Monday, October 31, 2005

Hell houses

The Evangelical Atheist has humor piece based on a weird evangelical spin on haunted houses, hell houses. I'd actually love to visit one, just to see the look on the peoples' faces when I say I'm not won over. In fact, the event would be a pretty good springboard for telling them what I find odious in fundamentalist Christianity.

Republicans cheer attack on democracy

I had heard previously of Ann Coulter's statement, "I'm no fan of the first amendment." What I hadn't heard about was the support she got from the party over them. Here's what one person who heard the infamous talk said:
"She's not very subtle, but I always enjoy her talks," Republican Senate candidate Travis Horn said. "They're very hard hitting, but the truth hurts."
A group of Republicans is making a documentary slamming her. I hope the whole party comes around to their position, though when it does, it should be with great embarrassment at supporting her this long.

Whatever happened to Saturday night?

Dane 101 has a poll asking who started what happened Saturday night on State Street. It was, without question, the revelers. Many of them wanted to be tear gassed, and were only disappointed it didn't quite go to being a full-scale riot. The police, on the other hand, think they failed because the lack of injuries and property damage came at the cost of using the stuff. On the other hand, this makes the use of tear gas an essentially pre-emptive measure, but understandable given what's happened previous years. To quote Madison Underground:
I'm not sure if the police response was necessary or not but since it lead to no injuries and the preservation of all the windows on State Street, I figure that it was probably the right call... although perhaps the police were leaning on the side of caution rather than necessity.

A professor's opinions

This is a post I delayed for a very long time, it is a continuation of my previous posts on God in philosophy class. I first waited to see how my professor would wrap up the unit, then to talk to him in office hours about it. Here it goes.

The section on the design argument started with Paley's famous version, then sloppily transitioned into talking about philosophy of science and the Intelligent Design issue. The main argument about both the 19th-century argument and its modern ghost was the design flaws in living things. He considered that God might have created organisms with design flaws, then said this requires knowing whether God would want to give things design flaws. Such an inquiry could not be scientific, he said, because such claims about God couldn't be independently tested. Modern Intelligent Design arugments like irreducible complexity were ignored. I think if I had been teaching the course, I would have put the philosophy of science material in the epistemology unit and examined ID more thoroughly or not at all. However, I could also imagine worse, and am quite glad no Republican legislators were interfering with his teaching.

Then came the problem of evil. He assigned two articles on it, the first arguing there is not a good solution, the second arguing there is. He discussed the first article on a Monday, shooting down every defense offered by a questioning student. Wednesday, people wanted to review for Friday's test, so he said "Okay, I'll summarize the other article in two sentences" and then, after a pause, said "never mind, I won't sumarize it, it doesn't matter."

As I said in previous posts (see above), he had introduced the topic saying things like, "I don't want to cause any personal crises," and there he was trying to put forth a strong case that God did not exist. I decided to go in and ask him about that in office hours. He said he was indeed an atheist, and shot down all refutations of the problem of evil because there are no good refutations. He also explained that he was worried the article he had assigned as a rebuttal was so weak that discussing it would only get some people more upset. He said he introduced the topic the way he did because he didn't want anyone to think they had to agree with him to get a good grade.

Some teachers are very good at hiding their opinions. My senior year in high school, I took a class called "contemporary issues" where the teacher refused to reveal her political leanings, boaster about her a bility to play devil's advocate, and made a game out of having us try to figure them out. The strongest piece of evidence I got one way or another was that she said if we took economics from her, we'd become convinced she's uber-conservative. I reasoned she would only say this if she was actually liberal, but I never got solid confirmation.

She, of course, is the exception. Most people have difficulty discussing controversial issues without giving their opinions on them. My philosophy prof would have been better off starting by telling everyone what he told me in office hours, that he was an atheist but didn't want anyone to feel they had to agree with him to get a good grade. I think this story shows why its a bad idea made professors scared to state their opinions on a class' subject matter. A botched attempt at concealing one's opions is likely to be more intimidating than an open argument.

Date edited to reflect time of posting over time of first draft

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Halloween in Madison

The Halloween festivities here in Madison are a draw for college students from all over the country. Every year, tens of thousands of people converge on State Street, a popular hang-out running from campus to the capitol building, to party. This has led to trouble in the past, which I had heard about in vague stories of riots.

I had toyed with the idea of setting up a telescope and watching the riots from afar. I went so far as to ask my parents, who had happened to decide to visit the weekend to bring an old telescope I had one in a science contest years ago. My dad also brought a pair of cheap binoculars.

Ultimately, however, I opted to go see Rocky Horror Picture Show instead, fully expecting the streets to be cleared by the time it let out around 2:30 a.m. I still got a good eyeful of costumes walking to the theater. Among the highlights were girls dressed as construction workers with phrases on their shirts like "got wood?" and mobile kissing booths. Prices for the later varied, one said, on a guy, said "free if you're hot, $1.00 if you're not."

The movie was great as always, with the edition of a costume contest for people dressed as characters and a new call back, spawned by a recent news story. At one point in the movie, Dr. Frank N. Furter says the word "spark" in such a way as to make it sound like he's saying "spark." Every time I've gone, this word has been preceded by a carefully timed chant of "Who - give - Captain - Kirk - blowjobs?" This time, the exchange was followed by a shout of "I thought it was Sulu."

When I left the theater, I discovered the state street festivities still in full swing. I thought I'd walk around awhile, then go home, but then I noticed mounted police patrolling the street (in an attempt, I later read, to keep traffic flowing). This caught my interest, so I decided to stay and watch. The basic tactic was to sweep the streets with a line of mounted police in front to get people out of the way, and a cluster of regulars in back to keep people from rushing back right away. The cluster wasn't large enough to hold much ground, however, and people were quite happy to be able to return to any area the police left.

Some people were clustering around the police, taunting them with a chant of "Fuck the police" and something that's considered a standard football cheer here, "fuck you, eat shit." Occasionally, I saw some object fly though the air, but the cops mostly responded with stoicism. They never tried to fight their way though the crowd to get at bottle-throwers. One even seemed to smile in amusement at the taunts. It was a rather odd coward's game, where many people were trying to start a riot, but no one quite wanted to be the one to do so. An older bystander, who struck me as a bit drugged out, told me "I want it, man" - i.e., a riot, but that I should also be ready to jump the fence when this happens.

Rumors of tear gas being deployed to no effect ran through the crowd. One guy I met said he had seen it. I encountered some irritating fumes, but didn't know if it was gas or cigarettes.

At one point, a different chant got started: "Show some tits, show some tits." It was directed at girls looking out the window of an apartment building. They didn't comply, but just kept looking down on the crowd, enjoying the attention.

Then came a point at which I was sure a riot would break out. The foot police got separated from the cavalry, and were surrounded by the jeering crowd. They didn't even need cavalry rescue, however, and made reunited with their comrades by their own effort.

A new touch in riot control techniques this season were concert-style loudspeakers which played first of "The city of Madison thanks you for your patronage of the State Street area and wishes you safe travel to your next destination," and then, "The Madison Police Department hereby declares this event on State Street to be an unlawful assembly. In the name of the people of the state of Wisconsin, we command all those assembled on State Street to immediately disperse. If you do not leave the area, you will be subject to arrest." Both these messages, however, took a great deal of straining to hear over the roar of the crowd. When the second one was playing, the trailing foot police began spreading out in a perimeter, trying to hold more territory. Then the perimeter collapse, bringing another borrowing from football games: "You fucked up! You fucked up!"

After this, the mounted police left one way, and the footmen did a straight line jog in the other direction. Then came the tear gas. Everyone who had bravely taunted the police before fled at top speed. At one point, I decided to look back to see get a clearer view of who was doing it (police in riot gear) and how (never figured it out). I meant to see from a distance, but got close enough for a taste of the stuff. The burning on my tongue convinced me what I had encountered before was mere cigarettes, but I didn't get it as bad as one guy nearby, who was on the ground shouting "oh God, I can't berate!"

The police seemed to stop before library mall, the far edge of campus. A hardcore remnant returned for a standoff. Then, some motion from the police sent them scurrying. But the police were only setting up a tape line. A self-appointed general of the jeerers began trying to rally people. Some responded, I stayed farther back on library mall. I walked around a little, watching from various angles and talking to people. One guy said one of his friends had been in the military and trained to deal with the stuff, so he was able to run backwards and close range, unfazed as long as they didn't physically grab him. The military guy, I was told, had been to jail six times and didn't care because he had no other life. I asked a guy in a cow costume what would happen now with the remaining jeerers. He commented on their stupidity and said he only wanted to watch from a distance. The police, he explained, were just there to deal with the drunks that would be coming from frat parties. So the action was over.

Before I left, though, a buddy of the cow guy made this comment: "Stupidity will end the human race, and this is the beginning of it."

UPDATE: Thanks to Madison Underground and Dane101 for linking here.

Carnival of the Ghostless

The Carnival of the Godless is up at A Rational Being. He's splashed his blog with Halloween colors, seems oddly appropriate since God has been referred to as the Holy Ghost and is often used to strike fear into people's hearts.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Atheism v. Agnosticism

I've decided to start a collection of quotes on the topic. This will be updated periodically, and moved to the top whenever I do so.

As of it's first day, October 3, 2005:
I’ve said it before: there are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity, the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity; I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot.
-James Randi

I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.
-Bertrand Russel

First, there is no God. In fact, all definitions of the word "God" are either self-contradictory, incoherent, meaningless or refuted by empirical, scientific evidence.
-The Raving Atheist

October 5, 2005:
Along with many others, I see myself as an agnostic because "atheist" is too definitive, implying one can know something that is in principle unknowable. I will say that I am extremely skeptical that the kind of all-knowing, all-caring, all-doing God pictured in some circles exists.
-Niles Eldredge

October 22, 2005, now getting into concept of God:
I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.
-Albert Einstein

October 29. 2005:
I'm not an atheist. I'm not even sure I've reached the level of agnosticism yet. But I'm definitely no longer particularly religious.
-Orac

Anyone who knows a good quote on degrees of certainty or the dividing line between atheism and agnosticism [or definition of God], put it in the comments and I'll add it to the main post.

Who reads who?

Richard at Philosophy, et cetera has asked readers to link to his post in order to find out who's reading. He in exchange, will link back.

I'd love to see what bloggers read here. If you have a blog, link away, and I'll reciprocate in this post like Richard is doing.

EDIT: now he's doing this weird reader map thing... will try to figure it out...

EDIT II: the map doesn't give links. I would rather like to see the work of the other bloggers that read this, rather than just where they live.

Christian skeptic?

Thursday, I went to see a magician by the name of Andre Kole perform on campus. What drew me in was the e-mail from Campus Crusade I got promoting the event:
Prepare to be amazed by Andre Kole!

World renowned magician, illusionist and investigator of the supernatural presents two mind-boggling hours of elaborate stage presentations dealing with the illusion and reality of life's most intriguing questions:

Why am I here?
Where am I going?
Is there any real meaning and purpose to life?

A provocative magical and spiritual experience you will remember for as long as you live...and perhaps even longer!

Considered to be one of the greatest magical entertainers of our time, Andre Kole has performed in 79 countries for millions of people. His show will include his first hand investigation of the possibility of communication with the dead, the occult, and other psychic phenomena. Andre also studied the miracles of Jesus Christ to determine if his miracles could have been the work of a master magician.

Come see him at the Memorial Union Theater this Thursday, October 27, at 7:30 PM. Tickets on sale now to students for $5 at the Union box office!
With a little Googling, I found his skeptic's credentials were, for the most part, solid. His online biography said he exposes hoaxes as part of his stage show and he apparently feels strongly that Satan can't grant supernatural powers. He's gone after Christian faith-healers as well. (The Taylor bit says he conceeds a tiny fraction of healings are real, but this seems to indicate by "real" he means "psychosomatic.")

All of this makes it rather surprising that he would try to investigate Jesus's alleged miracles. In the books I've read on paranormal investigation, one point comes out again and again: it is often impossible to look at a miracle-claim after the fact and figure out what happened. This point was even conceeded by one pro-parapsychology book. I made up my bring this issue up if there ended up being time for questions after the show.

Still, I walked to the show generally thinking positive thoughts about him. Previously, the most religious "skeptic" I knew of was Orac, who's described himself as a "lapsed Catholic" and said, "I'm not an atheist. I'm not even sure I've reached the level of agnosticism yet." (Does that make him a super-agnostic?) Nice to see someone on the other end of the religious spectrum fighting the good fight.

The show itself was excellent. Most of it could be divided into two categories: the mind-blowing illusions which began with his teleportation on stage and ended with his vanishing off, and audience participation stuff that, while simple, was acompanied by hilarious comic showmanship.

There was also a replica of an old spiritualist's routine, though I imagine performed with more flair than than any 19th-century fraud. It involved him being tied up with some noise makers inside a "spirit cabinet," i.e. cloth cylinder held up by assistants, along with first noise makers and then a blindfolded audience member. He began by making some noise, then throwing the noisemakers, the tabel they were on, and finally his guest's shoes out of the cabinet. He also managed to put on a coat with his arms tied behind his back. At the end, he reminded everyone that it was all just a trick, and he wanted to show us an example of something that can seem quite convincing in an situation when honesty is taken for granted. I think he meant it to be obvious that the trick was some kind of escape-artistry, but he didn't give away the exact secret.

After he was done with most of the magic, he explained he'd be going into the evangelism segment, and anyone who wasn't interested could leave during the break he'd be taking. The main topic was Jesus and having a personal relationship with God, accompanied by a minor trick for flavor and a life story involving going to college in philosophy and psychology.

He did more railing against occultism, citing James Randi's million-dollar challenge. Randi got air-brushed out of the picture though, here's how he phrased it: "When Houdini came to this campus years ago, he was offering $25,000 for any proof of real paranormal powers, now it's up to $1,000,000, and no one's even gotten past the perliminary test." I had to wonder if he didn't want looking up and being led astray by the damn atheist, though maybe he just thought the name wasn't important. He said we should only think Jesus was God if he did things only God can do, and sure enough, when he examined Jesus's miracles from a magician's perspective, they held up.

Then came the part that blew my mind far more than any of his tricks, though not in a good way. It was a comment made in a segment of his speech where he touted the 400 (actually, 399) scientists who have rejected Darwinism: "I know as a magician that you can't get something from nothing, we seem to do it, but it's really impossible." In other words, he confused the cosmological argument with criticisms of evolution. As I walked out of the building, I couldn't stop wondering, who the hell gave this man a philosophy degree? The Jesus thing, I could understand. He was no biblical scholar and seemed to think the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, but I'd expect someone with a philosophy degree to avoid such an obvious fallacy. I was considering challenging him on that bit of bull rather than the miracle investigation. The point was mooted, though, when he did his vanishing finish and didn't come back.

James Randi has pointed out that being a scientist doesn't mean you know anything about sleight of hand. This story is a reminder being a magician doesn't mean you know anything about science or Biblical scholarship, and having studied philosophy in your youth doesn't mean you have the slightest skill at reasoned argument.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The cause of torture

Thoughts from Kansas has a, shall we say, conclusive post on the torture of detainees in US custody. I won't ruin his little came by saying more, but go read it.

Religion is good for you!

Yup. An MIT economist proved it. I expect full conversions from everyone who got excited about the Journal of Religion and Society Paper. (Pardon the flippancy, but I think this shows why the reaction to the paper was misguided).

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Thursday, October 27, 2005

College of Skepticism

Welcome to the Skeptic's U! I'm Chris, and I'll be your tour guide today. Here at SU, we provide an education in critical thinking and what's known about many seemingly mysterious things in life. Here, you'll meet some of today's brightest up-and-coming skeptic's along with world-renowned professors like Paul Myers and the man we affectionately call Orac.

Today, I want to introduce you to the campus by telling you about many of the exciting things happening as we speak.

First stop on our tour is the Medical Sciences Building. Many of you have probably heard about stem cells and the need for scientifically-minded people to support research on them, but there's another side to this story. Today, Orac is speaking on how the stem-cell hype has been worked into a new form of quackery. Inside, you'll also find a presentation of a paper from the Science Creative Quarterly on science-induced anxiety.

If you'll follow me up these steps... ouch, sorry about that, still mastering the trick of doing these things backwards... you'll see the astronomy building, there up on the hill, with the dome on top. There, Phil Plait, a leader in the study of bad astronomy is talking about what lead Michael Behe to declare astrology a science. Once he's done, Prof. Bleen will present his analysis of astrology based on actual astronomical knowledge.

To the right of the astronomy building, you'll see the Stephen Jay Gould building, home to one of our largest departments, the biology department. Quite a diverse bunch over there. We have, for example Lord Professor Runolfr, who also teaches Renaissance studies. Today, though, he'll be presenting back to back lectures on Bigfoot vs. ID and his colleague Dr. Ego. In the cafeteria, Po has been offering up his thoughts on how the fog may finally be lifting on ID. The building was also home to a debate on Intelligent Design yesterday. As anyone who saw the debate can tell you, it's an issue we get quite, uh, *passionate* about.

Next, down the hill and to the left we have the Communications Building. It was recently the site of a series of screenings of creationist videos organized by Matt, an engineering student here. In case you're wondering what his take on the series was, he re-dubbed the series "Lying for Jesus." Meanwhile, the folks from The Two Percent Company did an analysis of a Court TV program on psychics. Also, for any journalism majors in the group, Ryan Mitchel has a seminar on hardball interview techniques, which draws on his recent interview with Bigfoot.

Last on our tour is the Philosophy Building, for all those interested in a deeper discussion of what skepticism means. Here, Prof. Miken is doing a lecture centered on a case of a "skeptic" not being skeptical enough, while a prof who responds to "Skeptico" speaks on that ancient bit of wisdom, "Don't be so open minded your brain falls out." Finally, for those interested in philosophy of science, Autsin Cline has a lecture on possibility and impossibility in science.

I hope you all enjoyed your visit at to Skeptic's U! If you did, Matt, the engineering student is organizing a big skeptical get-together a couple weeks from now, I encourage you all to check it out. Maybe you'll even have something to contribute, if so, e-mail it to him!

Come on, NARAL!

Somehow, I ended up on the mailing list of the National Abortion Rights Action League, I think by signing a petition on birthcontrol or Plan B or something. Anyway, here's excerpts from an e-mail I got from them Monday:
Use our handy Frequently Asked Questions guide to Harriet Miers' nomination.

1. If Miers gets confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, what will that mean for me?


Miers would replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been the swing vote protecting the right to choose on the Supreme Court. Miers' nomination means that she could tip the balance in cases that affect women's reproductive freedom. The American public deserves to know whether she would jeopardize fundamental freedoms that O'Connor historically protected -- and it's up to the Bush administration and Miers to be candid about where she stands....

4. What was the buzz about right-wing activists getting insider information from Karl Rove?

Just after Harriet Miers was nominated, James Dobson -- founder of the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family -- told the media that Karl Rove had given him the inside scoop on Miers: "When you know some of the things that I know that I probably shouldn't know...you will understand why I have said...that I believe Harriet Miers will be a good justice." To James Dobson, a "good justice" means someone who will vote to overturn Roe. We'd like to know: why does Dobson get high-level information before the Senate and the American public does?
All in all, they didn't sound to happy about the nomination.

Then, yesterday, I looked in my inbox and saw the following subject line: "Bush Panders to Radical Right, Withdraws Miers' Nomination." Sigh. Looks like NARAL's made up its mind to oppose whatever Bush does.

Hooray!

I was planning on making the Skeptic's Circle my sole post for today, but I just saw on TV that Harriet Miers has withdrawn her nomination. Honestly, I think this could help Bush, since this is now just another screw up, instead of a screw up that will haunt the country for a couple decades.

Fumble on ID

Monday, Evolutionblog had some amused commentary on a piece by Intelligent Design proponent John Calvert. It caught my eye because of two claims that, while common, become conflict eachother:
When we say that the data does not identify the designer that is a true statement when your focus is only on the science. DNA dose not bear a signature or copyright notice. Furthermore, because all scientific claims are tentative and because the singular events in question are remote unobserved and unobservable events that are not amenable to experimental testing one can not even be certain that the system is designed, from a scientific standpoint. To say that we know who the designer is, in my mind, a purely religious and not scientific claim. So, we should not be quarreling among ourselves about who the designer is when we are asking science to get rid of an irrefutable materialistic prejudice.
First, we have the claim that the ID movement isn't trying to identify the designer. Dembski has maintained that the Designer could be aliens, though no one takes him seriously when he says it.

Now the claim that rejection of ID is based on "materialistic prejudice." If this were the case, scientists would have no problem with the alien hypothesis, since aliens are material entities. Since scientists have as little interest in saying "aliens did it" as saying "God did it," what's going on here?

The real reason, brought nicely into focus by the above paragraph, is that scientists have this nutty bias in favor of testable ideas. Until we meet some aliens, we have no idea whether they could have designed life on Earth or not. Until Michael Behe prays over a petri dish of bacteria and they miraculously sprout flagella, we have no idea whether God could be responsible for flagella on other bacteria. Attempts to set aside this "irrefutable prejudice" have had interesting results, but they are quite clearly in the realm of philosophy rather than science.

Sticky: Skeptic's Circle

LAST CALL: I now set to work on writing up the Circle, with lots of entertaining (I hope) commentary on the submissions. I will, however, do a last check for submissions before flicking off the light tonight, so if you have a last-minute submission, get it in!

I mentioned this briefly when I linked to the most recent Skeptic's Circle, but I thought it would be good to get this on the site for everyone who comes here to see: the Thurday after next, I shall be holding the Skeptic's Circle, a blog carnival of skeptical blogging. The link has details of what we're looking for.

UPDATE: I got one very political post today, so let me post the guidelines given at the homepage:
The Skeptics' Circle is a biweekly carnival for bloggers who like to apply critical thought to questionable stories. It is meant to be, as much as possible, apolitical. For purposes of the Circle that means not touching social causes mired in political action and for which multiple viewpoints can be reasonably supported by empiric data or for which the heart of the disagreement is primarily political or philosophical. That means no posts about how Bush’s Social Security reform is going to bankrupt our nation or how liberal activists are pushing “institutionalized racism,” malpractice caps, or anything about abortion. This is also not the place for personal causes. If you think personal light rail is a bad idea in your area, take that up with your local politicians and media. The Circle was created to clear up things rendered unnecessarily mysterious and fight frauds (paranormal, urban legends, etc.), pseudoscience (creationism, perpetual motion machines, for example), quackery (homeopathy, for example), and pseudohistory (Holocaust denial, for example), not to push anyone’s political agenda.

Most importantly, the data used to debunk or make a case should be empirical, which is why hotly debated social issues where there really is no clear answer at present are outside the scope of this carnival. Posts discussing or arguing such issues should be submitted to one of the many political blog carnivals out there. On the other hand, a (very) few specific issues that are unavoidably political are within the scope of this carnival. The most prominent examples come from creationism and intelligent design, because they are clearly not scientific concepts but, particularly in the case of intelligent design, are being represented as such for political reasons.

Here are the ideal topics for a Skeptics’ Circle submission:
-Urban legends
-The paranormal
-Quackery
-Pseudoscience
-Historical revision
-Critical thinking
UPDATE II: Thanks to a generous invitation from Orac, I now have a G-mail account. Sending to this account will allow me to easily get everything that's been submitted by searching my mail. The adress is challquist@gmail.com.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rape victim denied morning after pill

This one speaks for itself.

Fight fire with water

Today's copy of a campus newspaper has an editorial titled "Fight fire with fire" arguing the Democrats should take a page out of Tom DeLay's play book and gerrymander their way to power.

Um, how about making the fight against gerrymandering an issue to get the Machiavellian wing of the Republican party out of power? Ally with responsible Republicans like Schwarzenegger and fix this perversion of electoral democracy that keeps so many house seats from being competitive. Of course, gerrymandering for one side often gives the other a limited number of safe zones, politicians inhabiting those may not want to give up the comfy jobs for the sake of the country.

Quote of the Time Being

Primate group files suit
-Headline in a campus newspaper. What's going on here? Chimps with law degrees? Or is this just an odd way of saying a group of humans was involved?

Zing

In a comments exchange, someone refered to the late Stephen Jay Gould as "busy getting a creation clinic from God." To this PZ Myers replied:
Gould, by the way, was a Jewish atheist. If he was right, he's nowhere now; if the creationists are right, he's burning in hell. If he is sitting down and having pleasant conversations with god, it means the creationists are wrong and perhaps they ought to consider the idea that studying the world honestly and with intelligence is apparently pleasing to the Lord.
Tangentially related though: disbelieving fundamentalism seems a pretty good bet from a Pascalian standpoint. If I'm wrong, I lose nothing, if I'm right, I get to spend eternity with people like Gould instead of Jerry Falwell. That's a bet you can't lose.

Who's your daddy?

There's a site collecting blogger lineages, i.e. who inspired who to write. Poor PZ Myers, who prompted me to respond to this, has no children. Would start on his list, though I was far more influenced by Andrew Sullivan - I might not even know what a blog is if not for reading one of his TIME columns on blogging.

Monday, October 24, 2005

That's not sugar coating...

The Raving Atheist links to an anti-religious rant at the Huffington Post, which RA describes as "sugar coated" for this section:
know most of you don't actually read your religious texts, and when you do, you assiduously try to avoid the parts that make no sense whatsoever or hide underneath the comforting grasp of your religious leaders who have concocted a bunch of circular logic (a crime to even use that word in regards to Christianity, Islam or Judaism) to shield you from the obvious folly of the written text.

So, I'm not calling you stupid if you haven't really read the material. And I know how powerful brainwashing is. We all received it when we were young and it is exceedingly difficult to break its grasp. But people dance around the issue out of politeness because they don't want to call you what you are -- ignorant.
This, however, comes only after a dozen paragraphs of chewing out religion in the harshest terms. Less like a coating that a bit of sugar at the center, and a very small bit at that.

This is one I had to chew over a bit. The Muslim commentor is surely right when he says things like this essay will alienate people. But the original poster says something important when he talks about the way ridiculous beliefs earn people admiration.

Belief in the inerrancy of any given book will do a thousand times the harm done by mere belief in God. The later may be irrational, but it doesn't destroy rational thinking on other subjects. Belief in something as the Word of God does, and deserves all the venom the original poster can heap up.

The key is to give people an out. We out to strive for a world where no public figure can declare the Bible the Word of God without being asked about divinely-ordered atrocities in it, where politicians vigorously deny such belief, where right-wing pundits claim the idea that people believe that is a myth invented by Christian-hating Leftists. But always let people know they can be left to other beliefs when they give up on that one. Such would be a great improvement in national sanity.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Hmmm....

Here's something I got forwarded yesterday, with a rather long debate attached, but the original (supposedly from a Tampa newspaper) is interesting enough:
IMMIGRANTS, NOT AMERICANS, MUST ADAPT.
I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Americans. However, the dust from the attacks had barely settled when the "politically correct! " crowd began complaining about the possibility that our patriotism was offending others.

I am not against immigration, nor do I hold a grudge against anyone who is seeking a better life by coming to America . Our population is almost entirely made up of descendants of immigrants. However, there are a few things that those who have recently come to our country, and apparently some born here, need to understand. This idea of America being a multicultural community has served only to dilute our sovereignty and our national identity. As Americans, we have our own culture, our own society, our own language and our own lifestyle. This culture has been developed over centuries of struggles, trials, and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.

We speak ENGLISH, not Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part
of our society, learn the language!

"In God We Trust" is our national motto. This is not some Christian, right wing, political slogan.. We adopted this motto because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.

If Stars and Stripes offend you, or you don't like Uncle Sam, then you should seriously consider a move to another part of this planet. We are happy with our culture and have no desire to change, and we really don't care how you did things where you came from. This is OUR COUNTRY, our land, and our lifestyle. Our First Amendment gives every citizen the right to express his opinion and we will allow you every opportunity to do so!
But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other great American freedom,

THE RIGHT TO LEAVE.
What I like best is the second to last paragraph: praise the Lord, not because he, like, exists or anything, but because He is part of Our culture.

Meme day

The Truth Laid Bear is tallying opinions of bloggers in its ecosystem on the Miers nomination. All someoneone already in the system has to do is state his position in one of the exact wordings their program will scan for. Here it goes:

I oppose the Miers nomination.

Though when you really think about it, it's a little late for that, I'm really opposing her confimation.

Also, lots of bloggers are getting into this site that assesess their blogs' worth:


My blog is worth $27,097.92.
How much is your blog worth?


The site says the calculation is based on the "same link to dollar ratio as the AOL-Weblogs Inc deal." Somehow, I think not all links are created equal.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The price of freedom

Here's a story I saw twice, first at Balloon Juice and then at Orac's:
Thirteen-year-old twins Lamb and Lynx Gaede have one album out, another on the way, a music video, and lots of fans.

They may remind you another famous pair of singers, the Olsen Twins, and the girls say they like that. But unlike the Olsens, who built a media empire on their fun-loving, squeaky-clean image, Lamb and Lynx are cultivating a much darker personna. They are white nationalists and use their talents to preach a message of hate.

"We're proud of being white, we want to keep being white," said Lynx. "We want our people to stay white … we don't want to just be, you know, a big muddle. We just want to preserve our race."

Lynx and Lamb have been nurtured on racist beliefs since birth by their mother April. "They need to have the background to understand why certain things are happening," said April, a stay-at-home mom who no longer lives with the twins' father. "I'm going to give them, give them my opinion just like any, any parent would."

April home-schools the girls, teaching them her own unique perspective on everything from current to historical events. In addition, April's father surrounds the family with symbols of his beliefs — specifically the Nazi swastika. It appears on his belt buckle, on the side of his pick-up truck and he's even registered it as his cattle brand with the Bureau of Livestock Identification.

"Because it's provocative," explains April of the cattle brand, "to him he thinks it's important as a symbol of freedom of speech that he can use it as his cattle brand."
Though John Cole expressed an even harsher version of this sentiment, the significance of this story didn't hit me until I saw this comment of Orac's:
Sounds like their father is guilty of child abuse to me.
Yes, child abuse, only not in a prosecutable sense. Because ya know what? Living in a free country means people can teach their kids what they want, even scum like these girls' parents. I no of no way we could stop this shit and avoid slipping into something looking like Communist China, where its illegal to teach religion to anyone under the age of 18. The price of freedom.

On the other hand, if we can't outlaw teaching hate, we might consider outlawing private schools to ensure kids can at least hear positive messages if they must hear negative ones. Sounds like a reasonable compromise to me at the moment, though most would probably consider even this too harsh.

Highlights section

I've created a "Highlights" section just under my link to TalkOrigins to provide links to a few older posts. This was in part prompted by an article linked to on Pharyngula saying not having something like it is what many bloggers do wrong. Thoughts? Suggestion for a tittle? Things to include?

Elizabethtown

Went to see the movie Elizabethtown yesterday. Highly recommended for all the delicious black humor - the movie begins with the main character planning to kill himself over an unsucessful shoe design, his weapon of choice was an exercise bike. The attempt is delayed by the death of his father, which the mother copes with by saying, "If it wasn't this, it would've been something else." The story ultimately resolves in a way that I think was profound and uplifting, but may have been just another cliched love story. It's so hard to tell, given Hollywood's expertise at tugging heart strings.

Side thought: one complaint against pornography is that it creates unrealistic expectations, might the same be said of sappy romance movies? After all, one can't expect to stay head-over-heels in love over the course of many years...

Quote of the Time Being

Nowadays, with intermarriage rates rising and synagogue affiliation falling, Jewish conspiracy satire gives us the illusion of a shared cosmic mission. Imagine 4,000 Jews acting in unison to do anything! To do so—even in the most darkly ironic way—is to hearken back to a world in which we were still outsiders together.
-Joshua Neuman, in Slate

Friday, October 21, 2005

Scientists support evolution 690,000%

An online project to collect signatures of scientists supporting evolution gathered 7,733 signatures in 4 days. This works out to a rate of signature-gathering 690,000% faster than the Discovery Institute's signature drive. Woo hoo!

Hat tip: Thoughts from Kansas

Intelligent Design, religious feeling, and NOMA

Originally, I was ambivalent about claims that evolution and religion do not conflict. Certainly, evolution does not prove God does not exist, but it does undermine one or the many reasons people have for believing in God, the deisgn argument. Its an argument that used to be quite convincing, even though Hume challenged it long before Darwin published the Origin of the Species. Furthermore, I just couldn't take seriously statements like this one from Stephen Jay Gould's essay Nonoverlaping Magisteria (NOMA):
lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.
Religion in such a mold may be a good idea, but the fact is that religion as practiced by most believers involves not just ethics but claims about how things are.

Recently, I've had reason to question that view. A minor reason is an essay in my philosophy text book arguing for belief in God "Without Evidence or Argument" (as the essay was called), which noted that even philosophers tend not to rely on philosophical arguments for their belief. More important was when I decided, out of curiosity, to visit a meeting of Madison's chapter of Campus Crusade and hearing religious people talk about their experiences, how religion has gotten them through rough times and provided a good focal point for their lives. The Campus Crusade meeting in particular was an emotional atmosphere, easy to get swept up in.

All this made it abundantly clear to me that very few people's faith rests on the arguments of William Paley or Michael Behe. This means it shouldn't be too hard then to get people to drop Intelligent Design, right?. Can't it then be argued that ID is actually a distraction from the true roots of religion?

But slow down, it's not as if my encounter with religion had me ready to convert. I got into the Campus Crusade meeting only until the preacher began mentioning specific doctrines like salvation - a most surprising inference from a mere feeling of God's prescence.

Consider the response I got to this post:
I reject the notion that consciousness is an emergent property. Rather I think that consciousness stems from Brahman, who is pure consciousness, and thus we too share in that divinity...

At the juncture between my atheism and my theism, I experienced about six weeks of really transcendent bliss. I could close my eyes and feel my consciousness just rise and rise.
This from a guy who had explicitly denounced traditional theism. Similar experience, wildly different conclusions, good reason to doubt those specific conclusions. Personally, I think Sam Harris' "rational mysticism," valuing the experience but cutting away the baggage of unjustified beliefs is a better tact. Yet this still can be used in defense of evolution: if people can't be persuaded to avoid inferences about Jesus and salvation, can't they at least avoid infering that all modern biology is wrong?

Unfortunately, I don't know how many people who've had profound religious experiences could be persuaded to sit down and think what those experiences really show. Skepticism has many virtues, but the ability to support boundless enthusiasm is not one of them. Once you've admitted that a feeling doesn't prove everything you thought, you have to wonder if it meant anything at all. Even if you recover belief, you may not recover the enthusiasm. Then there is the question of whether people who infuse religion into every part of their life can be gotten to admit there is no scientific evidence for design in nature.

Now, I am more inclined to think Intelligent Design will survive in some form for a long time to come. Even after all the most exuberant religious movements have dropped Biblical inerrancy, they will embrace the vaguer ID, not because they need it to believe, but because it is so very comforting.

Prizes galore

Now, someone's offering a whole bunch of money for proving the superiority of one theory over another. I say "a whole bunch" because my keyboard does not have a key for the type of currency involved, I do not even know what said type of currency is.

Anyway, what is it with offering prizes for proof? I think it all goes back to James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, though I'm not sure. The religion challenge was spurred by Kent Hovind's challenge to prove evolution, early in the life of this blog I wrote about a prize for proving the Earth is not the center of the universe.

There's a key difference between all these other challenges and Randi's. Randi is not asking anyone to prove an abstract claim, just demonstrate claimed paranormal powers, and, as the rules state:
Applicant must state clearly in advance, and applicant and JREF will agree upon, what powers or abilities will be demonstrated, the limits of the proposed demonstration (so far as time, location and other variables are concerned) and what will constitute both a positive and a negative result. This is the primary and most important of these rules.
There is no need to assure the fairness of the judges as other challenges do, because there is an insistence that the demonstration of the power be clear enough that anyone can tell whether the thing happened or not. If Hovind et al was inspired by Randi, it's surprising they can't see this basic difference. Now, if they'd offer money for some specific piece of evidence, then we'd be talking.

Phew?

According to Orin Kerr, Tradespots is now rating the likelihood of Miers being confirmed at 20%. Hoorah! Though just yesterday Patterico declared, "it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are headed towards the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice who has no idea what the Constitution says." So who knows.

The Bell Curve

Slate has an excellent piece on The Bell Curve, a book purporting to show a genetic difference in intelligence between blacks and whites. Worth reading, particularly because Andrew Sullivan re-aired the issue just a few weeks ago.

Hat tip: Evolutionblog

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Saddam trial

Michael stickings at The Moderate Voice writes about the Saddam trial and wonders why it hasn't gotten more attention. Worth a read.

So here's me giving it attention: I hope Saddam is executed. Not because he deserves it. What he deserves it to be set free in somewhere in Iraq and left to a mob of angry Iraqis who will inflict the most creative punishment they can think of, and even that wouldn't really be compensation for his crimes. That, unfortunately, cannot happen if we are to set a precent of Iraq being a country governed by law rather than mob rule. I hope to see a quick, formal execution so that the Iraqi people will never have to worry about his return. So that they can know that even if the U.S. leaves and the insurgets take over, they cannot release him and return him to power. This isn't an argument I'd accept with a your run of the mill murderer (anarchy is unlikely to prevail in the U.S.), nor with bin Laden (better not to make a martyr of him), but in this case its for the best.

Meme: what do you need?

Via Ambivablog, a meme where you Google "[your name] needs" and see what happens.

Unfortunately for me, there's a BBC radion host called Chris Needs, so it kinda throws my results off. After scrolling past a bunch of stuff on him, I get "Chris needs your sex talk." Mmk. On to page 2.

More "Chris Needs" stuff. Then "Chris needs to give me cancer." What? "Chris needs no mic stand." Okay, that's more normal. "Chris needs to ditch the macaroni jewelry." "Chris needs a makeover." Hmmm...

Definitely one of the more interesting memes I've seen in my life. Pass it on.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Ignorance as the opiate of the masses

Yesterday, I said we were doomed. I immediately felt like qualifying it, but the post had a nice neat ending as it stood, so I'm hitting it today.

By doomed, I must admit, I don't mean headed for anarchy, just an incredibly depressing social landscape. A society indifferent to knowledge is still one where people will learn specialized knowledge required to manange this or that piece of technology and keep people fat and happy.

Now here's a further thought: perhaps we shall be a happier society for it, as some dystopian authors have suggested.

Awhile ago, I toyed with the idea of posting that what we really need is a good nuclear war. Why? With poverty, disease, tyranny, and war disappearing at a rapid (okay, embarrassingly slow, but nonetheless sure) pace, we one day won't have anything to fight over or complain about. Many people are in denial about this; when you give your life to fighting such evils, its comforting to believe that the problem is worse than ever, in defiance of all data from organizations like Freedom House and the UN to the contrary. But when there are no problems at all to exagerate, they'll have to face reality. If we don't work now to destroy civilization, such people will be forced to live a bleak existence without any source of meaning.

Anyway, it occurs to me ignorance may be a great tool for allowing people to find meaning in their lives. Poor data analysis may not even need anything to exagerate. Some people, moreover, find great comfort in believing we are on the verge of contact with the Space Brothers or that codes predicting the end of the world have been found in the Bible or that tyrannical liberals are keeping kids from learning science that proves the existence of God. Incompetent science reporting by journalists who learned how to write stories without understanding them could do a great service in keeping such delusions alive.

Atheist a dirty word?

A couple weeks back, I heard it said that "atheist" is considered a dirty word in our society. Shrugged the suggestion off.

Yesterday, a guy in my philosophy class boldly declared that God did not exist. A few minutes later, he was denying being an atheist, claiming deism instead.

Stigma from the word, or just need of an English lesson?

CotV 161

The 161st Carnival of the Vanities is up at The World According to Nick.

P.S. - Happy Birtday, Nick!

Behe: astrology science

Hey PZ Myers! Turns out the Times does know how to report on ID!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

We're doomed

Last month, I wrote about disturbing trends in America that made it look like we're headed for 1984. However, my ultimate conclusion is we've survived worse threats to freedom.

After reading Pharyngula today, my cheery optimism is dead. He writes about a journalism student complaining about having to take those damn math and science classes.

This would be only mildly annoying comming from someone in another field. From a journalism major, its frightening. Journalists without a broad base of knowledge = meaningless words fit into inverted pyramid style, and from there a profoundly ignorant public.

In some respects, this could be worse than a slide into the dark ages. Throughout human history, knowledge has been power, even at times of greatest ignorance. The darkest times have been when knowledge is hated and feared. Too many people like this protojournalist could usher in an age of indifference, where knowledge is to impotent for bigots to fear it. So much for going out with the bang of a fascist takeover. American civilization just may headed for whimpering indifference and ignorance.

Quote of the Time Being

Free Tibetan civilians.
-Wow! Can I get one?
-UW Madison bathroom graffiti. Sometimes, nothing beats bathroom walls for supplying well-crafted phrases.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Morphogenic fields?

Amba writes about science and heresy with reference to the work of Rupert Sheldrake, promotor of a concept called "morphogenic fields." One denunciation gets brought up because it used religious language, minus the whole editorial, I'm only left wondering if there was substance to it or not.

In Amba's post itself, however, the scientific community's reaction is shown to be not so blindly dismissive:
The morphogenetic fields postulated by Sheldrake to be necessary to explain developmental processes have proven to be equally elusive and molecular biology, coupled with the physical diffusion of various chemicals, has proven to be far more successful in explaining, in a predictive manner, how organisms develop from a single cell. Nor are such fields needed to explain animal communciation in non-vocal species. See, for example, the recent article by Couzin et al. (Nature, 433, pp. 513–16, 2005) on how local mechanisms can explain rapid group decisions in animal collectives on the move (e.g. school of fish). No need for any spooky substances.
The rebuttal is not made with reference to any materialist dogma, but explanatory power and studies showing alternate explainations.

The first think to realize when dealing with these claims is it's easy to discover an imaginary effect through fairly innocent errors in experimental design, and if the experiments were even close to being repeatable, we'd have heard about it long ago. Unsuprisingly, a small bit of looking reveals that attempts to repeat the staring effect experiment have failed.

Wouldn't mind seeing the infamous "book burning" editorial, though. Hell, campus universities stock issues of Nature, could look it up if I really feel like it. Dunno.

What's wrong with the blogosphere

The blogosphere has a problem. It's something I would have denied the existence of back when I was a mere reader, that I could not possibly have noticed until I'd been in the business for awhile. It's not about the way its used so much, as I might have argued in my days as a reader, but something inherent. Nearly inherent, anyway.

The problem is this: the system naturally tends to form echo chambers. A good newspaper editor will bring in views from both sides, and hope people will buy when they see high quality and balance. A blogger however, wants links. There are two ways to go about this.

The basic way is to get the attention of other bloggers, one at a time. This can be done by either linking to the other blogger or e-mailing a post. In either case, it makes very little sense to try to attract attention from across the spectrum. The big guys won't care what a two-bit enemy is saying about them, and picking fights with little guys doesn't seem to make sense. Even if they take the bait and link, the blogger and his readers are unlikely to become long term fans. So the safest thing is to focus on like-minded bloggers.

A more sophisticated way that's sprung up since the 'sphere has evolved is carnivals. When these deal with controversy, however, they often embrace a single mindset. At most, you'll get people with incidental disagreement on other subjects. The exception is regional carnivals, though they don't do much good for talking about national politics.

Currently, the one way out of this problem is to try to attract attention from bloggers whose vies differ moderately from your own, but are close enough to make a real dialogue likely. This is why I pay attention to what Ambivablog says on science and religion, but finding such people is hard.

A few committed bloggers might be able to fight this however. I don't know the best way, but here's a few proposals:

A political version of God or Not, the carnival designed to unite theist and atheist bloggers. The idea is select a topic for each edition, and get people from both sides to submit posts. We could call it "Common Grounds" or perhaps "Spectrum Analysis" for analysis from across the political spectrum. (Also, that's what I'm doing in chemistry class right now). The model wouldn't work perfectly, however. With political categories being more amorphous, it would be hard to enforce balance. God or Not keeps the topics vague to allow many angles, this would be hard to do with politics. And religious debates are eternal, politics comes and goes, so it could be hard to declare a topic and then get people to write.

Other ideas: A site to pair up bloggers of radically different views who will agree to regularly resond to eachother's posts. A complicated cross-spectrum game of link-tag, not exactly sure how it would work.

I couldn't launch any of these on my own. Here's calling for help from other bloggers, in comming up with, refining, and implementing ideas.

Miers speculation

Here's a bit of speculation my dad hit me with when I talked to him on the phone over the weekend: Sandra Day O'Connor was often the tie-breaking vote in favor of corporations and against small government. Bush needed to replace her with someone similarly corporation-friendly. Ergo, former corporate lawyer Harriet Miers. My dad cited a Wall Street Journal article six months ago predicting such a pick for support. This is comming from a man with solid RINO credentials, he still supports Republicans at the state level. No idea if it's right, but I'm hoping someone will see this and have something to add.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Attn bloggers

Here's a useful site for anyone who likes online news.

Dear Senator Kohl

Here's my snail-mail response to the e-mail I got two days ago from the office of one of my senators:
Dear Senator Kohl,

Some time ago, I sent you a message via your website on John McCain’s proposed amendment to prevent torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. I did not expect you to respond personally or even read the message. I only expected to have the letter tallied and to be sent a cookie-cutter response stating your view on the subject.

This did not happen. Instead, two days ago, I got an e-mail with subject line "Re: Anti-torture bill" whose body talked about Hurricane Katrina. Please tell your staffers to use some common sense in answering mail so that this does not happen in the future. I would hope that whichever staffer reads this can give me a response that is at least semi-relevant to my complaint. Anyone who cannot manage such a project is of questionable fitness to be running the country.

Sincerely,
Chris Hallquist
This may be displaying my youthful naivete.

0 on a scale of 1 to 10

That's what PZ Myers got on his Republican loyalty test. Unsurprisingly, he got a 10 on the Democrat version. Orac got a 5 and 6 respectively, and wonders if his RINO membership is slipping (it's called "in name only" for a reason). My scores were 3/8:
Your score is 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. You are a solid Democrat. You are not as fiercely ideological or uncompromising as others in the party, but nonetheless remain a reliable supporter. If you could have your way, you'd like to see Democrats leaders take a slightly more accommodating approach on certain issues – and dial down some of their nakedly partisan and bitterly divisive rhetoric.

Your score is 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. You are a devoted Democrat. You tend to walk in lockstep with the party, even if you have not agreed with every decision Democratic leaders have made. The few differences you have are nothing compared to your complete and utter contempt for the Republican Party and the intolerance, fanaticism, and warmongering for which it stands.

Frightening

Hugh Hewitt has made the following argument in favor of accepting the Miers nomination:
The of course there is the fact that the president picked her. With a nomination made, I prefer to press to the desired outcome, and support the president and recognize that the defeat of a nominee is a calamitous political consequence, no matter what other people say.

It may come as a shock to people, but I am a Republican, who believes that the care and nurturing of governing majorities of the GOP in the Senate and the House in time of war, and the preparation for a monumental struggle with Hillary in 2008, are crucial --indeed the most important-- goals on the table.

We can lose the war. We can suffer terrorist attacks far more devastating than 9/11. Iran is not being deterred, and North Korea continues to be run by an unbalanced dictator with nukes. There are at least hundreds of thousands and probably millions of Islamofascists who would gladly bring WMD to this country and use them in our major cities. I would have preferred a different nominee, and I hope that my short list is the president's short list the next time a vacancy occurs.
This sounds like something you'd do in a totalitarian government: we mustn't undermine the Dear Leader, because what's good for him is good for the country.

Hat tip: Orin Kerr

What are they thinking?

Ann Althouse had an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal yesterday analyzing the Miers nomination:
Although Democrats did their best to try to diminish the spectacularly well-credentialed John Roberts, President Bush's pick to replace the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, they have no motivation to knock down Miers.

It is, of course, much easier to attack Miers. Her résumé pales alongside that of Roberts. Looking at Roberts' elite schooling and stellar career path, one could fairly conclude that Bush had selected the very best person for the job.

By contrast, Bush seems to have picked Miers solely because she's an old crony of his.

Nevertheless, on the day when Bush announced the nomination, Democratic senators looked pleased. They must be even happier now that a substantial number of erstwhile Bush supporters have not only groused about the nomination, but they have also kept up the pressure of criticism for over a week and even called for Miers to withdraw.

Do the Democrats have reason to think Miers will emerge as a liberal once she has her lifetime appointment? More likely they merely see her as preferable to the staunchly ideological conservatives that were on Bush's short list.

Miers might vote with the liberal justices, but even if she votes with the conservatives, she might write inferior opinions that lack persuasive power and can be denounced as hack work when the time comes.

But whatever the Democrats are predicting will happen if and when Miers ascends to the court, there is no reason they should want to muss themselves up in a fight when Bush's own partisans are tearing up the nominee and - a nice bonus - ripping into each other...

So the odds are we will soon be saying "Justice Harriet Miers" and something along the lines of:

How did that happen?
Since Miers was nominated, I've seen lots of small, worrisome pointers that the Democrats will support her. Could it really be? I decided to go talk to one of my friends, a poli sci major and future Democratic foot soldier who's very interested in political strategy. I thought he could give me some insights into the Democratic mind on this one. Here's what he said (roughly):

"If I'm the Democrats, I'm going to sit back and watch the conservatives tear into her. That's what's in the news right now. The right-wing bloggosphere is going nuts over this."

Me: "If you were a senator, would you vote for her?"

"No."

Me: "Do you think that's what the Democratic senators are thinking?"

"I don't know. If I was one, I'd wait until the hearings and come with some really good questions. She'll be easy to pick apart. Some will vote for her. The cautious Democrat will vote for her for fear of who Bush will nominate next. The responsible Democrat will say 'no, we cannot have this woman on the Supreme Court. I think people are looking to much at the short term politics, and not the long term of what's best for the country. She might be confirmed, but I hope not."

Carnival of the Godless 25

The 25th Carnival of the Godless is up at The Common Man.

What is centrism?

The Skeptical Centrist writes on what it means to be a centrist:
Socially liberal but fiscally conservative? Sounds like a centrist to me. But so is a person who's socially conservative but fiscally liberal.
I'd call the first category more independent or libertarian. The second is arguably a good description of the Bush administration. This highlights the diference between two types of centrism: one that sits in the middle on every issue, another that forms sometimes "extreme" positions independent of partisan ideology.
The other problem you run into is the fact that centrism isn't sexy. It doesn't sell. Partisanship sells. There are no Ann Coulters or Michael Moores or Cindy Sheehans or Rush Limbaughs in the centrist arena. You never see groups of people parading up the Mall in D.C., chanting things like "Let's all be reasonable!" or "Hell no, we won't...accept extremism in any form!" or "George Bush is a warmonger, but I love my tax cuts!!"
If you're looking for a centrist version Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Sullivan might be a candidate. His attacks on this administration are often vicious and over the top, but from a libertarian rather than liberal perspective. And I have little trouble seeing a local Republican group sending out flyers with things like, "Hey GOP, where's our balanced budget amendment?"

The problem is, though, that its self-contradictory to get a mindless mob organized around the idea of critical thinking on tough issues. Vigorous debate in the media by centrists, however, is something that can and should be done.

10 reasons why gay marriage should be illegal

On Craiglist. Hat tip: The Skeptical Centrist.
01) Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.

02) Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

03) Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

04) Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can't marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

05) Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.

06) Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn't be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren't full yet, and the world needs more children.

07) Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

08) Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That's why we have only one religion in America.

09) Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.

10) Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven't adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Privacy =\ freedom

An e-mail to Andrew Sullivan on bioterrorism, and his response:
I've thought about the problem of the escalating force multiplier for a long time now and haven't been able to conceive of more than the obvious solution: the End of Privacy. I see a world where, in fifty years, everyone has the ability (and the right) to see what everyone else is doing—physically, financially, whatever—in real time. Computers will analyze everyone’s behavior and identify those whose actions and transactions are suspicious, dangerous, or unapproved. It doesn’t have to be as Orwellian as it sounds--government itself will be just as transparent.
Given how lttle privacy we already have, maybe the trade-off may not be so bad. either way, the golden age of freedom may be heading toward an eclipse.
Freedom and privacy should not be confused. There was a time, I think, when fear of quashed dissent was real enough that privacy had to play a role in free speech. Less significantly, there are some things people won't do unless they can keep them private. However, I think we can mentally adapt to a privacy-less world, where we simply suck up what social censure comes with things we would like to do in private. And perhaps we will be more acepting of things than only affect the person who does them.

Meh?

Madonna: (speaking about Stuart) He doesn't believe in God and he's not spiritual at all.

Stuart: Eh.. No. I don't.. I don't really believe in God.

Madonna: That really hurts me to hear that.
-conversation transcript quoted by Andrew Sullivan.

What in the world makes people to think mere disagreement is something to take offense over? This is especially weird comming out of supposedly liberal Hollywood.

Advice to up-and-comming bloggers

Lots of people reading this are probably new bloggers - people who submitted to the Carnival of Vanities here on the 12th, or reading the one on the 19th (which I'm going to submit this too). If you're like me, you want to drive traffic to your site. Here's what I've concluded after many carnival submissions and two hostings.

Hosting the Carnival of Vanities had several perks - I got to read lots of posts on subjects I normally don't care about and would have glossed over if they had been in a carnival I merely read. It got me ~60 links by Technorati's count, and sent me up two categories in the Truth Laid Bear ecosystem. Those links included people saying lots of nice things about me, including that I had the best blog name ever (see banner). So if you're looking for traffic, hosting a CotV isn't a bad idea.

But these days, specialty carnivals are where its at. The Vanities just doesn't brings a limmited amount of traffic, this may be due to loss of interest among big-shot bloggers like Glenn Reynolds, who's only been intermittently linking to the carnival. Also, you're guarenteed to get readers interested in what you're writting on. This goes not only for submitting, but also hosting, assuming you host a topic you're interested in. When I hosted the Carnival of the Godless, it brought in about 300 visitors, and submissions to specialty carnivals have brought in about 100. Invariably, some, though not all, stay.

What carnivals are out there? Here's a list to start you off. There are regional carnivals, like the Tar Heel Tavern and my state's Carnival of the Badger. There are science carnivals, humor carnivals, medblogging carnivals, philosophy carnivals, and gun carnivals. There are carnivals for Christians, carnivals for atheists, and one for both (and anyone else who has an opinion on religion - that means you!) I bring the last one up because there's some lack of submissions on the theist side, any theist bloggers reading this, please consider submitting.

Of course, I don't have time to list them all. I don't even know them all, the is just most of the ones I have at least a passing aquaintence with. No guarentee you're experience with them will be the same as mine. The experience of involvement with a carnival may very well vary as much as the carnival subjects themselves. But involvement is something I strongly recommend for anyone who wants to break in to the bloggosphere.

UPDATE: Instapundit just linked to the CotV here, so it's no longer accurate to say he's stopped. There had been a lull for more than a week, though. Hopefully for the sake of the Carnival he'll continue to promote it.

Tidbit

Here's an interesting number way at the bottom of the survey. Asked wheter they approve of the leadership of the GOP and the Dems, the pollees had the elephant sitting on a 32% approval to a 52% disaproval, and a virtually identical 32% to 48% for the donkey. The Pew people didn't ask whether it was time to put both animals down, but I think we can extrapolate.
-Michael Reynolds. Whole post is a good one, basically saying the Democrats need to get on redefining themselves now.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Not reading your mail is one thing...

... but can't senators at least get competent staffers to do if for them? Here's the entirety of a response I got when I e-mailed one of my state senators:



Dear Mr. Hallquist:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me. I apologize for the delay in my response. I appreciate the correspondence I receive from my constituents back in Wisconsin and would like to take this opportunity to address your concerns.

As you know, when Hurricane Katrina came ashore on Sunday, August 28th, its high winds and heavy rains devastated areas along the Gulf Coast in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In its wake, Katrina has displaced thousands of Americans, destroyed homes and businesses and left entire towns literally underwater.

In the wake of the Hurricane, I, like many Americans, was disappointed with the scope and effectiveness of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration's (FEMA)'s immediate response. The potential for the destruction of the complex levy system, and especially the need to protect New Orleans, was known on all levels of local, state, and federal government. Failure to adequately prepare for a disaster on the level of Hurricane Katrina resulted in preventable loss of life and billions of dollars of damage.

In spite of these problems, and as the priority of saving the lives of those affected by Katrina continues to be addressed, FEMA is helping those affected by the storm get back on their feet. FEMA offers temporary shelter, clean drinking water, food, ice, gasoline, and power generators to help ease the burden on those people whose lives have been hurt by the storm. It will certainly take years for the people of the Gulf Coast to fully recover from this tragic storm, and FEMA has committed to providing services for as long as is necessary.

It is now time for Administration, with the help of Congress, to analyze FEMA's
failures before, during and after the Hurricane, and come up with a way to repair and improve this important agency so that a catastrophe such as this may be avoided in the future. In the aftermath of the storm, we must do all we can to help. I am
committed to working with my colleagues to ensure that this problem is addressed, as well as assuring sufficient funding for these important and ongoing relief efforts.

Thank you very much for voicing your concern over Hurricane Katrina. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to all those affected by the horrific storm. Thank you again for taking the time to express your concerns. Please do not hesitate to contact me again if I can be of any further assistance in this or any other matter.




Sincerely,


Herb Kohl
U.S. Senator

You'd think he'd try to hire staffers bright enough to know a message titled "Anti-torture bill" is not about Hurricane Katrina. Guess not.

Respecting religion

Yesterday, reading Pharyngula, I had one of those rare moments where one is forced to realize one's subconcious biases:
"She is a deeply committed Christian," Dobson said. "She has been a believer in Jesus Christ since the late 1970s. I know the person who led her to the Lord. I know the church that she goes to. I know it's a very conservative church. I know that she is a tithe-paying member at that church. I know that she has deep convictions about things. I have talked at length to people that know her—and have known her for a long time. Some of them have been a close personal friend of hers for 25 years. I trust these people because I know them—I know who they are and I know their character and I know what they stand their heart for the Lord."
Try substituting "Hindu" for "Christian" and "Ganesh" for "Jesus" and rereading that if your own religiosity prevents you from seeing how deeply weird that stuff sounds to some of us.
I heard the quote before. I heard backlash of a sort, complaints we are a secular country and religion shouldn't be a qualifier for public office.

But, in spite of being an atheist, I never thought, "how weird." Yet that's what my reaction would have been someone said the same thing about a Hindu. It would be doubly true for a Scientologist.

When I look at it rationally though, it is just as weird. We're subconsciously wired to form our opinions of various religious groups not based on how much sense the beliefs make, but based on how many Americans adhere to them.

When Tom Cruise did his anti-psychiatry rant, one blogger said the interviewer should have asked him if he believed the story about the alien overlord Xenu. At the time, I thought, "no one would ask a Christian celebrity if he believes the story about the snake and the apple." I shoved the worry aside on the grounds that everyone knows most Christians don't believe it. What Cruise got was just the downside of belonging to a little-known religion, right?

More recently, in anthropology class, we watched a video on Hmong shamanism. It centered around a single shaman who immigrated to America. I don't want to sound to disparging, but basically shamanism is the idea that certain people can visit the spirit world to accomplish certain tasks by jumping up and down for hours on end. Weird, huh?

There was a very brief segment, though, that made me wonder. It involved a Christian missionary telling the guy he deserved to go to Hell. I think the missionary also got in the bit about needing to believe in Jesus to be saved. This wasn't a hellfire and brimstone preaching method. The missionary, though talking to an adult, spoke in a soft voice generally reserved for small children. He obviously viewed the man as a primitive. The shaman's response to this was to explain, via interpreter, that he had never sinned.

Then it hit me. The absurdity. On one level, when you take it too seriously, fundamentalist Christianity is barbarous. On another, it's a contender for the silliest set of beliefs humans have ever come up with. The missionary's probably resonded to the "no sin" claim by explaining that he could be sent to Hell for the tinniest sin. Think of it! People taking infinte punishment for the smallest misstep, and not even because the world is perillous but because an all-powerful, all-good God has decided that's how it ought to be. Religion based on jumping up and down doesn't even come close in terms of silliness.

The forced me to realize something: the way people react to Scientology and such is not about their level of knowledge. It's about their exposure, which decreases the feeling of weirdness regardless of how weird the thing really is. Of course, the same thing happens with choices of clothing and the like, but when we label a belief "weird," we think we're talking about something more than bad fashion sense. Claims to truth shouldn't be treated like cultural artifacts.

Something to keep in mind the next time you're inclined to label a belief as "weird."

I'm recanting

A couple week's ago, I entertained the idea if we only exposed high school students to the evolution controversy in an honest manner, giving creationists their say but also teaching all the evidence in favor of evolution, it would "improve biology teaching, help kids understand what good science looks like, and discredit creationism forever."

I no longer think so.

I happened across an article on the Dover case that said that kids can't understand the evolution debate. I got the idea of e-mailing this TalkOrigins FAQ to my parents, show it to my little brother (sophmore in high school) and see if he could understand it. I figured that even though he's smarter than most sophmores(something I've been at times reluctant to admit), he'll at least be semi-representative of high school students.

Then I remembered he isn't. My mom is a high school science teacher. There have been several times when she's come home and decided to check how well my brother and I understand basic science concepts. I always got it. My brother always got it. The conversation always ended by her telling us about how her students don't get it. This is basic stuff like what happens when water boils and doing the algebra on PV = nRT. Mom, I know you read this, add anything I've missed in the comments.

Anyway, when dealing with students who have trouble with these things these things, exposing them to anti-evolution propaganda probably isn't going enlighten them.

Side note: if we want to teach the scientific method, perhaps using a simpler issue like TV psychics is the way to go.

This is precious




























From Something Awful

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I'd like to thank the Academy

"The Uncredible Hallq" has been declared the "Best Blog Name Ever". Okay, so it wasn't the Instapundit or the New York Times that did this, but still pretty cool. Thanks, Elisa. This goes in my banner.

Brilliant plan

From a story about a debate over creationism:
Hovind believes that if you teach schoolchildren that they evolved from apes, they will start acting like them. He thinks drug use, sexually transmitted diseases and an increased crime rate among teens is partly based on the exclusive teaching of evolution. When Griesmaier countered that European countries have a lower violent crime rate and a lower rate of church attendance than the United States, Hovind took issue with the countries (which included England, France, and the Netherlands) in his opponent's example.

"Those decreased murder rates were all from countries with socialistic governments and total gun control," said Hovind. "I'll take my gun, thank you."
In essencese, he's saying "I'm not a fan of effective government policy, but I think we accomplish the same by teaching lies."

Hat tip: Pharyngula

Bill Gates: geek at heart

Yesterday, Bill Gates came to campus to encourage students to go into computer programing. (Didn't get to see him, just read about it in the papers). What most caught my attention was the pictures:




























You're one of the richest businessmen in the world, you go to a college to recruit students to work at a company like yours, what do you wear? Somehow, I think very few would answer "sweat shirt," but that's what the richest of them all did yesterday. Young computer buffs tend to dislike Gates, but I think he's proved that he's a geek at heart.

Skeptic's Circle 19

Kelly at Time to Lean has this week's Skeptic's Circle up, in spite of the trouble she had earlier. Makes me regret complaining about the work I put into hosting the Carnival of the Vanities yesterday. In two weeks time, I'll be hosting the 20th edition. Love to see what people will have to contribute.

First thing we do, let's dismantle all the parties!

Michael Reynolds has posted what sounds like an excellent plan for re-branding the Democratic party. However, there is at least one plank that isn't going to be accepted by the party any time soon:
We commit ourselves to reducing the occurrence of abortion by a) supporting reproductive education which includes teaching abstinence, b) banning near-term abortions except when the life of the mother is in serious jeopardy, and c) endorsing parental notification but not parental consent. We maintain the right of women to choose abortion up to the point of fetal viability.
I would love to see the a major politician take up this plan. Anti-abortion groups are doing some frightening overreaching, fighting access to even Plan B. The problem is that no Democratic candidate can get past the primaries without the support of hard-core abortion rights types, who refuse to stop at the point of fetal viability.

I used to feel strongly that 3rd-party types are dreamers and that the two-party system is a necessary evil. Primaries, I figured, act as a substitute for a run-off voting system, and perhaps avoid some problems of the system. Issues like these make me wonder. Moderation may help in the general election, but go too moderate, and you risk pissing off the activists that make up your base. Often, these groups tilt at windmills to make themselves look important to supporters (the reflexive attacks on John Roberts are arguably an instance of this).

What we may need for moderate success in elections is to abolish the party system. That, however, may be even harder than getting the Democrats to abandon their stance on abortion.