Friday, September 30, 2005

Dante's Inferno Test

Here's my result:
The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Sixth Level of Hell - The City of Dis!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Very High
Level 2 (Lustful)Moderate
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Very Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)High
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very High
Level 7 (Violent)High
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Very Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Test
Same as Michael at Mighty Middle, where I found out about this thing. From his comments:
Not sure what to believe, as I have about as much faith in literal Bible interpretation as I do in random internet quizes...

Plantinga's talk

Went to Plantinga's talk last night. There was indication the one this afternoon (eight minutes from now) would be slightly different, so I was considering going to it, but I decided against.

Pre-talk observation: someone went overboard with the promotion. One chalking read "evolution vs. atheism - the battle of the millenium." Kinda early into the milenium to be designating the main battle of it, isn't it?

Before the talk, they had a quote from TIME Magazine along the lines of "The man responsible for God's comeback in the crisp circles of academic philosophy." This struck me as hard to believe at first, but while I was expecting the talk to sound like a sermon, it sounded more like a presentation of a scientific paper. Easy to see why that style could influence philosophers.

Until the Q&A session, the talk had no surprises for me whatsoever. It was an abridged version of the outline I posted before; the people running it went so far as to hand out print-outs of the thing.

I was the first one to the mics. I asked how any of his examples of false beliefs could work for many cases. Oddly enough he brought up what other people have said about religion, that it is adaptive but not true. I considered asking if he really thought totally unreliable belief-forming mechanism, rather than somewhat unreliable ones, could be adaptive, but sat down to let the next person have a go. After seeing how long some people stayed on the mics, I wished I had stayed. The criticism struck me as rather inept; one guy attacked him by saying that lots of creationists just have the ulterior motive of converting people to Christianity, which of course Plantinga saw nothing wrong with (though on a later question I found out he's changed his mind since writing the '91 paper I mentioned earlier).

That's all, wasn't quite as interesting as I expected. Though if I find anyone who had a positive reaction to the talk, I may post on that.

Carnival of the Badger 7

This week's Carnival of the Badger is up.

Another one

Here's another Badger Herald op-ed complaining of anti-conservative bias on campus, but who's only specific example deals with the behavior of students. No mention of how she knows professors grade on politics. (I noted a similar piece here.) Also, this is just... meant as a joke, maybe?:
When did it become acceptable to tell people that their political stance is wrong? Actually, when did it become acceptable to tell someone that his opinion is wrong?

Persecution and satire

Via James Randi (again), a blog post that illuminates a couple things.

First, the initial incident is worth remembering when students complain about despotic professors.

Second, it's worth asking what has happened to our sense of humor. Yes, the line between reality and satire is becomming increasingly thin, but I think this one should have been obvious by the time "La-La-La-La-I-Can’t-Hear-You Christians" were mentioned. On the other hand, I'm not sure this is obviously a joke:
The reason I walked out of class today is because I am a Christian. Zealously so. And after Friday’s performance by “Dr.” Patton I had prepared myself to do just that very thing if my beliefs were once again attacked by logic and reason and scientific claims that can be proven. Sure enough they were, so I left.
Recently, I noted a movie review claiming the movie boldly denied the importance of facts. I asked if the reviewer had strechted things, but a commenter confirmed the movie really was that dumb.

Oh, and about John Swift. Actually, some people did think he was serious, it's not just modern Americans.

Political favors

The 11th of September, 2005, was the day of a “Sai Public Meeting” in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. In recognition of Sathya Sai Baba and his works, mayor Slay proclaimed this day to be “Sathya Sai Baba Day.” St. Louis has a population of over 350,000, with a metropolitan area of over 2.5 million people...

Can any public official actually not know the true nature of Sai Baba? Refer to for just one of the many exposes of this crook. Who will be honored next by the mayor? Jesse James? Billy the Kid? Sylvia Browne?
Well, the Texas legislature once honored the Boston Strangler. It's happens all the time: politician wants to make a constituent happy, so he writes up a declaration and other politicians pass it without reading it so that the first politician will do the same for them later on. When I made Eagle rank in Boy Scouts, the troop got the state legislature to pass a resolution honoring me in form almost identical to the Sai Baba one, thoght I only got vaguely honored instead of my own holiday. And not one of the politicians passing it had ever had more than the briefest contact with me. Both representatives for my area were invited to the ceremony to give a speech. Luckily, they had other engagements and I did not have to sit through the ordeal of a perfect stranger going on and on about how wonderful I was.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

18th Skeptic's Circle

The 18th Skeptic's Circle is up at Wolverine Tom. Topics include the religion/social ills study (I'm blog rolling Thoughts From Kansas for its post on that).

Quote of the Time Being

The problems with sucess, frakly, are infinitely preferable to the problems of failure.
-Neil Gaiman

Orac on the study

Orac, at
If you read the actual study, it becomes apparent that the data in the study doesn't show what its authors claim it shows. The scatter plots shown are star charts, with no correlation one way or another, and they didn't even bother to try to do a statistical analysis. Sorry, but whenever I hear lame rationalizations for not even attempting a statistical analysis, it sends my skeptical antennae up.

Although I think that it is probably true that there is no correlation between religiosity and the various societal ills (or lack thereof) listed in the study, this study doesn't show it. It was a truly weak study, for the many reasons I mentioned over at Pharyngula. I'd be careful citing this study as evidence for anything, if I were you.

Pastafarians for peace

Via Orac:

This is from a real anti-war protest - wonder what her exact intent was?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


There's new study showing religious belief correlated with all sorts of bad things. I'm late to the show, other bloggers have already written on it here, here, and here.

Myers points out:
it does not say that if you believe in God, you will get an abortion and start murdering strangers. It says that prevalent god-belief in a culture does not discourage that sort of behavior, and that more secular societies are clearly not hotbeds of sin and corruption.
And I'm really adverse to a bigger reaction than this, like that at Kingdom of Heathen and UTI. Thoughtless gloating is just asking for fundamentalists to go touting some other shoody study on the evils of atheism down the road. On the, if it's possible to pin down definite reasons why some strains of religion cause X, say if discouraging birth control leads to abortions, that could be a discussion worth having.

A change of strategy?

Today, there was an article in InsideHigherEd promoting the idea of teaching the evolution controversy - from a pro-evolution perspective.

I immediately begin thinking of the problems. Setting up a debate format would virtually necessitate an artificially level playing field, wouldn't it? I spend some time at Answers In Genesis and it occurs to me that there would be a fight over defining the "other side." Present kids with the viewpoint that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time with even a half-decent rebutal, and most of them will fall off their chairs laughing while old-earth creationsists complain of straw men. But fail to do that, and literalists will claim proof that secularists must really hate God's Word if they're willing to entertain criticisms but not Bible-based ones.

Then I got an idea: Evolution lesson plan, specifically on whether humans evolved from apes. Have the teacher give a one minute explaination of a certain photograph. Then give a creationist guest speaker the remaining 49 minutes to argue that humans were specially created, on the condition that the photo is used as back drop. What photo? This one.

Of course, that would never happen. Creationists would complain they deserve a level playing field, which would really mean excluding lots of important evidence.

But you know what? Screw them. Push through an honest look at the debate in spite of it. Let creationists talk all they want about, say, gaps in the fossil record, so long as the evolution side gets to not merely rebut those claims but present all the positive fossil evidence for common descent, along with a strong overview of the other evidence out there. Let them babble about kinds, so long as there's a discussion of how real scientists view species and evidence for how speciation occurs. For good measure, maybe throw in lesson on the really indefensible arguments like the thermodynamics one.

The back drop idea would probably have to be left out, but make sure the end result is something creationists will hate, at least when they get too good a look. When they oppose it, just throw their own words back at them, "don't you want to teach both sides?" They'll have little logical reason to reject the plan. Implementation could be a little tough; it would require persuading a high-placed state official to carefully design and push a proposal. At the least, it could be a good rhetorical device for writers of Op-Eds and letters to the editor: "Yes, teach the controversy, and expose kids to [insert major piece of evidence]" At best, it could result in a program to improve biology teaching, help kids understand what good science looks like, and discredit creationism forever.

P.S.: I just saw PZ Myers also responded to this article. He seems to think it's something that could be done, but that teachers shouldn't be required to do. Fair point. But I've become convinced high-schools need to focus more on how scientists know what they know, and this just might be the way to do it.


This week's Carnival of the Vanities is up, but in an unfortunately readable format.

Hey everyone, promise to do better when the carnival comes here in two weeks!

Really! Intelligent Design has nothing to do with religion!

Or does it?:
Science teachers at the high school in Dover repeatedly resisted the school board’s efforts to force them to teach creationism on equal footing with evolution in biology class, according to a former teacher who is among those challenging the board in a landmark trial.

The conflict in Dover grew so heated that in public meetings board members called opponents "atheists," threatened to fire the science teachers and invoked Jesus’ crucifixion as a reason to change the curriculum, two witnesses testified on Tuesday.
Hat tip: John Cole

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A hoax?

When I went to sleep last night, I was wondering if maybe the blog that set me off yesterday might be a hoax - an atheist pretending to be one of the silliest kinds of theists. Looking at the site this morning, the number of atheists on his blog roll looked like sure evidence it was a hoax, but then I began looking at the real, rather obscure Christian sites he links to and convinced myself he was for real. But I e-mailed an atheist that links back to him just to be sure. Here's what I got back:
Hi Chris,

I know what you mean, and I don't know how to confirm one way or another.
But I have seen worse - much worse in fact. The fact that this guy is
willing to reciprocate links to atheistic sites does raise my eyebrow,
though. And what's this guy's name anyway? Why the generic moniker?

As for his "arguments," yes, they're deeply pathetic. But typical
presuppositionalist fare: "you're begging the question!" Notice that
"everyone's worldview is circular," but in the case of non-Christians
they're begging the question, and in the case of Christians they're just
being consistent with their stated presuppositions. It all boils down to an
elaborate scheme of wordplay and sleight of hand.

Someone in one of the comments (I think on Dub's blog) said that
presuppositionalism is for self-justification. I think that's close, but not
quite. They justify nothing. Rather, it's self-rationalization. Any
arguments (or ploy tactics) that they offer are not geared toward proving
anything to non-believers (don't tell me they're so dense as to believe
anyone would be persuaded by their nonsense). They're trying to convince
themselves. If belief in god were really so important, why can't they give
any clear reasons as to why THEY believe (as opposed to how they can squirm
out of sticky pickles)?

Anyway, is he f'r real or not? I have no idea.

So maybe. At any rate, the post was at worst a parody of the kind of thing I've noted previously at Evangelical Outpost.

A creationist I can admire

When I got up to go to breakfast this morning, I was treated to a series of sidewalk chalking announcing a talk, this Thursday and Friday, titled "Evolution v. Atheism" by a philosopher named Alvin Plantinga. I briefly wonder what the title could mean, and make a mental note to see it.

Then I see flyers with "Student Impact" (Madison's Campus Crusade chapter) written on them. This prompts me to Google the guy, which got me a list of his writings.

First, a paper arguing that if one accepts Christianity, evolution is probably but not definitely false. Early on, he says this about the debate:
the philosophers and theologians don't know enough science
Then, after a long theology-based discussion:
There isn't the space, here, for more than the merest hand waving with respect to marshalling and evaluating the evidence.
Yes, if you want to be wise, know that you know nothing. And be honest about it!

Then reading this lecture outline, I realized I was reading the guy Joe Carter cited as having proven that evolution won't produce reliable belief-forming mechanisms. Plantinga argues purely naturalistic evolution is self-defeating for this reason. Talking about beings pr
Suppose we think, first, not about ourselves and our ancestors, but about a hypothetical population of creatures rather like ourselves on a planet similar to Earth.

...Probability... that their cognitive faculties are reliable?

Not as high as you might think. Beliefs don't causally produce behavior by themselves; it is beliefs, desires, and other factors that do so together. Then the problem is that clearly there will be any number of different patterns of belief and desire that would issue in the same action; and among those there will be many in which the beliefs are wildly false. Paul is a prehistoric hominid; the exigencies of survival call for him to display tiger avoidance behavior. There will be many behaviors that are appropriate: fleeing, for example, or climbing a steep rock face, or crawling into a hole too small to admit the tiger, or leaping into a handy lake. Pick any such appropriately specific behavior B. Paul engages in B, we think, because, sensible fellow that he is, he has an aversion to being eaten and believes that B is a good means of thwarting the tiger's intentions.

But clearly this avoidance behavior could result from a thousand other belief-desire combinations: indefinitely many other belief-desire systems fit B equally well. Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. Or perhaps the confuses running towards it with running away from it, believing of the action that is really running away from it, that it is running towards it; or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a regularly reoccurring illusion, and hoping to keep his weight down, has formed the resolution to run a mile at top speed whenever presented with such an illusion; or perhaps he thinks he is about to take part in a 1600 meter race, wants to win, and believes the appearance of the tiger is the starting signal; or perhaps . . . . Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior.

Trying to combine these probabilities in an appropriate way, then, it would be reasonable to suppose that the probability of R, of these creatures' cognitive systems' being reliable, is relatively low, somewhat less than 1/2.
This is ludicrous. Some of Plantinga's proposals just don't work. In the case of wanting to be eaten, Paul is more likely to walk away slowly than to run. Even if it works once, it won't necessarily continue to work. If Paul keeps seeing tigers that are unlikely to eat him, he might give up finding the ideal case and try his luck with the next tiger he sees. Furthermore, beliefs have to produce useful behavior in many situations, not just one. What happens when a Paul with one of these complexes must consider the possibility of a friend (or enemy) being eaten? Finally, even if there are many viable but complex mechanisms, the chance of evolution stumbling upon them is low.

This isn't to say evolution would necessarily give us perfect mechanisms, just pretty good ones. But it makes no sense to throw out all our beliefs for this reason. After all, no one would insist that someone who admits, "I tend to think I'm pretty rational, but I admit I'm sometimes let astray by my personal biases" abandon all beliefs because they could result from biased thinking.

Student paper round-up.

Editions of both the Mendota Beacon and the Madison Observer came out today.

In the Mendota Beacon, I saw the following headlines: Referendum Unlikely to Impact War, Truth of Havens Center Revealed, and International ANSWER raises disturbing questions - all outside the Op-Ed pages. I seem to remember seeing something in the last issue about the Beacon's mission involving objective reporting, but maybe I'm remembering things wrong. I could find no such declaration in the pages of the most recent issue.

Then I see they've excerpted one of my blog entries, putting it on the same page as a sample of Ann Althouse's work. I immediately feel bad for my negative reaction to the headlines. Uh, thanks anyway, guys!

Meanwhile, the Observer (liberal paper) is highlighting how out of touch some liberals are, I think unintentionally. Their front page features a picture of a protester with a sign, "The World Can't Wait/ Drive Out the Bush Regime/ Mobilize for November 2." From the sponsoring group's website, it seems they think they can force Bush to resign by organizing a really big protest. Uh huh. (Coincidentally, Amba just wrote a piece on the folly of modern protesters).

Oh, and to end this on a positive note, the Daily Cardinal carried an Op-Ed on what looks like a sound compromise on voter ID.

A philosopher's influence

Tuesday is the day for my philosophy class' weekly discussion section (at least for my discussion group).

Most of our discussion revolved around shades of blue, namely, whether we imagine anything truly new when we imagine a shade of blue in between two other shades of blue. We then talked about various possible sources of analogy: imagining pink from red and white, imagining green from yellow and blue, and imagining a missing tone in a series of tones.

Why spend so much time on shades of blue? Because Hume talks about them in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It stuck me how positively weird it is that philosophers can have a strong lasting influence not only on what questions we debate, but what examples we use to debate them. Thanks to Hume, every time people talk about the problem of induction, they talk about sunrises. Thanks to Popper, every time people talk about falsifiablism, they talk about ravens. Thanks to Russel, every time people talk about skepticism regarding the past, they ask if the universe could have sprung into existence five minutes ago, but never ask the same thing for last week. What's up with this?

Google Turns 7!

And I have no idea why that mattes.

Here'a a new one

Lots of people claim to see ghosts and aliens. This is the first time I've heard of people claiming to see werewolves. Though this is pretty standard ghost stuff:
Philippsen said she was in her small log cabin with a thatched roof in Williams Bay late one night in April when she heard something jump on her roof.

"It shook the whole house and then it proceeded to run from the back of the house to the front of the house," she said. "It sounded like a 180-pound man running across the roof in gym shoes."

Philippsen heard a crash and then silence. Her two dogs jumped in her lap and shook with fear. They didn't bark -- which was unusual for them. The next morning, Philippsen found her flowerbeds a mess. And then she saw the tracks in them.

"I saw these humongous tracks in the mulch of the flowerbeds -- and that's when I freaked out," she said.

A Williams Bay police officer wasn't sure what kind of animal had made the tracks.

Philippsen contacted Godfrey, who made casts of the tracks and sent them to the state Department of Natural Resources. The DNR couldn't identify them. Later, Day found a tuft of dark fur in Philippsen's yard. The DNR said it likely came from a wolf or a wolf hybrid.

"I don't believe it was a deer," Philippsen said. "I don't believe it was a cougar. It was definitely an animal that was running around on two legs."
Instead of attributing the noise to a ghost, it gets attributed to a werewolf. Though you'd think that unlike ghosts, a werewolf would be a sinch to catch, right?

Monday, September 26, 2005


I've heard several liberal bloggers say that the current political atmosphere in the U.S. is like the beginnings of fascism in Germany. I responded by shrugging it off as nutty. After all, a country who's democratic spirit can survive the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Espionage and Sedition Acts can survive anything, right? I'm still not seriously worried for America's future, but I saw two things today that sent shivers down my spine.

First, Andrew Sullivan discovers a new children's book called "Help! Mom! There are liberals under my bed!. Some claim it's a joke, but has plenty of evidence of people taking it seriously. My response: note the new low to which the "liberals are evil" right has sunk, and move on.

Then, I return to Atheism Presupposes Theism and see this:
Even if the atheist, in his debate with the Christian, assumes the "possibility" that God exists in order to judge whether the Bible is God's word, he still reasons in a circle. This is because, on the Christian position, God is not subject to "possibility," but is Himself the very author and determiner of possibility. The Bible does not teach that "possibly" God exists, but that He certainly does. If the atheist assumes it's possible that God does not exist, then for the atheist it's possible that the Bible is not God's word. But this is assuming in advance the very thing he needs to prove, since the Bible claims it is, in fact, God's word.
I don't know if this is the "Christian position," but there really is no non-circular way to reject it. Sanity requires rejecting any system that declares it mustn't be questioned. I know of no way to refute such beliefs. Such mental gymnastics are reminiscent of the doublethink of 1984, yet it goes beyond Orwell's wildest nightmares.

But this guy's just a nut right? I wish that were the case. The philosophy of the APT blogger isn't all that far from Answers in Genesis' Ken Ham, Intelligent Design godfather Philip Johnson, or Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost, a blog that comes in two places after Andrew Sullivan on the TTLB ecosystem.

These are just two recent instances an allied pair of political movements in the U.S. today. On the one hand, a philosophy that might by called "conservatismism" for its fetishizing of the word "conservative," whose main goal is not about policy but destroying all perceived enemies. On the other, a fundamentalist movement that represents not just on modern discoveries and morality, but on the concept of rationality itself. I repeat: they aren't going to destroy America. But its a frightening alliance none the less.

I'm not reassured

Mike Shermer's new Scientific American column is up. Subtitle: "Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth." I agree when he speaks of rainbows and distant lights in the sky. But I have trouble finding this soothing:
No less awe-inspiring are recent attempts to unweave the emotions, described by anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University in her book Why We Love (Henry Holt, 2004). Lust is enhanced by dopamine, a neurohormone produced by the hypothalamus that in turn triggers the release of testosterone, the hormone that drives sexual desire. But love is the emotion of attachment reinforced by oxytocin, a hormone synthesized in the hypothalamus and secreted into the blood by the pituitary. In women, oxytocin stimulates birth contractions, lactation and maternal bonding with a nursing infant. In both women and men it increases during sex and surges at orgasm, playing a role in pair bonding, an evolutionary adaptation for long-term care of helpless infants.

At the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Paul J. Zak posits a relation between oxytocin, trust and economic well-being. "Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone, and we find that it guides subjects' decisions even when they are unable to articulate why they are acting in a trusting or trustworthy matter," Zak explained to me. He argues that trust is among the most powerful factors affecting economic growth and that it is vital for national prosperity for a country to maximize positive social interactions among its members by ensuring a reliable infrastructure, a stable economy, and the freedom to speak, associate and trade.

We establish trust among strangers through verification in social interactions. James K. Rilling and his colleagues at Emory University, for instance, employed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan on 36 subjects while they played Prisoner's Dilemma. In the game, cooperation and defection result in differing payoffs depending on what the other participants do. The researchers found that in cooperators the brain areas that lit up were the same regions activated in response to such stimuli as desserts, money, cocaine and beautiful faces. Specifically, the neurons most responsive were those rich in dopamine (the lust liquor that is also related to addictive behaviors), located in the anteroventral striatum in the middle of the brain--the so-called pleasure center. Tellingly, cooperative subjects reported increased feelings of trust toward, and camaraderie with, like-minded partners.
Not doing it for me. There is something in our nature that makes us want to believe feelings of trust and such relate to something transcendental, not dependent on chemicals in our brain - though that desire might be genetic. Thoughts? Here's one where I really want to know what other people think.

Chopra's ignorance

Ambivablog has a round-up of posts on intelligent design, including one where Deepak Chopra shows off his ignorance:
To say the DNA happened randomly is like saying that a hurricane could blow through a junk yard and produce a jet plane.
DNA did not happen randomly. It happened according to laws of chemistry very different from the laws governing debris in a junk yard. Furthermore, it wasn't necessarily the first self-replicator. From TalkOrigins on abiogenisis:
The first "living things" could have been a single self replicating molecule, similar to the "self-replicating" peptide from the Ghadiri group [7, 17], or the self replicating hexanucleotide [10], or possibly an RNA polymerase that acts on itself [12].

Another view is the first self-replicators were groups of catalysts, either protein enzymes or RNA ribozymes, that regenerated themselves as a catalytic cycle [3, 5, 15, 26, 28]. An example is the SunY three subunit self-replicator [24]. These catalytic cycles could be limited in a small pond or lagoon, or be a catalytic complex adsorbed to either clay or lipid material on clay. Given that there are many catalytic sequences in a group of random peptides or polynucleotides (see below) it's not unlikely that a small catalytic complex could be formed.

These two models are not mutually exclusive. The Ghadiri peptide can mutate and form catalytic cycles [9].

No matter whether the first self-replicators were single molecules, or complexes of small molecules, this model is nothing like Hoyle's "tornado in a junkyard making a 747".
Michael Reynolds of Might Middle fame hits the rest of the Amba's excerpt pretty well:
1) How does nature take creative leaps? Hold the film of a great movie in your hands. Now peek at only six or eight of the millions of individual frames. Baffling, isn't it? That's the fossil record: tiny fragments of a whole. The leap you see when all you know is frame #9 and frame #10,014 isn't quite such a leap when you have the intervening 10,000 frames. It's like looking at human technology and knowing only the ox cart and the aircraft carrier. Wow, what a leap! It's magic!

2) Good grief. The positive mutations survive, the negative ones die out, so the fossil record necessarily displays billions of positives for every negative. Given that the fossil record is a tiny sampling (see above) it is unlikely that we'd ever see anything but the positive mutations. But as it happens, we do have evidence of dead-end mutations -- all through our DNA, which is replete with genes that have been sidelined.

3) It doesn't "know where to stop." Evolution is about survivability. A species which survives is doing all it needs to do. Sharks survive, so they have litttle need to become super sharks. The "goal" of evolution is survival, not perfection.

12) There's no obvious explanation for why life appears beautiful? To a species which forms its concept of beauty entirely within the known world, and for which beauty is by definition entirely subjective? That's just stupid.
Just for emphasis, here's the rest:
4. Evolutionary biology is stuck with regard to simultaneous mutations. One kind of primordial skin cell, for example, mutated into scales, fur, and feathers. These are hugely different adaptations, and each is tremendously complex. How could one kind of cell take three different routs purely at random?
Simultaneous? What makes him think, for a second, that no branching in evolution can occur? I don't see the problem of mere complexity either, such can happen bit by bit
5. If design doesn't imply intelligence, why are we so intelligent? The human body is composed of cells that evolved from one-celled blue-green algae, yet that algae is still around. Why did DNA pursue the path of greater and greater intelligence when it could have perfectly survived in one-celled plants and animals, as in fact it did?
Only it didn't. We may share a common ancestor with algae, but that doesn't mean we're descended from it. Next.
6. Why do forms replicate themselves without apparent need? The helix or spiral shape found in the shell of the chambered nautilus, the center of sunflowers, spiral galaxies, and DNA itself seems to be such a replication. It is mathematically elegant and appears to be a design that was suited for hundreds of totally unrelated functions in nature.
Because repeating algorithms form easily. This argument actually backfires, since when things are actually designed, there's rarely reason to use such an algorithm. We don't make plane wings looking like whole planes.
7. What happens when simple molecules come into contact with life? Oxygen is a simple molecule in the atmosphere, but once it enters our lungs, it becomes part of the cellular machinery, and far from wandering about randomly, it precisely joins itself with other simple molecules, and together they perform cellular tasks, such as protein-building, whose precision is millions of times greater than anything else seen in nature. If the oxygen doesn't change physically--and it doesn't--what invisible change causes it to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life?
Scientists long ago rejected the idea of a fundamental difference between living and non-living matter. I'm surprised this isn't common knowledge by now.
8. How can whole systems appear all at once? The leap from reptile to bird is proven by the fossil record. Yet this apparent step in evolution has many simultaneous parts. It would seem that Nature, to our embarrassment, simply struck upon a good idea, not a simple mutation. If you look at how a bird is constructed, with hollow bones, toes elongated into wing bones, feet adapted to clutching branches instead of running, etc., none of the mutations by themselves give an advantage to survival, but taken altogether, they are a brilliant creative leap. Nature takes such leaps all the time, and our attempt to reduce them to bits of a jigsaw puzzle that just happened to fall into place to form a beautifully designed picture seems faulty on the face of it. Why do we insist that we are allowed to have brilliant ideas while Nature isn't?
See above.
9. Darwin's iron law was that evolution is linked to survival, but it was long ago pointed out that "survival of the fittest" is a tautology. Some mutations survive, and therefore we call them fittest. Yet there is no obvious reason why the dodo, kiwi, and other flightless birds are more fit; they just survived for a while. DNA itself isn't fit at all; unlike a molecule of iron or hydrogen, DNA will blow away into dust if left outside on a sunny day or if attacked by pathogens, x-rays, solar radiation, and mutations like cancer. The key to survival is more than fighting to see which organism is fittest.
It may be hard to tell what will survive, but this explains why evolution can go in a direction, whatever that direction is. And yes, it produces sub-optimal solutions, that's another point against design.
10. Competition itself is suspect, for we see just as many examples in Nature of cooperation. Bees cooperate, obviously, to the point that when a honey bee stings an enemy, it acts to save the whole hive. At the moment of stinging, a honeybee dies. In what way is this a survival mechanism, given that the bee doesn't survive at all? For that matter, since a mutation can only survive by breeding--"survival" is basically a simplified term for passing along gene mutations from one generation to the next-how did bees develop drones in the hive, that is, bees who cannot and never do have sex?
Because this can aid the survival of the whole hive, which shares genes. The bee example is actually the simplest example of a basic idea of evolutionary psychology.
11. How did symbiotic cooperation develop? Certain flowers, for example, require exactly one kind of insect to pollinate them. A flower might have a very deep calyx, or throat, for example than only an insect with a tremendously long tongue can reach. Both these adaptations are very complex, and they serve no outside use. Nature was getting along very well without this symbiosis, as evident in the thousands of flowers and insects that persist without it. So how did numerous generations pass this symbiosis along if it is so specialized?
Such things can form bit by bit. Hey, look at domesticated animals. They only evolved to their current forms after we began taking advantage of them to a degree. Is this so hard?

And 12 was already covered by Michael. I'm done. Wow, dealing with such ignorance was even more tiring than I expected.


I'm having trouble staying logged in to blogger. Let's see I've fixed the problem...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Accept questionalbe authority

People today reflexively dislike any truth that is to be accepted based on authority. When we think of "authority," we remember the medival church condeming Galileo for saying the Earth moves and see the incident as proof of the superiority of evidence over authority.

But how do we know this? We know it because it is what our school teachers told us. Of course, we also know that this has been confirmed through telescope observations, but few have made such observations personally. That such observations have been made is known through authority. Even the existence of the planets themselves is known largely by authority, for few have spent enough time stargazing to know some of the lights up there (planets, from the Greek for "wanderer") move in relation to the others. Perhaps worst of all, the precise observations of the stars observations needed to confirm heliocentrism are beyond the enthusiasm, if not the skill, of amature astronomers.

This isn't the worst of it. I've accepted claims of greater importance to my personal life with less understanding of the evidence, particularly in medicine. For anthropology class, I'm reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, about a case where Hmong imigrants butted heads with American doctors. As I read, I realize that for people who don't see a reason to place great trust in our medical system, such behavior makes perfect sense.

Even if we accept authority rather blindly much of the time, we can at least exercise some reason when controversies occur, can't we? I think so. In the autism-vaccine controversy, there were flaws in the anti-vaccine argument visible to anyone with a basic understanding of scientific method. These instances can help us make judgements of overall credibility for the next time we need an expert for medical advice. When creationists claim thermodynamics refutes evolution, it's easy to check what the real law says and find the holes in their attempts to salvage the argument. I haven't had to give the young-earthers a second thought since seeing the emptiness of that argument exposed.

On the other hand, the controversies still have to occur. It's difficult to see how an 11th century citizen of medieval Europe could realize that the Bible is not an infallible guide to truth. To people of that era, the miracle-claims must have seemed as reliable as any history and provided evidence for the even greater reliablility of divine authorship. It is tempting then to follow the speculations of Matrix fans who thought the movie's hero's had only moved from one dream-world to another. We can wonder if we've rejected one bad authority for another who's fatal flaws have yet to become apparent.

This ignores our advantage over the people of medieval Europe in that they did nothing with any chance of detecting flaws of the Bible. With science, on the other hand, our conclusions are regularly used in a way that would expose and serious flaws. Medical studies are repeated and over turned, NASA scientists launch space probes based on a heliocentric model, and chemists do things in the laboratory that would not work if modern chemistry were wrong. Even though the individual citizen cannot check even many of science's conclusions, there is always someone questioning them. In other words, we can trust science not because it is an unquestionable authority, but because it is a questionable one.

NOTE: Date edited to reflect publication time, rather than time I began writing.

New blog

Seth of Spoiled Honey is taking part in a new group blog, Kingdom of Heathen.

Here's a nice sample:
A commenter on this post (at my blog) brought up something I want to talk about: Faith and reason and all that jazz. Seth has dubbed him "Mr. Theist" so that is what I'm going to call him.
You have faith Kele, you just don't know it. Whenever you do something as simple as sitting in a chair, you have faith that it will hold you. I have faith that God exists and YOU have faith that He doesn't because you cannot pove He doesn't exist.
I can't believe there are actually people who equate faith in chairs with faith in God. Could this be some kind of hoax, like OBJECTIVE: Ministries?

College Republican self-criticism

A Republican student at Grinnel college says College Republicans have become preoccupied with their minority status.

What is it about human nature that makes so many people truly enjoy whining about being marginalized? This something I've seen from Republicans on campus, but it's by no means unique to them. I've seen it coming both out of atheist and Christian fundamentalist circles, each finding evidence that American society hates religion/is hyper religious. Even when a group is marginalized to a degree, focusing on complaining about it means never really changing it. The College Republicans at Madison give out an yearly Enemy of Freedom Award, in essence saying, "people hate us, we can't do anything about it, so lets ritually whine about it once a year." Grow up!

Hat tip: Catching Flies

Saturday, September 24, 2005

My ideology

Yesterday, John Cole posted his results from an online political ideology test. I took it, and ended up just barely on the "Democrat" side of the Democrat/Libertarian line, probably pretty acurate:
You are a

Social Liberal
(75% permissive)

and an...

Economic Conservative
(60% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

I would dictate that high school science classes ephasize how scientists reach their conclusions. (My answer to what law you'd make if you could make one to last forever).

Other observations: on the famous people page, I ended up closest to Adam Sandler. The page for the 2004 election indicates Kerry got the better part of the libertarian and centrist blocks, but this may be an illusion created by the imbalance between Kerry and Bush voters taking the test. Finally, what's up with the question "A computer will eventually write the greatest novel ever written"?

This is rich

Somehow, this blog got on my technorati list of blogs that link here. Here's the quoted excerpt, looks rather like an atheists' blogroll:
Free Thought Weekly God is for suckers Godless Wonder Goose the Antithesis Hellbound Allee Incinerating Presuppositionalism Kill the Afterlife Libertarian Defender No God Blog Passion of the Atheist Uncredible Hallq
Alas, the site is a Christian one, with no link to me in sight.

I briefly considered responding to the banner, which says, "The proof for Christian Theism is in the impossibility of the contrary. Without God, you could not prove anything." But that's a bit of nonsense that's been around for awhile, the site also has a brand new gem:
Aaron Kinney writes: "So can you then give an objective moral justification for following Gods word?" (See Mr. Kinney's comments from this post.)

Great question. You'll not find an answer that satisfies you unless you believe in God and His word. What you would find as an acceptable answer is determined by your presuppositions, your worldview. Since your worldview rejects God and His word, you'll not accept (if you're consistent) the answer that God gives you in His word. Thus, when the Christian gives you an answer to that question and you reject it, you find yourself reasoning in a circle, since you assume to be true the very thing you're supposed to be proving, i.e., that God doesn't exist.
How do we know Christianity is true? Because it's true! And if you disagree, you're arguing in a circle!

Somehow, I can't help but feel a strange sense of admiration for theistic philosophy's ability to crank out bad arguments in its defense.

Friday, September 23, 2005

No longer a reptile

My sidebar tells me I'm a Flappy Bird in the TTLB ecosystem. I don't care about that per se, but I think it's an improvement over being a reptile.

James Randi believs in psychic powers

Today's post at Raving Atheist is called Rebels Without a God, taken from a particularly silly point from a post attacking on him in a Christian blog:
Most atheists are lying to us and themselves when they say they do not believe in God. Deep down, they do, but they are rebelling (For some reason, this comment offends many of them deeply). Let me put it this way: How many painstakingly written works do we see where the author expends great energy in an attempt to disprove the existence of . . . leprechauns? The Tooth Fairy? Bugs Bunny? The answer, obviously, is that they simply don’t exist, so it’s not worth the energy. So why God? Some will argue that it is because belief in God messes up the social/political system they treasure (which a clear look at history will disprove), but many are not in it for that. They are rebelling against their created nature, no more, no less.
I don't know of anyone spending time arguing against leprechauns, but plenty of people do spend their time arguing about other sorts of nonsense that people believe: astrology, alien visitations, psychic powers, homeopathy, etc. By this logic, James Randi must secretly beleive psychic powers exist, and he's just rebelling against what he knows in his heart.

WELCOME Raving Atheist readers! And to RA, thanks for linking back to this.

Remember protest babes?

A few months ago, there was a lot of talk in the blogosphere about protest babes. Today, in Randi's commentary, I have discovered the existence of Skeptichicks. Check it out - they've got some great pictures.


Today, James Randi publishes a letter whose conclusions just don't make sense:
A couple of years ago I reported to you that I attended a conference of teachers – many of whom were science teachers – who were largely accepting of author Jack Canfield's claim that Uri Geller's powers are real. [See that report at] I've recently found solid evidence that such an unscientific view of the world is pervasive, particularly among the young people who apparently are being taught by those superstitious teachers! I polled 56 students in two of my Sociology classes (at a post-secondary institution which I wish to remain nameless) about the "spirit world" and its interaction with the material world. Here are a few of the pertinent results:

62% of those polled believe in an anthropomorphic god who intervenes in history.

61% of those polled believe that prayer is effective in treating illness.

37% of those polled believe that when a child is born with MS or Down Syndrome, there is a spiritual explanation for it: itÂ’s "destiny" or "meant to be," god is teaching the parents a lesson, itÂ’s a test, a punishment, or karma.

25% of those polled believe that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast for a supernatural reason: it's the “end times,” it’s a test or warning or message or punishment from god, or – amazingly – "nobody knows" why it hit.

66% of those polled believe that when they die, they will continue to live on spiritually: experience judgment, go to heaven or hell, await the kingdom of god, enter some spirit world, or join with other spirits somewhere in the universe.

It's no wonder that so many people are susceptible to the claims of cold readers, spoon benders, e-meter readers, astrologers, channelers, faith healers, mediums, dowsers, homeopaths and proponents of "Intelligent Design.

Keep up the fine work, sir. Meantime, I need a good stiff drink.
I don't have the figure for a specifically anthropomorphic god who intervenes in history," but the figure for belief in God in general has consistently been 90% or higher. Maybe a 1/3 of those don't think God intervenes in history, but the sociology teacher's poll at least seems to indicate a low rate of parent-to-child transmission of beliefs, not a high rate of indoctrination by teachers.

Sen. Clinton to vote against Roberts

Via The Volokh Conspiracy, Hillary Clinton will be voting "no" on the confirmation of John Roberts.

My first reaction is this is one more reason not to be excited about Hillary for '08. As I've said, if he isn't good enough for Ann Coulter, he's good enough for me. But when Orin Kerr, the post's author, asks if the standards change for the top spot, I thought back to qualms I had had awhile ago: why is Bush sending a relatively inexperienced judge to the Chief Justice spot? Why not Scalia? The only explainations I've heard (albeit in the process of largely ignoring this issue) involve politics, not trying for the best decision for the sake of the Court. Am I missing something?

Students' perceptions

Catching Flies has a long critique of a study on student perceptions of political bias in the classroom.

The significance of this survey can be summed up as follows: it proves nothing I didn't learn sitting in on the College Republicans' kick-off. There, I heard some complaints about The Left dominating every aspect of the campus, including teaching. In other words, a group representing a significant chunk of the college population thought bias wasn't just something they had heard incidents of on other campuses, but something that was rampant on their own.

This was, obviously, just something something a bunch of students said. My response was not to think, "a bunch of students can't be wrong," but to wonder what basis the claim had in real problems. Slap the word "study" on something, and it sounds like it must be significant, even though this study is still just something a bunch of students said. So far, I've seen no indication of bias in my own classrooms, and I made this the semester to knock off my humanities requirements.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Philosophy, et cetera has twin posts on rationality, How Objective is Rationality and Why Be Rational?

One example Richard gives of a tenet of rationality is not believing contradictions. I'd tend to propose that the logical Law of Noncontradiction is nothing metaphysical, but rather a linguistic statement about one definition of "contradiction." With imprecisely defined terms, it is possible for two things that are intuitively contradictory to be both true, such as an electron being two places at once. But this it makes it literally impossible to believe contradictions, except maybe if one does not notice them. Then, this might be rephrased as a command to look for contradictions, but once you even have reason to suspect contradictions in your beliefs, it is another contradiction to continue to assert them with certainty. Maybe there's a way out of this sort of inevitable rationalism, but I'm not mentally nimble enough to pull it off.

Of course, it's interesting to do thought experiments where one can choose to be kept from rationality by an outsided force (Richard uses an angel the later post). Here, there is an argument to be made for irrationality in that discovering the truth is often unpleasant. But there is a definite utilitarian value to truth, and I don't know how far this hypothetical angel's good-luck blessing could be carried. Could it, say, make someone adopt beliefs conducive to happiness? If good beliefs are always better, then not only would we have to get the right final beliefs, but the right beliefs leading up to these beliefs, and how this is diferent from rationality, I don't know. It is a mistake, perhaps, to focus on action in discussing rationality, which is where the problem with Richard's angel comes from.

Carnival of the Badger VI

This week's round-up of blogging by Wisconsinites is up!

It includes my two pieces on attempting to get a new driver's license for purposes of the proposed voter ID bill, and as well as a piece by Jay Bullock on the bill. Personally, I think the bill could work, as long as they set up a system to make getting a new ID that's little more dificult than registering to vote - which reminds me, I need to do that.

Internet problems

My dorm internet is being screwy, I don't know how long it will last. As long as it does, I'll try to get in occasionally to the libraries for internet acess (which I need to do for school anyway), but the flow of blogging may drop until then.

Universities conceed to Horowitz?

Also on Catching Flies, why Horowitz didn't win in Ohio.

I don't have a copy of the Ohio bill, but but there's a world of diference between Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights and the
AAUP-endorsed statement that Horowitz hailed as a victory. The former says "there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge" and talks about "the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge" - perhaps theorectically true, but the chance the universe sprang into existence from nothing five minutes ago is not relevant to the operation of a university. On the other hand, the AAUP's statement emphasizes that not all ideas have equal merit and that colleges must be independent from government, in defiance of Horowitz's attempts to legislate his goals.

PA freedom committee finds little wrong

Via Catching Flies, it looks as if the Pennslyvania committee to find abuses of academic freedom isn't finding much.

The singularity is here. Or was.

PZ Myers says Raymond Kurzweil, proponent of an idea called the Singularity, is a first-rate bullshit artist.

When I used the idea in a lame attempt at generating suspense earlier this month, I hadn't really looked closely at what he was saying. Apparently, the claim is the time between new "events," whatever that means, in human progress will soon become 0. Myers explains how this odd conclusion was reached:
Because not only is the chart an artificial and perhaps even conscious attempt to fit the data to a predetermined conclusion, but what it actually represents is the proximity of the familiar. We are much more aware of innovations in our current time and environment, and the farther back we look, the blurrier the distinctions get. We may think it's a grand step forward to have these fancy cell phones that don't tie you to a cord coming from the wall, but there was also a time when people thought it was radical to be using this new bow & arrow thingie, instead of the good ol' atlatl. We just lump that prior event into a "flinging pointy things" category and don't think much of it. When Kurzweil reifies biases that way, he gets garbage, like this graph, out.
So the 0 time between new events is baloney, not that it's too meaningful in the first place. If an event is only a new gee-gaw along the lines of a cell phone, a new one every second would feel less a revolution that a coup of technology out of control.

Still, I think a case can be made for faster advance. Information technology allows new discoveries to be broadcast around the globe instantaneously so anyone in the world can begin work on a new discovery based on the first one. A larger, more educated population means more people working in scientific and technological advancement. More efficient means of production allow more people to be free to work on such advances. Many advances, such as the computer, are also excellent tools for developing new ones, such as in simulations of a new product or molecule.

Let's take one area: scientific advancement. Since the time of Copernicus, we've gone from knowing next to nothing about the physical laws of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. And this may be just the "proximity of the familiar," but it seems more of this came in the later half of this period, with understanding of magnetism only comming in the later 18th century, and atomic theory at the dawn of the 19th. Before that, it was really only understanding basic astronomy followed by Newton's mechanics in the late 17th century. Then again, have we slowed to a crawl since the time of Einstein? Attempts at finding a theory of everything seem to have proceeded rather slowly. Or is this an illusion created by how distant the advances are from everyday life?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Meme infection

For the first time, an example of Dawkin's infectious idea about infectious ideas infects this blog. Via Pharygnula:Rules:
1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

My 23rd post: Unbalanced reporting on NPR
Fifth sentece: "No reporter today would treat support for segregation as a significant viewpoint, or evidence supposedly showing that blacks are vastly inferior to whites."

Does this represent me?

Giving creationists a wegie

In response to the Discovery Institute's Wedge Document, we now have the Wedgie Document. The best point comes first:
Play offense - Find a logical inconsistency or gross factual error in his argument (easy to do) and hammer it. Avoid playing defense. By that I mean it is not possible to define, illustrate, and defend the whole of evolutionary biology in a blog post or comment thread. I don’t mean to avoid specifics. Factual details are good! Find a huge mistake (or 2-3 mistakes) in his argument and point them out. The typical Creationist will defend them for a long, long time.
Creationists like to think if they can find one hole in evolution, they've won. We need to throw this back at them. Sometimes, this just means hammering holes in one argument, but when dealing with die-hard Genisis literalists, do things like hammering the problem of fitting so many animals into one boat. No sense playing by a different set of rules regarding standards of proof (not to be confused with standards of factuality).

Carnival of Vanities

A little slow posting this, but here's this week's Carnival of Vanities

The Onion and reality

Last week, Andrew Sullivan commented that the gap between the Onion and reality is shrinking. Today's edition had another story to remind me of a real event.

Free speech warning

David Frech, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has warned a Horowitz-endorsed academic freedom panel to be careful not to infringe on the rights of professors. Note that, to the organization's credit, this was posted on Students for Academic Freedom's website.

Indocrination: Horowitz v. a student

A student in St. Louis writes about a visit by Horowitz to his campus, and the difference between Horowitz's description of a teacher and the student's first-hand experience:
When I told him that his description of the class was wholly inaccurate, his first instinct was to blame the student that told him about it.
Somehow, I doubt Horowitz will be more skeptical about the next complaint he gets.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Irony watch

Jeremy Wick, a UW-Madison student, explains why liberals are scum who need to be more respectful.


"Let's keep penguins out of politics until they can vote."

From today's Daily Cardinal.

Probability and evolution

The second half of Jason Rosenhouse's Skeptical Inquirer article on why probability doesn't refute evolution is up.

One point I question:
Upon hearing a creationist mention probability in his argument, you can, in good conscience, ignore him.
More so than other creationist arguments?

Here's a story you don't hear every day

How D&D saved a life.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Atheist Revolution tries to define Christian extremism.

I don't think his list of what makes an extremist adds anything meaningful to the list of what makes a fundamentalist. It's hard to think the Bible is the inerrant, literal truth and be a fan of intelect and modernity or have a tender view of homosexuality. The one meaningful addition is perhaps the sense of exclusivity, though that's pretty common among people who meet the first five characteristics. It also seems to me the "believe-or-burn" mentality needs to be listed in there somewhere, it's held by a significan't (but, I hope and believe, shrinking) minority of the population. I don't know if they're large enough to be called extreme or not. The trouble here is "extremism" is a less concrete thing, hence vaguer qualifications listed by Vjack. I suppose it simply could be used for the overall vilest section of fundamentalists, like the wonderful people behind (no, I won't boost their Google ranking by linking to them).

One problem with remains, however. I'm tired of seeing "extremism" used as a slur. It's an insult to people throughout history who've been far ahead of their times, it's an insult people working for radical reform in Islam today, and it's arguably an insult to atheists, a group sometimes labeled "extreme" in our rejection of religion. It creates a need to search for a mythical middle ground in selecting one's beliefs. We'd be better off abandoning using the term for whatever we dislike.

Ethnography of crack dealing

In one of the early lectures in my anthropology class, the professor said it's important to get around saying a cultural practice is wrong and look at why it makes sense to people in that culture. For this week, we were assigned to read the first chapter of Philippe Bourgois' In Search of Respect, an anthropological analysis of a crack gang in Spanish Harlem. One passage really hit home the professor's point:
These assertations and rumors of Ray's ruthlessness and even cruelty were an integral part of his effectiveness at running his network of crackhouses smoothly. Regular displays of violence are essential for preventing rip-offs by colleagues, customers, and professional hold-up artists. Indeed, upward mobility in the underground economy of the street-dealing world requires a systematic and effective use of violence against one's colleagues, one's neighbor's, and, to a certain extent, against oneself. Behavior that appears irrationally violent, "barbaric," and ultimately self-destructive to the outsider, can be reinterpreted according to the logic of the underground economy as judicious public relations and long-term investment in one's "human capital development."
The point here is not to make an approving moral judgement, it is to set judgements aside to study how a society works.

Another point occured to me as I was reading the book. The first chapter is called, "Violating Apartheid in the United States." This isn't a random slur on the country, but something backed up by observations of racism form a number of sources, including white police officers who thought a white drug-addict (which Bourgois was mistaken for) should be getting his crack from other whites, not Latinos. A fanatical campaing for purging leftism from academica could easily bar this book for daring to make these observations, keeping students from this informative and fascinating first in social science.

New license, part II

Okay, called the DMV twice today at the time recommended by their phone message (between 11:30a.m. and 12:30p.m.) twice, all agents were busy. This idea of getting an updated driver's license may not work so well.

On the other hand, as my mom (who reads my blog) pointed out to me, if the voter ID bill passes, I can still vote absentee. Dunno what the College Dems would say to the idea of having most students do so, but I suppose there's an arguement that this is what should happen anyway, students voting where their parents pay taxes, since otherwise they can push for a local tax increase that doesn't affect them at all. I suppose the response is it would mean they can't affect local decisions that do affect them such as city ordinances.

Naive falsificationism and cranks

A few days ago, I was paging through my philosophy reader and discovered the best essay on falsificationism I've read yet: "Believing where we cannot prove," an except from Philip Kitcher's The Case Against Creationism. A basic point is that the concept of falsifiability, misconstrued, can destroy any scientific theory, and we need not reject auxilary hypothesis when they are testable. For example, when Newton's laws could not explain the motion of Uranus, scientists proposed the hypothesis that an undiscovered planet was out there, and tested it by looking for and discovering this planet, Neptune.

Today, Orac writes on the nature of cranks. Their common fallacy is they think if there's a hole in current theory, it must be thrown out entirely and replaced with their pet idea. This is wrong. Not only does it ignore the need for testing the alternative, it ignores the fact that some remedies to flawed theory are more likely than others. In the case of Uranus and Neptune, scientists knew of cases of planets affecting eachother's orbits significantly, but no other case where Newton's laws did not apply. In that case, it made sense to look first at for a new planet before throwing out Newton's system. Creationists and the like are unwilling to do this, taking anything we do not know about evolution as proof of God without considering that it is immensely more likely that the solution will be found within the framework of evolutionary theory.

Too much time on hands

Some one tacked up this in my dorm's laundry room.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


I thought I'd break from blogging today because of the carnival (and carry-over fatigue from last night) but this is hilarious.

Carnival of the Godless

Welcome to this biweek's Carnival of the Godless. I forget what number it is, it's late, I'm too tired to look it up, but cheer up: as a result of my staying up so late tonight, those of you who want your carnival at 5 a.m. will find it. Enjoy.

First, the Common Man rants about the less-than-intelligent design of humans and the world.

Seth at Spoiled Honey has a post titled Submitted for Your Approval. Great post Seth, flattered that you'd want my approval for it. What's that? You meant for the approval of your readers in general? Oh well.

At Shades of Grey, Charlie Killian reflects on religious interpretations of Hurricane Katrina.

Next up, a limerick. Hmmm..., Seth was being kind of artsy, I wonder if I'll see more of this as submissions roll in.

The story of His Noodly Appendage, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, has taken on a life of its own. At The Squib, the saga continues.

Last week ago, I made a post publicizing a new carnival calledGod or Not, designed to bring theistic and atheistic bloggers together. Also working to this goal is a debate I got from a Christian blogger and an agnostic. To Donald: please consider hosting God or Not, last I checked there's three atheists signed up and only one theist.

This next one is a little disturbing: Red State Rabble talks about Hurricane Katrina and documents Dembski's interest in shooting its victims. In the same vein, Goddamnliberal notes how some Christian leaders only think of their agendas in this time of disaster.

Pooflingers Anonymous has a post on one of the dumbest creationist arguments around. No, worse than the entropy one. It's "were you there?" I've seen a variant of this that gets to the heart of the stupidity: "you need a time machine to know, and the Bible's a time machine." No, the Bible is a collection of pieces of paper with marks on them, no matter how infallible you claim the Marker to be.

Finally, from the Evangelical Atheist, a brilliant piece comparing religions to protection rackets. Of course, religion has softened over the years, now, according to one poll, the believe-or-burn folks are in a minority even among evangelicals. In any case, it's impossible to see such folks as having any moral decency without telling yourself "they can't really believe that, can they?"

That's all for this week. Next week's carnival is hosted by The Pinoy Atheist, so... *mumbles something motivational and goes to sleep, feeling like a bad host*

UPDATE: mmm... beautiful morning. Sorry for last night's crankiness, happy 23rd carnival, love to see what you'll all have for next time. - hallq, 11:15 a.m.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

One last call for submissions finish your posts and e-mails. Okay, I'm leaving soon to see Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight, if I'm awake enough when I get back, I post the Carnival of the Godless at ~3. Otherwise, expect to see it late tomorrow morning.

A slur on who?

A talk show host is forced to appologize for saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes and hurricane zones." Raving Atheist looks at the situation this way: "It’s more a slur on religion. The implication is that when people are scared out of their minds, they believe the kind of things that you have to be out of your mind to believe."

Quote of the Time Being

I'm not racist or anything. It's just, some people I hate, some people I don't get along with. And black people just happen to be the ones because they think they're better than everyone else.
-an 18 year old dope, quote by Majikthise. Interesting how all racists these days know to avoid the label, and smart of them in some cases. The big shots avoid anything that can get them denounced as such while they spread slightly subtler bile.


Adam's comments in response to Amba's announcement for God or Not provide lots of good food for thought.

I deem agnosticism to be the mushy middle, whereas Buddhism and non-traditional spirituality are two aspects of the radical spiritual center.

I anticipate these kind of debates might proceed in the following manner. I feel kind of sorry for the theists, especially if they adhere to one traditional religion. Such a straw man--the atheists will beat it to death.

However, once the theist relinquishes traditional religious notions, especially western ones, the theist, if skillful, becomes a much more formidable opponent.

If moderately skillful, the theist, can at least force the atheist to a draw. If more skillful, he can win--in the following manner. Western religion proposes ludicrous kindergarten level metaphysics. Atheism denies metaphysics completely: an unlikely position which cannot answer basic philosophical questions and which asserts that no fundamental paradigm shift will occur in the sciences though many have occurred before...

I can only take so much before I start mocking the Christians for their "baby metaphysics," and I harrass the atheists for their pyrrhic victory. Congratulations for you have convinced yourself that the only purpose in the world is the one you make up, and that we live in a souless heartless void. Kudos, o random product of horny competition, whose fundamental being would be altered if but a moment's delay occurred in thy conception. And then I would berate them further. I mean, look if you're going to die anyways, there are better metaphysics for a sensualist. Just claim God is horny like the Greek gods. That way you can be rewarded with eternal hedonism for your own hedonism...

What I consider the core of theism is the belief that there is some higher benevolent structure to the universe. So with this view, it is easy to be a theist yet hold very few traditional beliefs. I like to consider my thoughts on this as an argument for why it is highly likely "something else is going on" as opposed to your traditional "proofs" of God's existence.

Simply put, you can be a theist if you believe that there is some higher something-or-other at work in the universe. You don't have to believe in things like vicarious atonement or the virgin birth.

The weakest points of traditional theism are (1)inability to deal with other religions (2)inability to deal with science (3) inability to address the problem of evil (4) and internal contradictions. Well, they can deal with them, but it looks like a lot of hand-waving and unconvincing rationalization.

The weakest points of atheism are
(1)inability to deal with consciousness (2) inability to deal with humanity's long history of spirituality (3) inability to deal with fundamental philosophical questions (4)inability to explain why we have the physical laws we do. Oh, there are responses to these objections, but they are more hand-waving. At base, imo, atheism is very depressing and requires no less hand-waving than its alternatives...
I call myself an atheist primarily because I do not see any reason to think God, traditionally described, exists. I might cast my self as a pantheist in the model of Einstein but don't on linguistic grounds; Einstein stretched the word too far. Also, though some religions are non-theistic, I see no reason to suppose a belief system is particularly likely to be true just because it is old.

Adam talks of rejecting traditional religion for eastern/non-traditional religion, even though Buddhism is older than Christianity. In spite of the rejection of "tradition," however, the interest in Buddhism speaks to a misguided reverence for what is old. Would anyone say that finding philosophical truth is merely a matter of deciding between Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics? No, they try to mold the best philosophy they can, largely without concern for keeping within ancient schools. (As an aside, I think the attempt to find centrist religion is also mistaken).

Whatever may be good in, say Buddhism, I see no reason to think it even somewhat likely that it is all good. For example, I cannot believe, as Buddhism and most religions do, that we survive bodily death. The mind may not be the brain, but it seems likely dependent upon it. Memory decays when the brain does. Perhaps we survive in some sense to be reincarnated without our old memories, but without things like memories, it becomes difficult to say that a certain soul is the same as the one that inhabited a certain body.

Rejection of God as normally conceived and lack of respect for ideas that are merely old: atheism need mean nothing more than that. It is not, to me, the silly arrogance of scientists who think they know everything, as scientists have been doing for a long time. Of course there are great unanswered questions in the world. There is a great discovery to be made, a "paradigm shift" if you will, in explaining consciousness. Yesterday, my philosophy teacher told us it has been argued humans aren't smart enough to understand consciousness, but even this acknowledges there is something to understand. Similarly, the existence of the universe is a profound mystery, though I'll stick with my inability to answer it as every attempt I've seen ends in paradox.

The key is to have only one standard for belief: is it true? If this means being left without an answer to profound questions, so be it. Better confusion with hope of understanding than a fictitious, unsound solution that only distracts from the hunt for meaning

New license, part I

Okay, so Wisconsin is considering a bill to require voters to have a photo ID with their current adress. The Republicans say it will stop fraud, the Democrats say it will screw over a lot of people, including college students like me whose license has their parents' adress on it. I decided to find out how hard it is to get a new one.

So far, it looks like the DMV is set up to help people who need a new license with current adress. I went to their website, and the only thing they had under adress change was how to notify them, not get it on your license. Same thing when I called their phone number and got an automated system. Monday, I'll call to talk to a real person, but for now it looks like the DMV would have to get ready to deal with a new class of people if this bill passes.

George Galloway = Pat Robertson

A denunciation of Galloway from the left. I'll make some copies to hand out when he comes to speak on campus tomorrow.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Quote of the Time Being

Although popular opinion favored the Supreme Court and condemned the Christian Science Church, an interesting dissent was expressed in a New York Times editorial by Stephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor. Carter pointed out that according to a recent Gallup poll, four out of five Americans believe that prayer can cure disease, and nearly half say they have been healed by prayer themselves. He concluded sardonically, "By refusing to intervene in McKown v. Lundman, the Supreme Court has reinforced a societal message that has grown depressingly common: It is perfectly O.K. to believe in the power of prayer, so long as one does not believe in it so sincerely that one actually expects it to work."
-From The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, one of the assigned readings in my anthropology course. An accurate assesment of our nation's religious split-personality.

I don't know what the dumbest part of this is...

From Bob Park, something with so much stupidity I have to post the whole thing:
2018? In 1961 John Kennedy promised the Moon "before this decade is out." From a standing start, America was on the moon in seven years. Now, after 44 years of "space progress," it's gonna take twice as long? What are we looking for? NASA says they'll find water, hydrogen and "valuable commodities." On the Moon? Go on! Maybe someone takes that seriously, but he's not writing this column. We've got robots on Mars right now. Put a few of them on the moon. They don't break for lunch, or complain about the cold nights, and they live on sunshine. Space exploration with humans is about over. The bills won't come due until Bush is safely out of office. Stick the next administration with an impossibly expensive and pointless program and let them take the blame for ending human space exploration. This is a poison pill.

From Inside Higher Ed

Two articles relating to academic freedom in yesterday's Inside Higher Ed.

First, an indication Brown University is not so hostile to liberals as some might think.

Second, the AAUP is fighting legislation based on a statement it signed on to. This stuck out:
So why would anyone object? Critics of the Academic Bill of Rights, some of which has similar language, say that this statement and its inclusion in legislation suggests that Horowitz was correct in saying that students are being punished for their political views. And they say that these seemingly harmless statements could be used by a student who didn’t want evolution taught as truth, or by a Holocaust denier demanding equal time in a course on Nazi Germany.
Perhaps sloppy story writing got criticism's of Horowitz's version tacked on to this legislation, but if what's in Congress truly is based on the AAUP-approved statement, it has a section explicitly saying that not all ideas have equal merit.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Thanks, Amba

Abivablog is promoting the new carnival God or Not. I'm a fan of hers since her blog is something of a middle ground for various religious viewpoints; hopefully this will shore up the current disparity in the host line-up (3 atheists and 1 theist at this point in time).

What we have here is a failure to know jack

Yesterday's Skeptic's Circle had a post that's worth highlighting because it doens't get talked about much: bad science resulting not from pseuds working hard to promote a crackpot theory, but journalists who don't know enough to cover regular science well. Enjoy.

Atheists against Newdow

I'm not the only one. Skeptic Rant had a post yesterday criticizing Newdow (while noting the problems with the thing).

Any others out there? I could do a round-up with enough.

The problem with the pledge

Badger Blues has a post on the Pledge of allegiance that I agree with whole heartedly. There's something wrong with the pledge, and it isn't the words "under God":
Our public servants, quite properly, swear an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”. It’s right and honorable that they do this. The Pledge is different. We’re not swearing allegiance to the Constitution, or to liberty and justice for all, or even to the United States. We’re swearing allegiance to the flag itself. We’re swearing allegiance to an inanimate thing. It’s not a rhetorical device; the Pledge is quite clear that allegiance is owed first to the flag, and then also to the Republic for which it stands.

This makes me extremely uncomfortable. As a rote device for promoting patriotism, itÂ’s fine. But by turning what is in fact a solemn oath into a rote device, we are cheapening our language and weakening what we mean by honor and loyalty. When we use words like "pledge" and "allegiance" to mean "I rather like my country, because weÂ’re dedicated to liberty and justice for all" or "IÂ’m proud to be an American" or "Mom makes me go to school", we quickly find that we have no words left for the high and noble things that those words used to stand for.

The human need for nonsense

From a letter by one of Randi's readers:
As a devout Democrat, I was overjoyed when Air America Radio was launched not long ago, just in time for me to receive it with the satellite radio in my new car. As a fledgling station, their commercials tended to be repeated more often than normal, causing me to notice the high number of completely off-the-wall products and services they were willing hock in order to say on the air. Everything from Wendi Friesen’s useless “hypnotherapy” services and products (she now claims to cure alcoholism!) to various “herbal remedies” are still being touted in between sober political talk from hosts who decry the illogic of our current Administration. Not only do I find this ironic, but it seems a bit hypocritical, to boot!
That's just the first paragraph, read the whole thing.

People who care for good science complain a lot about the current administration's handling, often bringing up the book The Republican War on Science. However, a many liberals like their helping of nonsense too; this is perhaps epitomized by pharmacy on State Street that sells homeopathics and other nonsense while proudly annoucning that they are run as some kind of communal venture. Maybe I just didn't pay enough attention to such things back in my home town, but it seems like liberal Madison has an unusual number of new-agey stores and such. It seems that times change, ideologies change, what you call the stuff may change, but the level of nonsense stays the same.