been proven wrong by science, in so far as we can ever prove anything. Public schools, if we are to have them at all, can't aford to look out for the feelings of those with contrary to fact beliefs. (Side note: one conservative in the article, Grover Norquist, does support the abolish-public-schools solution to the question of what they should teach.) If they did, we'd have to waste time teaching bothgeocentrism and heliocentrism in physics class. However, saying that life evolved by natural selection does not say God did not set up or guide the process.

An analogy from history sheds a lot of light on the subject.

No history teacher would refrain telling students that the North won the Civil War for, among other reasons, Lincoln's strong leadership and New England's industrial base, for fear of offending religious people. And plenty of religious people would say that God helped the North, because slavery was a great evil that God had to do something to abolish. I'd question what grounds we have for thinking such a being exists, but the claim cannot be disproven on historical grounds. No matter how detailed a description is given of the North's advantages, those may have been the result of God working behind the scenes. Lincoln may have got the presidency by God's will. So teacher's shouldn't say God wasn't involved, and parents similarly shouldn't be offended by the naturalistic explainations given for the North's victory. On the other hand, it would be wrong to say that the victory can't be explained without divine intervention.

And here's where I think Goldberg's comment about sensitivity is important. Many people feel that public schools are teaching God had no role in life's origin, schools should make it clear that they're not teaching this. In fact, I'd encourage anyone who cares about good science teaching to support making this clear, if only to shave supporters away from the anti-evolution movement.

A female pilot in Saudi Arabia

A nice, small step for women's rights. Also, talk of letting women drive.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bombings backfire

Great news, so good that I'm willing to commit the redundancy of repeating something from Instapundit.

Me: A link in the telephone game

Awhile ago, I decided to make a project out of hunting down the source of a local legend, namely the hauntings of an old theater in town. Haven't dug up anything of note yet, but I did get a forceful reminder of how stories can change in the retelling.

I found, in the local history section of our library, several accounts of how a crew filming a made-for-TV movie at the theater had many ghost sightings in the process. I found the director, Bob Jacobs, online and sent him some e-mails. Among other things, I asked about, "the incident where seven people saw a ghost in the balcony." That one stuck in my mind, since seven people seeing a ghost at once is a bit harder to explain that one person.

Today I did some re-reading of my sources to make sure I had the details straight. This is the source for the seven people story:
Jacob's favorite story involves himself. When the film was finished, two days before it was to have its premiere, he and six other people who had worked on the picture gathered in the theater for a preliminary, private showing. When it was over, Jacobs says, he looked up at the balcony and saw smiling down a man in a white shirt and no tie, with a round, friendly face. He wore glasses, and his gray hair was close-cut, with a receding hair line. Jacobs says he is certain it was an apparition of Percey R. Keene.
Never says the six other people also saw this ghost. Oops. Good thing I didn't post on this before catching that error on my part.

Anyway, I have a letter in the mail to one other person involved, and am trying to figure out the address of another. If I get anything worth while, I'll post an update.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Apostates

Today, Andrew Sullivan responded to a dig at his change of tune on treatment of prisoners. It actually hasn't been the most serious dig he's taken for chilling to the Bush administration, but it made me think, not for the first time, "Why do humans feel a need to punish apostates, religious, political, and otherwise?" More hated than the person who's always had an opposing position is a former ally who's taken it. In politics, it can be explained as another facet of treating debate as a sports match, where winning as opposed to understanding is the goal; in such a climate, someone who makes a rational change of mind is as crazy as a soccer players who's begun intentionally scoring own goals. Atheists even go after apostates sometimes, as in the response to prominent-atheist-turned-deist Anthony Flew's endorsement of Intelligent Design. Maybe the responses were needed to remind people of the flaws of some old arguments, but as I read the one above, I couldn't shake the feeling that the reason anyone went to the trouble was the urge to punish apostates.

As for my question of why, all I can think of is it's some kind of tribal instinct, though that doesn't satisfy my wonder at such spectacles.

We are all infidels!

A sologan proposed by Dr. Sanity. I'm behind it.

Hat tip: Ambivablog

Response from the left

Some of it's been mind boggling. Which made me glad to see how Billmon, a staunch liberal, responded to them:
I see from a stroll around the blogosphere that the conservatives aren't the only ones playing the blame game and sharpening the attack lines. And I just got an email from some allegedly left-wing son of bitch chortling about imperial chickens coming home to roost and Michael Collins raising a toast in hell.

To which, all I can say is: What the fuck is wrong with you people??
Reinforcing my conviction that sitting at an "extreme" of the political spectrum does not equal "deranged," sometimes anyway.

The Bottom Line on Terrorism

The bottom line on responding to terrorism is not giving the terrorists what they want. Not that we should build policy around pissing bad guys off just because, no matter what it costs us. It's that we can't encourage bombings. I suspect part of the reason there hasn't been another attack on the US since 9/11 is that they backfired, causing the US to invade two Middle Eastern countries. After they got a withdrawl from Spain, they must have thought they could get the same out of Britain. By all indicators, they'll be wrong. I don't want to be too hard on the Spanish; they didn't want to be in Iraq in the first place, the Socialist party was promising withdrawl all along, and part of the backlash was how the government handled the attacks, not that the government's policy encouraged them. Also, the London bombings probably would have happened anyway. But shrinking in the face of terror is a mistake.

Also, thoughts on the British response from the Chritian Science Monitor. Key quote, from London' mayor: "In the days that follow, look at our airports and seaports, and even after your cowardly attacks, you will still see people from around the world coming to London to achieve their dreams." That's the way to do it.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Carnival Pick

My favorite post from this week's Skeptic's Circle.

Here's why: it deals with left-wing conspiracy theories on the September 11th attacks. Skepticism, if it is to be involved heavily in politics, must be an equal-opportunity bull detector. For the sake of its own credibility, and for the sake of a truly nonsense-free political climate.

In other news...

The most recent Skeptic's Circle is quirky.

Showing support

A creative show of support for Britain.

My contribution:
Terry Pratchet! FUCK YEAH!
John Locke! FUCK YEAH!
Billion = Trillion! FUCK YEAH!
Aldous Huxley! FUCK YEAH
H. G. Wells! FUCK YEAH
The Ecomomist! FUCK YEAH!
Surrendering at York... er, founding America in the first place! FUCK YEAH! (Out of line, but I couldn't resist.)
Oh, and of course, Founding Canada! FUCK YEAH!

Hat tip:
Andrew Sullivan.

London bombings

I have no idea what to think about the bombings, except that one's expectations can be thrown out the door in a second. From The Economist earlier this week, referring to the G8 summit: "The deployment of 10,000 police suggests that Britain's bobbies expect trouble. But even if the protesters stay behind the barricades and off the fairways..." From worrying about scuffles with protesters to worrying about using the chaos for follow-up attacks. Wow.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Defending Santorum

Yup, I'm doing it. I honestly don't understand the fuss over the following comment from Rick Santorum: "But unlike abortion today, in most states even the slaveholder did not have the unlimited right to kill his slave." I don't agree with it, but it follows directly from the Catholic position that an embryo is fully human a moment after conception, and it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with that position.

Another cheer for Frankenfoods

Fighting human suffering to the dismay of luddite greens everywhere.

Unbalanced reporting on NPR

An NPR affiliate recently ran a segment in intelligent Design. From Panda's Thumb:
the series could not by any reasonable criteria be called balanced or unbiased. Clips from interviews with IDC supporters – Michael Behe, one of the supposedly scientific proponents of IDC, and John Calvert, a lawyer active in the IDC movement – occupy fully 60% of the total air time for the three segments in Mr. Hilgen’s report, as contrasted with less than 5% for Temple biologist Stuart Neff....

An uninformed listener, after hearing Mr. HilgenÂ’s report, would be unaware that IDC has no support among credible scientists, and draw the grossly erroneous conclusion that Darwinian evolution is losing in a Darwinian battle.
I'm the last to endorse anything like balance in news reporting. News reports inevitably make subjective judgments about what viewpoints and facts are important, as they cannot say everything there is to say about an issue in the limited space that all reporting works under. No reporter today would treat support for segregation as a significant viewpoint, or evidence supposedly showing that blacks are vastly inferior to whites. Picking viewpoints representative generally population sounds nice, but it turns reporting into mindless reinforcement of what people already believe. Referring to what reasonable would think doesn't work, because it's like picking food based on what a unicorn would like; human judgment, 99 if not 100 percent of the time, is clouded by bias. All these are good reasons why no one should complain about a report that is "biased" in favor of mainstream science. And yes, it means there's no violation of journalistic ethics for publishing a report biased in favor of ID.

That said, something feels wrong about the omission of what most scientists think. What we need is some kind of principle of fairness that, even while allowing for "unbalanced" reports, requires inclusion of such basic points. The NPR report fails to do this One possibility is a "good persuader" principle: include a point if it would be included in any good piece of persuasive writing on either side. Good writers must be careful not to leave out an opposing point if it opens their piece embarrassingly easy rebuttal. (This, of course, assumes a writer who truly wants to persuade and not merely reinforce the beliefs of dittoheads who won't listen to the other side).

This doesn't address what's really wrong with the NPR report, however. A much simpler rule, obvious enough that I hadn't really even thought about it until now: don't give listeners/readers a distorted view of something that no one disputes. We need to stick by such principles without falling into parroting of Fox News slogans.

"Why G-8 Summit is a haven for anarchist golfers"

Headline from a Christian Science Monitor article. Gotta love modern anarchists.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Yglesias:
I think it's important for scientists, teachers, secular people, and basically everyone to recognize that nothing about the scientific theory of evolution demonstrates that the biblical account is mistaken... It's perfectly consistent with the evidence available to assert that, 10,000 years ago, God created the universe including a fossile that, had you examined it at the time, would have appeared to be 990,000 years old.
My first reaction was, "Huh? Doesn't Yglesias have a degree in philosophy? Shouldn't he know such ideas don't merit serious consideration?" The issue is that it's "perfectly consistent with the evidence" that reality is just an illusion generated by a malignant demon, as Des Cartes pointed out, but such speculations do not merit consideration outside philosophy class.

Then again, I've also noted elsewhere that science can't prove that God didn't subtly influence evolution. This possibility will be accepted even by people who don't think its necessary to explain the evidence, based on the belief that God subtly influences everything. However, it's much harder to come up with a reason for thinking God would design a young earth to look old. I know Answers in Genesis takes an attitude of "forget the evidence, we just assume Genesis is literally true," but they don't take the step of endorsing a such an extreme-philosopher's-skepticism-type idea as true.

Bertrand Russel is God

Well, not really, but being able to do this is pretty impressive.

Also, here's one explaination of the 1=2 bit.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Basic education

In spite of the problems I lament below, there are some basic improvements in public education we could make. Two letters in Friday's New York Times show this well:
What concerns me most is not whether or not thimerosal causes autism. It is that the "experts" feel they have the authority to label parents of autistic children as lacking credibility just because there is no scientific evidence, they say, of the harmfulness of thimerosal in vaccines.

These children are the evidence, and their parents are the experts. Pretending that a problem doesn't exist because it hasn't reached some statistically significant number is disturbing.

How about asking the scientific community for evidence of the complete safety and efficacy of these and all drugs? Without such evidence, most parents will just have to rely on gut feelings. We can't wait for the science to catch up.
and:
Your dismissive tone toward parents and alternative therapies is disappointing.

Some years ago, we tried sauna and vitamin therapy for our autistic son. The improvement was dramatic, and I am grateful to his doctors. The alternatives - special schooling, poor quality of life and Ritalin - were far more expensive.

All parents care about is that their child gets well. Our son got well.
Orac has a series of posts on this subject that begin here. I had initially skimmed past his posts on the subject, thinking it somewhat esoteric, but the logical error of these letters is every day enough, more so than even some of the fallacies documented in Orac's posts.

The implied argument in the first letter is "some parents know their children got autism after getting a vaccine containing thimerosal, ergo, thimerosal causes autism." Similar reasoning is more explicit in the second. Medicine, however, is a complex subject, with plenty of room for coincidence. In fact, if two things happen often enough, such as thimerosal vaccination/autism or vitamin therapy/autism recovery, it would be surprising if they didn't sometimes happen together by coincidence. On top of that, there's the issue of confirmation bias, labeling an improvement "dramatic" mainly because it came after a treatment. For these and other reasons, testimonial evidence is never proof that a treatment is harmful or beneficial.

Getting everyone to understand this small point could do immense good, since finding good medicine is something people must ultimately do for themselves, and failure can be deadly.

Exorcising spirits.

A few days ago I sent my computer in to the witch doctor to get the evil spirits exorcised from it. It's not back yet; I'm using one of the excess number of computers my family owns to make this post. Hopefully though, I will get it back soon with fully balanced chi.

I'm joking of course. The computer's at a computer shop getting some spyware and adware problems fixed. But for all I know about computers, those programs may as well be evil spirits. When I get a message saying I'm low on free memory, it may as well be telling me it has bad chi. And, with their knowledge of a complex field that I barely know the jargon for, I can't help but look upon computer people as if they're the keepers of a secret, magical lore.

Computers scare me not only because I don't understand them, but I'm not sure how many people really do. If I wanted an explanation of what happens when I make a bloc post, I'd likely have to go through several people who understand how the programs involved were written, another who understands how the programming language works in terms of assembly language, another who understands how the assembly language works in terms of machine language and hardware. That may understate the problem, if any hacker comes across this, fill me in on the details. The worst part is, while a similar picture could be drawn of biological systems (breaking down the biology, chemistry, particle physics, etc.) computers are our creation.

The multi-layered nature of computer science epitomizes how specialized our society has become, one of the great challenges of modern society. Some discussion of the increase in newspapers with astrology columns and such treats the issue as a matter of history cycling between periods of enlightenment and superstition. The reality is more subtle. Society is hyperspecialized, with various specialists isolated from each other. Pseudoscience is rarely about stupidity or generalized ignorance. Irrationality plays a role, but it's not the main ingredient. The key issue is ignorance of knowledge needed to evaluate an claim. Great examples are Sir William Crookes, a respected physicist who became convinced a stage magician was the real thing, and William D. Rubinstein, a historian who wrote a stunningly ill-informed attack on evolution. Both men presumably knew their field and had the brains to sucked in it. What they lacked was knowledge of stage magic and biology, respectively.

I don't know if there's any solution. There's always education, but this has its limit by the nature of the problem, that is, the vast number of things there are to be educated about. I myself feel I know quite a bit about some brands of pseudoscience, like parapsychology, but I feel less confident in my ability to tell legitimate psychiatric practice from quackery. Perhaps someday we will genetically engineer things like groupthink and dishonesty out of existence. Until then the problem will only get worse as knowledge, and therefore specialization, increases.